When the chef comes out to compliment you on your order, you know you’re doing something right. Spaghetti aglio e olio con peperoncino — spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, and red pepper — is the simplest and most sublime of Italian classics. It’s not a difficult dish to make, but it takes skill and timing to prepare well in a restaurant environment. If this dish is on the menu, you’ve probably found an authentic kitchen, run by an Italian-born chef.
The dish is made by taking high-quality pasta out of salted water, and tossing it in a hot wok-shaped pan, where sliced garlic, chopped parsley, and flaked or fresh hot red pepper sizzle in good olive oil with a bit of pasta cooking water.
The genuine dish is always made with dried, rather than fresh, spaghetti, to produce just the right firmness. Quantities of all ingredients are exacting, and a few seconds this way or that in any step will ruin the dish. The garlic must heat in the oil to release its flavor, yet never cook long enough to brown. Since salt won’t dissolve in oil, the chef must instead ladle in some of the salted pasta water. Spaghetti must be just a shade too firm as it comes out of the water (it continues to cook in the pan, and even on the plate). And the chef’s tossing technique must coat and sizzle the spaghetti evenly in a few seconds.
After I order the dish at Ristorante Marcellino, a clubby Calabrian gem of a restaurant in Waltham, owner Salvatore Torcasio comes over to chat. “A lot of Italians get the aglio e olio e peperoncino,’’ he says. “Americans hardly ever order it. They want a big grilled fish or a lot of meat sauce or’’ — he leans in and lowers his voice — “that Parmigiana.’’ Torcasio likes to ask his chef, Vincenzo Loffredo, to make the traditional dish for him with sliced broccoli rabe added to the low-sizzling oil. “I could eat it every day.’’
At Pasta Beach Italian Restaurant & Bar on Boston’s Rowe’s Wharf, head waiter Roberto Jayme suddenly comes to life when I ask for the dish. “Perfetto! It’s a perfect dish.’’ Jayme produces a big bottle of peperoncino oil — pale red, and housemade — and makes drizzling motions to accompany his broken English. “This is my favorite way to have it.’’ The head chef, Marco Minieri, tells me it will always be on the menu. “It has to be,’’ he says. “It’s the classic.’’
The dish requires no fresh ingredients (though fresh parsley and peperoncino are always nice). It evolved in Italy, made by people who had little, long before refrigeration. As a light and memorable meal, as Jayme says, it is perfect for late-night dining, with dry white wine or pinot noir. And it’s a break from the heavy meats, sauces, and quantities that have become synonymous with dining out. Boston’s chefs offer some excellent versions, from the strictly traditional to the inventive. Here are some of the best.
Lydia Shire’s parents were fashion illustrators. Her Irish father, like many New Englanders, fortified clam chowder with a handful of homemade pork cracklings. He also made a mean spaghetti aglio e olio. At Scampo, Shire has created a spectacular version she calls spaghetti with cracklings and hot pepper, inspired by those memories. The spaghetti is perfectly al dente, olive oil aromatic and fruity, and garlic just right. Shire uses slivered, pickled red cherry peppers for a fuller heat and a hint of acid. In a miracle of physics, tiny feather-light cubes of housemade pork cracklings tangle in the pasta as you twirl your fork. The flavors will have you dreaming about the dish. Scampo also serves an excellent traditional version. 215 Charles St., Boston. 617-536-2100, www.scampoboston.com
Pasta Beach Italian Restaurant & Bar
As with all the best preparations, the pasta here is made when you order it, no half-cooked spaghetti waiting in a big pot for a hot-water finish. That’s why it may take a bit to get your food. Enjoy the sportello (counter bar) with a clear view of the chef. The dish will arrive utterly perfect, with a ramekin of pecorino romano cheese. Ask for a bottle of the housemade peperoncino olive oil, which adds rich heat and a luscious red hue. 30 Rowes Wharf, Boston, 617-439-6900 www.pastabeach.com
The spice here is generous, as is the portion. In this beautifully presented classic, thick garlic slices are removed from the oil just as they begin to turn golden, to join crisp fried parsley on the side of the bowl, a rustic plating as charming as the restaurant itself. 11 Cooper St., Waltham, 781-647-5458, www.marcellinorist.com
In this spaghettini with aglio e olio con pomodoro a ripe crushed, canned San Marzano plum tomato is added to the olive oil and slowly cooked before the other ingredients go in. The tomato essentially dissolves, and when the pasta emerges, it is coated with deep red, spicy, tomato-ized olive oil. Thin spaghettini is used to trap even more flavor on the fork. Wonderful. 92 Central St., Wellesley, 781-237-6100, www.altastradarestaurant.com
Trattoria Il Panino
Boston’s self-proclaimed “first trattoria’’ (opened in 1987) generously adds pasta water to the sizzling olive oil. With ultra-fine parsley, garlic, and spice, the dish has a light flavorful sauce in the bottom third of the bowl that suggests some heavenly version of seawater. 11 Parmenter St., Boston, 617-720-1336, www.trattoriailpanino.com