Picture, in your mind, a mundane interaction between any two regular, essentially happy Italian people. One purchasing a packet of chewing gum from the other, for example. Can you picture it? The screaming, the wild gesticulating, the red faces, the flashing whites of crazed eyes and bared teeth, the elaborate curses and threats of death, the vowing of eternal vendettas, the promise to follow each other into the afterlife for vengeance? And then, immediately afterward, the passionate kissing, even as their spouses assault them with frying pans. This is the relationship your mouth must have with your arrabbiata sauce. Otherwise you have not made it correctly.
Arrabbiata, like literally all other Italian words, translates to English as "angry." That's something to live up to when you're making arrabbiata sauce: It's supposed to taste flushed and fiery and intemperate, like the sauce itself is angry, and like it was made by an angry person. That is to say, it must be hot. More than any specific demand about how you impart the heat to it (fresh chili peppers or dried and crushed flakes), or precisely which aromatics go into it (garlic or onion or garlic and onion), or whether you use fresh or canned tomatoes, or exactly which herb you chop and scatter over it at the end, the heat itself is the crucial thing. Your arrabbiata sauce must be hot. This is what makes it arrabbiata sauce: the fiery, piquant anger of it.
The first thing to do is put a huge pot of salted water over heat on the stovetop, to boil. Eventually you will cook some pasta in there.
In the meantime, chop some stuff. Mince four garlic cloves as finely as you can; chop a bunch of flat-leaf parsley pretty small and set it aside. Also, haul out a nice big Spanish onion and cut it into thin strips. About that.
The inclusion of onion likely will raise some mild, measured dispute—ha ha, psych, that doesn't happen in discussions of Italian food, people are gonna act like the article just said to stab your own mother—over whether it's traditional. In many cases (in enough cases to make the word "traditionally" seem like it might apply, anyway), arrabbiata sauce is made with garlic, but not onion—and, if you feel strongly about hewing to that maybe-traditional-maybe-not standard, feel free to leave out the onion.
On the other hand, arrabbiata sauce contains onion often enough that it seems kind of silly to treat the garlic-only thing as if it were some formal rule. Plus, onions are good! If you cut them into strips instead of chopping them small, they give the sauce a little heft beyond the tomato, and juuuuuuust enough sweetness to round things out. They're an asset to your arrabbiata sauce! If you include them, you'll be glad you did.
Done chopping? Good. Grab a nice big saucier pan or flat-bottomed wok or deep-sided skillet, and cook an immoderately large pinch of genuinely by-God hot* red pepper flakes in a couple hearty glugs of olive oil over very low heat, so they can make the oil hot as hell.
This will be another matter of slight controversy. If you've eaten arrabbiata sauce from multiple cooks, likely at least one of them—my sister, for example, whose arrabbiata sauce is divine—makes it with actual fresh chili peppers, Anaheim or jalapeños or serranos probably, or maybe even cayenne peppers, sliced into thin disks or shredded or chopped. That's fine! God bless that arrabbiata sauce. If that's your speed, by all means, go for it.
Here, though, we're using crushed red pepper flakes. These, cooked in the oil over very low heat before anything else goes into it, produce even heat throughout the sauce, and, unlike with fresh peppers, you don't have to concern yourself with whether they'll get a mushy texture from cooking long enough to impart real heat to the proceedings. So long as you keep the heat low so the pepper flakes don't burn, they'll turn your oil into fiery chili oil, and the sight of them in the finished product will serve as a warning that this food is looking for a fight.
*To ensure your red pepper flakes truly are hot and not just mildly annoyed, look for the red pepper flakes sold by the bag in the aisle of your local grocery store or supermarket where they keep the Indian stuff. (If your local grocery store or supermarket does not contain such an aisle, make a special trip to the nearest international grocer.) These red pepper flakes will come from hotter peppers than the ones packaged in a plastic or glass canister in the store's herbs-and-spices rack. They might even come from habanero or ghost peppers! In which case they will produce weapons-grade arrabbiata sauce. You're meant to understand that as a good thing.
After, oh, five or 10 minutes of letting your red pepper flakes hang out in the warm olive oil, the latter will have turned orange and dangerous-looking. Now it's time to cook the onions in there. Turn the heat up closer to medium, add the onions to the pan, toss them to coat them with the oil, sprinkle them with a pinch of salt, and drop a lid on there to help them sweat out their moisture. Return every few minutes to move the onions around with a wooden spoon or flexible rubber spatula or your deeply embarrassing The Matrix Reloaded DVD, until they're soft and fully translucent.
While you're waiting for the onions to get there, let's take a moment to discuss some optional ingredients. Your typical hearty tomato sauce includes wine, tomato paste, and (probably, if it's especially good) anchovies. Your arrabbiata sauce, which is not just the house tomato sauce with some red pepper in it but an actual whole different thing altogether, requires none of these. However, if you're particularly married to, say, any one or two of the above ingredients, nobody is going to spit out your arrabbiata sauce and swear an oath of vengeance upon 20 generations of your descendants if you include them.
Anchovies, in particular, will intensify the flavor of the tomatoes in your arrabbiata sauce without much changing the texture or look or volume of the sauce, so I think they're a good thing to include. Wine and/or tomato paste will alter the texture and volume of the sauce, and since I like the actual tomatoes to be foregrounded in arrabbiata sauce, I mostly don't use wine or tomato paste. What I am saying, here, is add a few anchovy fillets to the pan and cook them until they dissolve. Yes, dammit! Do it!
Now, the next couple of steps you'll complete in quick succession. Once the onions are soft and translucent, and the anchovy has dissolved, bump up the heat again, to medium-high, and toss the minced garlic into the pan. Move stuff around in there to mix it all together; as soon as you can smell the garlic, dump in a big 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes. Whip out your mighty Instrument of Kitchen Action—wooden spoon, rubber spatula, whatever—and crush those maters. Crush 'em good! Like you would if they suddenly came to life and said the Philadelphia 76ers put sports analytics to better use than the San Antonio Spurs do.
Let the liquid in the pan come up to a boil, then lower the heat so it settles into a steady simmer. Leave it alone, except for the occasional stir, while you cook a pound of pasta. Penne rigate (ridged penne, as opposed to penne lisce, the smooth variant) is the typical pairing with arrabbiata sauce, and with good reason: the ridges on the outer surface help this fairly thin sauce adhere to the pasta, while the tubular shape captures some more of the sauce on the inside, so that many of the individual pieces will be like little arrabbiata sauce torpedoes that burst in your mouth and make you sing Italian operas you've never even heard before.
Capellini—angel hair pasta—is another good choice for arrabbiata sauce: The sauce gets captured and held by all those intractable tangles of the stuff, and capellini is just fun as hell to eat in big immodest bushes, especially when it's coated in something hot and vivid and mouth-watering, like arrabbiata sauce. The drawbacks of using capellini are that tossing the sauce evenly with this pasta is a fucking chore, and that, if you use capellini, you absolutely will get the hiccups from taking too-big bites of the stuff. Ultimately, I recommend penne rigate, but if you add arrabbiata sauce to your rotation of foodstuffs to cook at home, do give capellini a try once or twice. It's fun.
A pound of dried penne rigate takes, oh, maybe 12 minutes to cook; if you're using that, you can drop it in the water as soon as the sauce settles into a simmer in its pan. If you're using capellini, give the sauce 10 minutes or so to simmer before you drop the pasta into the water, because capellini cooks in two minutes and is mushy and overcooked 30 seconds after that.
When the pasta is done, drain it, reserving a small mugful of the pasta water. Toss the pasta in the pan with the arrabbiata sauce and the reserved pasta water, over the heat, for a minute or two, to get it well and evenly coated. Now, move the pasta to a big serving platter or pasta bowl, drizzle it with some of your best extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle the chopped parsley over the top. That's it. Time to eat.
Serve this angry food with some white wine, and make some grated pecorino Romano cheese available for sprinkling onto the pasta: The sharpness of it stands up to the heat and bright tomato flavor better than the milder Parmigiano Reggiano does. The first bite pulls a glorious one-two punch: The bright red tomato wakes up your palate and coaxes your salivary glands to roaring, frenzied activity, like if the world's most gorgeous and seductive person walked through the door—and then, that angry heat, pouncing on your sudden vulnerability, like if that gorgeous and seductive person then slapped you right across the fucking mouth. And then that bright redness and heat get all tangled together, the onion-accented sweetness between them, like you and that gorgeous and seductive person doing things that cannot be described in the paragraphs of a family-friendly internet food column.
Probably this is not the recipe for a healthful long-term relationship. Probably you should return to the stolid consistency and supportiveness of roasted chicken at some point. But, before you do: finish eating.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.