If you follow Italian food trends, you’ve probably heard of spaghetti all’assassina aka “Killer” Spaghetti. From its humble beginnings as a local favorite in Puglia’s capital city of Bari, the dish has morphed into an international hit among foodies in the past couple of years. I’m a bit late to the party, but before blogging about it, I wanted to try spaghetti all’assassina on its home turf. And so, dear readers, after my recent trip to Puglia, I can finally unveil my take on this modern classic.
This is a recipe that breaks all the rules about making pasta in the Italian manner. Rather than boiling the spaghetti in abundant well salted water and then dressing it with a sauce as usual, you begin by frying the raw pasta in a small bit of sauce until deeply caramelized, even a bit charred, on both sides. The caramelized pasta then simmers in a light tomato broth, which you add one ladleful at a time as if you were making risotto. The pasta is served ‘dry’, after it’s absorbed all the broth.
You could see spaghetti all’assassina as the ultimate example of a technique that’s been around for a while, called “pasta risottata” or pasta prepared as if it were a risotto. (For one example, see this post I wrote back in 2010.) But especially with its initial deep caramelization, this recipe take things to another level.
In any event, however iconoclastic it may be, the recipe works beautifully. Spaghetti all’assassina has an unusual yet appealingly crispy texture unlike any other Italian pasta I know of and, despite its saucelessness, intense flavor. That’s because the sauce is inside the pasta.
So if you haven’t tried it yet, now is your chance. Spaghetti all’assassina has become an international superstar for good reason, and it’s definitely worth getting to know.
- 200g (7 oz) spaghetti
For the tomato broth:
- 1/2 tube (65g/2-1/4 oz) tomato concentrate aka paste
- 50ml (1/8 cup) passata di pomodoro aka tomato purée
- 1 liter (1 quart) water
- salt to taste
For the initial sauté:
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 red hot pepper, preferably fresh, finely minced (or a pinch of red pepper flakes)
- 125 ml (1/2 cup) passata aka tomato purée
- olive oil
Preparing the tomato broth
First off, make your tomato broth. Pour the water into a sauce pan and add the tomato paste, purée and salt. Stir to dissolve the paste. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Sautéing the pasta
While the broth is coming to the simmer, heat a cast iron or carbon steel skillet over brisk heat. The skillet should be wide enough so that your spaghetti can lie flat inside it.
When the skillet is hot, add a very generous pour of olive oil, enough to cover the bottom of the skillet. Now add the minced garlic and hot pepper. Let them sauté for just a few moments, until they give off their aroma. Add the tomato purée and stir it around to cover the bottom of the skillet.
Now add your spaghetti to the skillet, lined up in a single layer or only slightly overlapping, like so:
Nudge them with a wooden spoon to space them out a bit and cover them with the sauce in the skillet.
Now here’s the hard part: let the spaghetti go until you hear them sizzle and they start to caramelize underneath. Keep going until the spaghetti are slightly charred here and there. (Just how charred is a matter of taste.)
Using a spatula, flip the pasta over and let it caramelize on the other side as well.
Simmering the pasta
Now pour a ladleful of the tomato broth over the spaghetti. Let it cook off, always over a brisk heat. When you hear the pasta sizzle, flip it over and add another ladleful of the broth.
At this point, the pasta should have softened enough that you can stir it around. Continue to add the tomato broth by the ladleful and letting it evaporate before adding the next ladleful, until the pasta al dente. Stir the pasta as you add more broth but don’t ‘fiddle’ with it. (The one liter called for here should be plenty, but if you do run out of tomato broth, you can add plain water that you’ve brought to the simmer.)
Once the pasta is al dente, let any remaining broth cook off until you hear the pasta sizzle. It should be a bright red and glisten with oil.
Spaghetti all’assassina is fairly simple to make, but it’s surprisingly easy to mess up. (I certainly did the first time I attempted it!) The main risks are the pasta sticking to the pan and/or the pasta getting too starchy, even gummy, as it simmers.
To avoid sticking, the best tactic is to select the right kind of pan (see “Equipment” below) and to make sure the pan is nice and hot before adding oil or anything else. This allows the pores in the surface of the pan to close, producing a nicely non-stick surface.
To avoid excess starchiness, first of all use the right kind of pasta, which in this case is actually cheap pasta, not the fancy bronze cut kind one would ordinarily recommend. I’ve tested the recipe with three different brands of pasta: Whole Food’s generic “365” brand, which is imported from Italy, Barilla, and Ronzoni, a popular domestic US brand. All worked fine. (NB: This will be the one and only time you’ll be seeing me recommending Barilla on this blog.)
Also, avoid stirring the pasta too much while it simmers and maintain a brisk heat—you want to see the tomato sauce bubble away in a lively fashion, just like a risotto—adding more liquid only when the previous liquid has complete cooked off.
Finally, be very generous with the oil. It not only prevents sticking, helps the pasta to caramelize properly and lends a lovely sheer to the cooked dish. If the spaghetti doesn’t glisten at the end, you’ve used too little oil. You can (sort of) correct this by adding a bit of oil before serving or drizzling the finished dish with it.
A couple of other tips
You want to check the broth carefully for seasoning. You need to season it very well since it’s the main vehicle for adding savor to the dish. But don’t over-do it: the broth does cook down and its saltiness will intensify as it does.
To caramelize properly, the pasta needs to lay flat in the bottom of your skillet, in a single layer or just slightly overlapping, as pictured above. If you don’t have a skillet wide enough for this, then you always can break off the ends of the spaghetti so they fit. Or even break them in half, though that can make them harder to twirl. This is also why, unless you have a really wide pan, I recommend making spaghetti all’assassina in small-ish batches no more than the 200g/7 oz called for here.
The experts tell you to make spaghetti all’assassina in a well-seasoned cast iron pan or a heavy gauge carbon steel skillet such as the ones made by de Buyer classically used for making French omelettes. These pans get really hot and stay that way, which is perfect for getting a nice sear on the pasta during the initial stage and keeping up a lively simmer during the second. And if you treat and use them right, they are naturally non-stick. If you’re concerned about tomato sauce degrading your seasoning, don’t be. The relatively short cooking time here means you won’t do much if any damage. Even if some of the seasoning comes off during cooking, it’s easy enough to do a quick re-seasoning job afterwards.
Although purists would disagree, home cooks who don’t have a cast iron or carbon steel pan can feel free to use a heavier gauge non-stick pan. I tried it myself. Even if the dish did lack that certain smokiness that comes with cast iron or carbon steel, it was perfectly acceptable. Do be aware that the high heat required for making this dish tends to lessen the useful life of non-stick cookware. And whatever you do, avoid stainless steel.
The recipe for spaghetti all’assassina is more of a technique than a strict rulebook. Although the steps involved and the basic ingredients are consistent, there’s lots of variation among recipes out there. So feel free to play around with the recipe to suit your tastes.
They say a true dish of spaghetti all’assassina is spicy. The version served at Al Sorso Preferito, the restaurant where the dish is said to have been invented, is reportedly very spicy indeed. That said, the one I had in another restaurant in Bari was quite mild, with no discernible traces of hot pepper. So whether you want to make it spicy and, if so, just how spicy, is really up to you.
Just how much charring you want on your spaghetti is also a matter of taste. I think the caramelization is what makes spaghetti all’assassina distinct. And indeed the version I tried was quite well caramelized without actually tasting burnt. But reportedly the version at Al Sorso Preferito is only very slightly charred.
This recipe uses quite a bit less tomato than most other recipes you’ll find. In particular, many recipes will have you make the tomato broth with an entire tube of tomato paste (130 g/4.5 oz) for 750 mil (3 cups) of water. If you want a tomato-forward version of this dish, give it a try. There’s also a bit of variation in the kind of tomato. In some recipes, you prepare the broth with the paste only, while others favor purée only. I’ve tried a passata only version, adding 250ml/1 cup of passata to the water to make the broth, and found it quite good.
In one particularly nice sounding variation, you add some cherry tomatoes, split in half, to the pan a few minutes before the pasta is done simmering. La cucina italiana even cites some truly unusual variations on spaghetti all’assassina with broccoli rabe, seafood and fried olives. But these, to my mind, aren’t so much variations as different dishes employing the same technique.
Spaghetti all’assassina isn’t served with grated cheese. But in some versions you top your pasta with a dollop of stracciatella cheese.
Why “Killer” Pasta?
According to the most commonly accepted story, spaghetti all’assassina got its start at Al Sorso Preferito, the now-famed Bari restaurant, in the late 1960s. The owners didn’t exactly invent the dish, however. According to local food historian Felice Giovine, the owners of the newly opened restaurant found a handwritten recipe in an abandoned rotisserie next door and gave it a whirl. The rest, as the say, is history.
There are, however, alternative accounts of the origins of this dish. If you read Italian, the most comprehensive retelling of these various accounts, Rashomon style, can be found here.
On my recent trip to Puglia, I of course wanted to try the dish at the source. Alas, after several tries only to find Al Sorso Preferirto closed each time, I gave up. No matter, as I had a delicious rendition of the dish at nearby La Battigia, which I wanted to hit up in any event for its fabulous seafood offerings.
There are various theories behind the “killer” sobriquet. Perhaps the most common is that you have to “kill” the pasta by frying it in oil. Others say the dish “kills” the eater with its spiciness. Yet another says it’s a play on the blood-red color of the spaghetti. Although I haven’t seen it mentioned explicitly, I wonder if the nickname could also refer to how the recipe “kills” traditional notions of how you make pasta?
There is purportedly an academy for the preservation of the “official” recipe for the dish, founded by 2013 by some local gourmands. The all male group doesn’t admit women, so a group of women decided to found their own “counter-academy”. In any event, neither the academy nor the counter-academy appears to have a website or other online presence. So if there is an “official” recipe, I haven’t been able to find it. If you know the group or the recipe, let us know in the comments!
- 200g 7 oz spaghetti
For the tomato broth
- 1/2 tube tomato concentrate aka paste or 65g/2-1/2 oz
- 50ml 1/8 cup passata di pomodoro aka tomato purée
- 1 liter 1 quart water
- salt to taste
For the initial sauté:
- 1-2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1-2 red hot pepper, preferably fresh, finely minced (or a pinch of red pepper flakes)
- 125ml 1/2 cup passata di pomodoro aka tomato purée
- olive oil
Preparing the tomato broth
- First off, make your tomato broth. Pour the water into a sauce pan and add the tomato paste, purée and salt. Stir to dissolve the paste. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Sautéing the pasta
- While the broth is coming to the simmer, heat a cast iron or carbon steel skillet over brisk heat. The skillet should be wide enough so that your spaghetti can lie flat inside it.
- When the skillet is hot, add a very generous pour of olive oil, enough to cover the bottom of the skillet entirely. Now add the minced garlic and hot pepper and let them sauté for just a few moments, until they give off their aroma. Add the tomato purée and stir it around to cover the bottom of the skillet.
- Now add your spaghetti to the skillet, lined up in a single layer or only slightly overlapping. Nudge them a bit with your wooden spoon to space them out a bit and cover them with the sauce in the skillet.
- Let the spaghetti go until you hear them sizzle and they caramelize underneath. Keep going until the spaghetti are slightly charred here and there. (Just how charred is a matter of taste.) Using a spatula, flip the pasta over and let it caramelize on the other side as well.
Simmering the pasta
- Now pour over a ladleful of the tomato broth and let it cook off, always over a brisk heat. When you hear the pasta sizzle, flip it over and add another ladleful of the broth.
- At this point, the pasta should have softened enough that you can stir it around. Continue to add the tomato broth by the ladleful and letting it evaporate before adding the next ladleful, until the pasta al dente. Stir the pasta as you add more broth but don't 'fiddle' with it. (If you run out of tomato broth, you can add plain water that you've brought to the simmer.)
- Once the pasta is al dente, let any remaining broth cook off until you hear the pasta sizzle. It should be a bright red and glisten with oil.
- Serve immediately.