In the book Heat, Bill Buford's massively compelling account of his work as an extern in Mario Batali's flagship restaurant Babbo, the author waxes poetically about the splendor that is linguine vongole. The greatness of the dish, he explains, is not in the meat of the clams, but rather in the juice that secretes into the sauce when they open up. The pasta is thrown into the pan a few moments before it is finished cooking, so that same juice, now married with the garlic, butter and white wine, will cook into the noodles themselves. Then it is the pasta, not the sauce (or condimento as Batali likes to call it) that becomes what is important. Cooking vongole yourself is a surprisingly simple and deeply satisfying endeavor, but on occasion, one can desire pasta with clams while at a restaurant as well. Today's food fight examines just that, pitting the somewhat different versions from Il Pastaio and Angeli Caffe against each other.
At Il Pastaio, they do not make a typical vongole. Their dish, Bianchi e Neri, uses homemade black and white taglioline with baby clams and arugula. It is a luscious and soft dish with a strong coating of butter. The clams are tender and flavorful, but the arugula, while an interesting touch, does overpower the more subtle flavors with its bitter presence. Bill Buford would object to the use of fresh pasta as well, as he believed that vongole is the one instance in which a dried pasta is the preference, as it has the capacity to be more fully inhabited by that lovely and aforementioned clam juice. While the dish was perhaps not perfectly suited to our tastes--Italian food is an intensely personal thing, something which is debated greatly from family to family, and village to village--the plate did in fact leave the table only after being wiped clean with a crust of bread.
The linguine vongole at Angeli Caffe has received high praise from just about every source we could find. It is described charmingly on the menu as having "fresh clams, tons of garlic, a touch of chile pepper, white wine..." This, it seems, is a recipe for a simple and rather lovely plate of pasta with clams. Oddly though, on the night we arrived, after indulging in an appetizer portion of their unbelievably good gnocchi, we were met with a plate of noticeably undercooked pasta. We certainly appreciate a true al dente, but this, sadly, was not that. They were hard, too hard, and had absorbed little if any of that beautiful shellfish liquid.
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Somewhat thrown by the experience, and having no doubt happened upon nothing more than a rare off-performance in the kitchen, likely the first bad plate of vongole to come out of there in six months, we decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. The very next day, for lunch, we returned. Because we are gluttons, we shared an appetizer of gnocchi which, again, was tremendous. Then the vongole, ordered plainly and with no mention whatsoever of the previous night, arrived next. But this time it looked different. It was visibly overcooked. The noodles were fat, puffy and far too limp. They did not taste overly of absorbed sauce, but rather, of a noodle which spent far too long in boiling water. So, as you can no doubt surmise, Angeli is in fact not the winner of today's food fight. Next time, it seems, we shall just have to cook the version from Bill Buford's book instead. Though Giada makes a nice one too.