Penne Arrabbiata: The Pasta That Bites You Back

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

What do my redheaded partner, Kate, and the spicy tomato sauce arrabbiata have in common? Easy: They both look innocent enough, but watch out, because underneath lies a fiery streak that, when unleashed, will leave you wondering what you did to invite such an assault.

And, I'll be honest, I love them both for it.

The one big difference, though, is that with Kate, I don't always get to choose when she breathes fire*, while, with arrabbiata, I can decide not only when I'm willing to take the heat but also exactly how much heat I'm willing to take. That's really the main thing to know about arrabbiata, because otherwise it's a dead-simple sauce—tomato sauce, made spicy enough to deserve its "angry" name.

* Well, unless you consider not listening, not asking thoughtful follow-up questions, and not holding up my end of the conversation a choice.

You have two main decisions, therefore, when making arrabbiata. The first is what kind of tomato sauce you want to use, and the other is how spicy you want to make it.

For the first part, you have several options. Most of the time, and particularly during colder months when tomatoes are out of season, I use canned whole tomatoes, which I crush by hand to form a chunky sauce. You could also purée them for a smoother sauce, if that's more appealing. They are far better than any hothouse tomato out there.

If you do find good tomatoes at the market, it's worth considering fresh instead. That might mean cooking diced ripe tomatoes in the oil just until they start to break down, or making a coulis from fresh tomatoes, or even using a more involved fresh sauce, like the one I devised a couple of years ago.

The spice level is a highly personal decision, which makes precise measurements in a recipe difficult. Not only do different people have wildly different heat tolerances, but different chilies, whether fresh or dried, can have a broad range of intensities. So really, the ball's in your court there. You know how hot your chilies are, and you know how much heat you can handle, so act accordingly.

That said, I would encourage you to push the heat level to the edge of what you can tolerate. After all, this isn't "mildly annoyed" sauce or "kinda peeved" sauce, and it's definitely not "you're starting to make me cross" sauce. No, it's "angry" sauce. I think you want to aim just below "frothing at the mouth" and just above "pissed off." It's a sauce that should look you in the eyes right before you take your first bite and say, with a sad and futile earnestness, "Don't make me angry...you wouldn't like me when I'm angry"—even though you both know, deep down in your bones, that it's a fait accompli. Bruce Banner will become the Hulk, and arrabbiata shall fulfill its destiny, too.

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Making it starts out just like a typical aglio, olio, e peperoncino, gently cooking garlic and red pepper flakes in oil to extract their heat and flavor, except that here you're going heavy on the red pepper.

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Next, add the tomatoes in whatever form you've chosen, and simmer it all together. Guess what? You're done! Well, almost. You should probably season it with a little salt.

At this point, you can finish your pasta in it. Here, I've gone with penne, a common arrabbiata choice, but all sorts of shapes will work. The rest of the process follows the classic way of finishing pasta in its sauce.

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We do that by heating the sauce in a skillet. (If you've just made the sauce, it'll already be hot and in the skillet.) Then transfer the cooked pasta to the sauce, along with a few tablespoons of its cooking water. If you ignore the common advice to use a huge pot of water and go with a smaller pot instead, you'll end up with starchier water, which will help bind the sauce better.

Once the sauce has reduced enough that it doesn't look watery anymore, go ahead and remove it from the heat, then quickly stir in cheese. I toss in some chopped parsley at this point, too.

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That's it, ready to eat. Couldn't be easier. It's so easy, in fact, that the only emotion you should be feeling is pure, unadulterated happiness. The only thing that shouldn't be happy in this situation is the pasta in the bowl.