Why It Works
- Melting anchovies in butter creates the savory backbone for the sauce.
- Cooking the pasta in a small amount of water produces super-starchy pasta water that is ideal for emulsifying the sauce.
- Finishing the pasta in the sauce ensures that the noodles are well-coated and al dente.
There are sauces that enjoy universal acclaim with off-the-charts Tomatometer and audience scores—sauces like carbonara, vodka, and Marcella Hazan's tomato-butter sugo. They're the pasta equivalent of season four of The Wire, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: undisputed classics. At the other end of the spectrum are the under-appreciated sauces with smaller but passionate followings—you could call gricia and beans and greens the Sobotkas or 808s and Heartbreak of the pasta world. They may not be at the top of many peoples' all-time favorite lists, but that doesn't mean they're not deserving of praise and respect. Pasta burro e alici definitely falls in this latter category.
Think of this dish as Alfredo for anchovy lovers. There's lots of unsalted butter, salty anchovies in place of Alfredo's Parmesan cheese, and starchy cooking water cooked into a creamy glaze, perfect for coating long strands of al dente pasta. For the true 'chovy heads—the ones who love being gifted stocking-stuffer tins of Cantabrian conservas—you can call it a day right there, and bask in unadulterated salty fish bliss. I like to add a hint of acidity to the dish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of finely grated zest. A showering of toasted breadcrumbs and chopped parsley lends the dish crunch and freshness to balance the richness of the butter and the savory punch of the anchovies.
I'll tell you upfront: This pasta isn't for everyone. To paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, "You can't please all the people all the time... and last night, those people were at my dinner table." To be fair, the only person I'm sharing meals with these days is my wife, but she made it abundantly clear early on in the recipe development process that burro e alici is not her jam. However, with some tinkering to the anchovy amounts in the recipe (I settled on a range to suit a sliding scale of tastes), I got this dish to a place that can appeal to both casual and die-hard fishy umami fans, and she admitted on the final test run that it had become a dish she'd eat again.
The cooking process itself is a breeze. Melt butter, dissolve anchovies in it, then cook pasta a little over halfway in a small amount of water to get that extra starchy good stuff. Build an emulsion with pasta cooking water and the anchovy-butter, then finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. To ensure that the sauce holds the perfect creamy emulsion, I save a couple tablespoons of butter to add off-heat at the very end of the cooking process, followed by the lemon zest and juice. The rich, savory sauce glazes each strand of pasta for a simple, delicious weeknight meal that doesn't have to be a crowd-pleaser. But real ones know.
- For the Toasted Breadcrumbs: (optional)
- 8 ounces (225g) fresh, lightly-stale, or fully stale bread, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces (see notes)
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- For the Pasta:
- 4 ounces (8 tablespoons; 115g) unsalted butter, divided
- 8 to 12 anchovy fillets (30 to 50g) (see notes)
- 12 ounces (340g) dried long pasta such as spaghetti, spaghettoni, or bucatini
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) fresh lemon juice, plus finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup (60g) toasted breadcrumbs
- 1 loosely packed cup (1/2 ounce; 15g) fresh parsley leaves and tender stems, finely chopped
For the Toasted Breadcrumbs: If using fresh or lightly stale bread, adjust oven rack to middle position, and preheat oven to 325°F (165°C). (If using fully stale and dried bread, skip baking step.) Arrange bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet, and bake until completely dried, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven, and allow to cool to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Transfer oven-dried or fully stale bread to food processor bowl (set aside but don't clean rimmed baking sheet), and pulse until reduced to small crumbs, taking care not to over-process into a fine powder, 8 to 10 pulses.
Combine breadcrumbs and 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil in a large skillet, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring and tossing occasionally, until crisp and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Transfer toasted breadcrumbs to reserved rimmed baking sheet, spread into an even layer, and set aside to cool to room temperature. Once cool, set aside 1/2 cup (60g) toasted breadcrumbs for the pasta, and transfer remaining crumbs to an airtight container for future use; the extra breadcrumbs can be stored at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
For the Pasta: In a large skillet, melt 3 ounces (6 tablespoons; 85g) butter over medium-low heat. Add anchovies and cook, stirring and breaking up anchovies occasionally with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon, until anchovies have dissolved, about 4 minutes. Reduce heat on skillet to lowest possible setting, to just keep warm while you boil the pasta; if your burner can only be reduced to a simmer, then turn heat off entirely.
Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven or wide-bottomed pot, combine 3 quarts (3L) of water and 2 teaspoons (8g) salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook, stirring frequently for first 30 seconds to prevent noodles from sticking.
Once pasta has cooked for 5 minutes, transfer 1 cup (240ml) of pasta cooking water to skillet; continue cooking pasta. Return skillet to high heat and bring to a boil, swirling pan and stirring constantly until cooking water emulsifies with butter-anchovy mixture, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low while pasta finishes cooking to prevent liquid from over-reducing.
Meanwhile, continue cooking pasta until it is softened on the exterior, but well shy of al dente and still uncooked in the center (about 3 minutes less than the package directions). Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet, and reserve remaining pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 2 cups (475ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is slightly thickened and coats noodles with a creamy glaze, 2 to 3 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed. At this point, the sauce should be emulsified and loose enough to pool around the edges of the pan.
Remove from heat, add remaining 2 tablespoons (30g) butter, lemon juice, and zest. Toss and stir rapidly to incorporate and emulsify butter into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Divide between individual serving bowls, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and parsley, and serve.
This recipe can be easily scaled down if the people you share meals with don't share your love of anchovies. It's worth trying to bring them to the right side though.
The toasted breadcrumbs are optional, but highly recommended; they provide a nice crunchy texture and help balance the richness of the butter and salinity of the anchovies. In a pinch you can use breadcrumbs as suggested in the recipe, but if you have the time and bread on-hand, we recommend making toasted breadcrumbs from fresh or stale bread (we used sourdough bâtard during recipe testing, but most types of white bread will work fine); if you are taking the time to make your own breadcrumbs, you might as well make a big batch so you have some ready to go in your pantry for future use. If you already have extra toasted breadcrumbs from another recipe, such as pasta c'anciouva e muddica atturrata, use them for this recipe! If you don't want to make your own breadcrumbs, you can substitute 1/2 cup (35g) panko breadcrumbs, and toast them with 2 teaspoons (10ml) extra-virgin olive oil as written in the recipe.
Both salt-packed and oil-packed anchovies will work for this recipe; use the best quality anchovies available to you. Adjust the amount of anchovies to suit your, and your dining companions', taste. Here are some general guidelines:
8 anchovies: For people who enjoy anchovies as a background umami can't-put-your-finger-on-it ingredient, but don't want the flavor front and center. Think: Caesar salad lovers.
10 anchovies: For those who enjoy dishes with unmistakable, but not overwhelming, anchovy flavor. They may not eat fillets straight from the jar, but they enjoy an assertive puttanesca.
12 anchovies: For the true chovy lovers. The folks who get gifted tins of Cantabrian anchovies as stocking stuffers. The gilda is their favorite pintxo.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This dish is best made right before serving.