Why It Works
- Toasting whole garlic cloves in olive oil lends the sauce a subtle allium aroma without distracting from the main flavor of the dish: briny, salty bottarga.
- Steeping grated bottarga off-heat in warm olive oil coaxes out its delicate aroma.
- Cooking the pasta in a small amount of water produces super-starchy pasta water that is ideal for emulsifying the sauce, which is brought together simply by tossing and stirring the noodles off-heat.
Seafood is a prominent feature of Italy's regional coastal cuisines. While there's no shortage of unique seafood dishes that can only be found in specific villages at a certain times of the year, there's also a lot of overlap of culinary techniques and principles. Grilled fish at a restaurant on the Amalfi coast will look pretty similar to grilled fish in Ostia, even if the kind of fish used might be different; odds are it'll be a whole fish, stuffed with sliced lemon and herbs, and it'll be filleted table-side.
For pastas, one of the tried and true templates for incorporating seafood is tossing a dried long pasta like spaghetti with aglio e olio e peperonciono (olive oil, garlic, and chile) and a briny regional delicacy. That specialty item could be tiny "vongole veraci" clams for spaghetti alle vongole, or colatura di alici, a fish sauce from the town of Cetara, for spaghetti con la colatura di alici. Or, if you're in Sardinia, it could be bottarga, for, you guessed it, spaghetti con la bottarga.
For the uninitiated, bottarga is a fish's roe sac—most commonly grey mullet—that is salted, massaged to expel air pockets, then pressed and dried. As Sho notes in his excellent guide to bottarga, it's not just a delicacy in Italy—known as karasumi in Japanese, and butarkah in Arabic, it's highly valued in cuisines across the globe. In Italy, mullet bottarga, or bottarga di muggine, is a specialty of Sardinia, where the roe sacs were traditionally sun-dried after salting. With a texture similar to cured egg yolks or a firm pecorino cheese, bottarga is perfect for grating, which unlocks its delicate but assertive mineral flavor and aroma. It's an ingredient made for pairing with pasta.
This simple dish starts by browning a couple of smashed garlic cloves in plenty of olive oil (you could also mince the garlic and gently cook it, or keep it raw as in my spaghetti con la colatura recipe). Once the oil is infused with the toasty allium aroma, the garlic comes out (you can rub the garlic on toast, repurpose it for another dish, or discard it) and chiles go in to bloom. I then remove the skillet from the heat and stir in a heaping handful of grated bottarga. Cooking bottarga is a no-no, seeing as high heat mutes its punchy flavor, but steeping the grated roe in warm olive oil coaxes out its best qualities.
The body provided by the grated bottarga, along with starchy pasta cooking water, helps to bring the sauce together into a creamy emulsion without the need for the on-heat finishing step called mantecatura. Some vigorous tossing and stirring is all you need to coat al dente spaghetti. Fresh lemon juice and zest, and some chopped parsley bring acidity and freshness to the dish. The pasta gets plated up and then showered with a fresh grating of bottarga to highlight its flavor in the first few bites.
- 2 ounces (60g; about 1 whole lobe) mullet bottarga (see notes)
- 1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves (10g), lightly crushed
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- Kosher salt
- 12 ounces (340g) dried long pasta such as spaghetti, spaghettoni, or linguine
- 1 loosely packed cup (1/2 ounce; 15g) fresh parsley leaves and tender stems, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) fresh lemon juice, plus finely grated zest of 1 lemon
Using a sharp knife, gently score bottarga lobe down its length to expose pellicle, or membrane. Using your hands, peel away pellicle and discard. Using a rasp grater (Microplane), finely grate all but 1/4 ounce (10g; about 2-inch piece) bottarga onto a plate or small rimmed baking sheet. Set aside grated bottarga, as well as the remaining small piece of bottarga and grater.
In a large skillet or straight-sided sauté pan, combine oil and garlic. Cook over medium heat, turning garlic cloves occasionally, until garlic is deep golden brown on all sides, about 5 minutes. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove garlic from skillet; reserve garlic for another use or discard. Add red pepper flakes and continue to cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Remove skillet from heat, add all of the grated bottarga (1 3/4 ounces; 50g), and stir until well-combined with olive oil; set aside.
Meanwhile, in a wide-bottomed pot, combine 3 quarts (3L) of water and 1 tablespoon (12g) salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook, stirring frequently for first 30 seconds to prevent noodles from sticking. Cook pasta until al dente (start tasting noodles for doneness 2 minutes before suggested cooking time on package). Just before pasta is ready, transfer 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta cooking water to skillet with olive oil-bottarga mixture, and stir to combine with a rubber spatula.
Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet (which remains off-heat), and reserve remaining pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water. Rapidly stir and toss pasta until sauce is emulsified, evenly coats noodles, and pools around edges of the skillet, 30 seconds to 1 minute, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed to adjust consistency of sauce.
Add parsley, lemon juice and zest, and stir to combine. Season with salt to taste. Divide between individual serving bowls, grate remaining bottarga over top, and serve.
Rasp grater, large skillet or straight-sided sauté pan
Grey mullet bottarga, or "bottarga di muggine" in Italian, is sold at some Italian specialty shops and online. It is sold as whole roe sac lobes, or already grated. As with hard cheeses, for optimal flavor we recommend buying whole pieces and grating it yourself. Make sure to peel off the pellicle, as instructed in the recipe, before grating or slicing bottarga for other uses. Leftover pieces of bottarga can be wrapped tightly in plastic and refrigerated for months (technically bottarga does not need to be refrigerated, if you can store it in cool, dark place, but unless you're lucky enough to have a cool cellar, we recommend stashing it in the fridge). Read more about bottarga here.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This quick and easy dish is best enjoyed immediately.