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.
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.
- Yield:Serves 4
- Active time: 20 minutes
- Total time:20 minutes for the pasta, 1 hour total if making breadcrumbs from scratch
- 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.