Why It Works
- Adding some of the mushroom soaking water to the sauce brings even more flavor.
- Some of the oil from the canned tuna infuses the sauce with additional flavor as well.
- If you can get it, ventresca (belly) tuna is silkier and more tender than most other canned tuna.
Making good food from pantry staples is something we've all been thinking about recently. After a while, though, the concern goes from just making good food to keeping those meals interesting because the 17th appearance of the same recipe on the dinner table is enough to drive anyone stir-crazy.
What Is Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera?
I guess it's a funny coincidence that I've recently been working on recipes for spaghetti alla carrettiera, "the cart driver's spaghetti." That's recipes, plural, because it's a dish that comes in many different forms, a fact that strikes at this larger cooking challenge we're all grappling with: keeping things interesting in the kitchen. (If you’re in summer, and peak tomato season, try this recipe for Sicilian-style alla carrettiera,)
The first time I learned about carrettiera sauce I was working for the chef Cesare Casella, who, for a while in the early 2000s, had me poring through obscure, old Italian cookbooks from Italy's Maremma valley—a geographic expanse that runs along the country's western coast from northern Lazio (home region of Rome) up into southern Tuscany—in preparation for a new restaurant he was opening at the time.
In those cookbooks, spaghetti alla carrettiera was presented as a slightly unusual sauce made from jarred or canned tomatoes, canned tuna in olive oil, and rehydrated dried porcini mushrooms. Those aren't the most obvious ingredients to toss together into a pasta sauce, at least not to me, but one bite will do more than enough to convince you it's a good idea.
The story of the recipe is that it was created by the carrettieri, cart drivers who more than a century ago would wind their way from town to town and city to city, selling all sorts of goods the locals might need. To feed themselves and others on the road, they'd whip up easy pastas using the kinds of shelf-stable pantry ingredients they were likely to have stowed away on their carts. Hence the canned tuna. Hence the dried mushrooms. Hence the jarred tomatoes. Some garlic and a tuft of parsley were all they needed to add some freshness to the dish.
Roman-Style or Sicilian-Style?
Since then, I've come across recipes for spaghetti alla carrettiera online, and in other books, and they've often perplexed me. At times they varied so much from the version I knew that it was hard to make sense of why they shared the same name. Instead of canned tomatoes, these other versions used chopped-up fresh ones; instead of parsley, perhaps basil; and no tuna or mushrooms at all, instead turning to toasted breadcrumbs. And in those recipes, the sauce wasn't cooked but tossed raw with the hot pasta and some of its cooking water, just enough to warm it all through and bind everything together. Which one, I wondered, was the real carrettiera?
Eventually, I managed to make at least partial sense of it: The fresh sauce versions tended to come from Sicily while the canned tomato ones seemed to center around Rome. What they had in common was the cart driver, who, depending on the locale, seems to have had a different assortment of ingredients in their cart. Farther north, that meant preserved mushrooms and fish and tomatoes. Down south, fresh tomatoes must have been in even greater abundance for more of the year (there's also a Sicilian version with no tomato at all, ostensibly for when the fruit wasn't available in fresh form).
And this, really, gets to the core of why this pasta is so meaningful right now. It's not just that there is no one true version of spaghetti alla carrettiera—no, that much you can say about any recipe. It's that the defining character of spaghetti alla carrettiera is that it has very little definition at all. Even within the two broad categories of carrettiera that I've described, there's constant variation. Some Roman-style recipes use no tuna, some forgo mushrooms, some lack both, while others add olives or capers. In Sicily, the herbs can be parsley or basil, while cheese, usually a firm Sicilian Pecorino or ricotta salata, is sometimes added...but not always.
Spaghetti alla carrettiera offers two things to us all right now. The first is practical—recipe ideas that we can lean on to make mealtime a little more interesting. The second is more philosophical. At its heart, carrettiera is the pantry pasta sauce, demonstrating just how much possibility is already hidden within our larders. Let's take inspiration from that.
1 1/2 ounces (40g) dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup (235ml) boiling water
1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for finishing pasta
4 medium cloves garlic, minced
Large pinch red pepper flakes
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley leaves and tender stems, divided, plus more for garnish
One (28-ounce; 795g) can whole peeled tomatoes with liquid, thoroughly crushed
One (5-ounce; 140g) olive oil-packed tuna, preferably ventresca (tuna belly; see notes), oil reserved
1 pound (450g) dried spaghetti
In a small heatproof bowl or measuring cup, soak mushrooms in boiling water until fully softened, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove mushrooms from soaking liquid and squeeze out excess moisture back into the bowl or measuring cup. Reserve rehydrated mushrooms and 1/4 cup (60ml) soaking liquid, making sure to dispose of any grit that has settled at the bottom.
In a 5-quart pot, combine 1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil, garlic, pepper flakes, and 1 tablespoon minced parsley. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until very fragrant and garlic is just beginning to turn the lightest shade of gold, about 3 minutes.
Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until lightly sautéed and fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add reserved 1/4 cup (60ml) mushroom soaking liquid, tomatoes, and 2 tablespoons (30ml) reserved tuna oil (if your tuna doesn't have that much oil, just add as much as it does), and bring to a simmer. Season with salt.
In a pot of salted, boiling water, cook spaghetti, stirring frequently, until just shy of al dente, about 1 minute less than package recommends. While spaghetti is cooking, flake tuna into pasta sauce.
Using tongs, transfer spaghetti directly into simmering sauce along with 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water, stirring to combine. Cook, stirring, until pasta is al dente and sauce has thickened, so it coats noodles and isn't watery, about 3 minutes. Add remaining 1/4 cup minced parsley and 1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil, stirring vigorously to combine. If sauce is too thick, add more olive oil or pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring well between additions, until desired sauce consistency is reached. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.
Transfer to warmed plates and sprinkle with minced parsley. Serve right away.
5-quart pot or Dutch oven
Most cans of tuna in the United States come in 5-ounce sizes while Tonnino, one of the most common brands of ventresca (belly) tuna, is sold in 6.7-ounce jars; you can use either here, but if you use the larger size jar of ventresca, you should still use all of the tuna in it (it's not as densely packed as the canned, so the actual amount of tuna is quite similar).
Make-Ahead and Storage
The sauce can be made in advance and refrigerated up to 3 days, but it's best when made right before serving.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 28g||36%|
|Saturated Fat 4g||20%|
|Total Carbohydrate 68g||25%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||18%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 52mg||258%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|