Why It Works
- Using the pasta water to quickly blanch the tomatoes makes peeling them easy without wasting time.
- Grating the tomato flesh releases its juices while leaving it somewhat chunky.
- Rapidly mixing the hot spaghetti and its water with the fresh sauce ingredients creates an emulsified sauce that clings to every strand of spaghetti.
The story behind the recipe is that it was invented by the carrettieri, cart drivers who more than a century ago would journey from town to town, selling anything and everything citizens might need. Cooking and eating while on the road takes ingenuity, and they would put together easy pastas using shelf-stable pantry ingredients they had tucked into their carts.
But the more research I did, the more puzzled I became. Different recipes varied so much, I wasn’t sure why they shared the same name. Sometimes fresh tomatoes appeared instead of canned ones, maybe basil instead of parsley, and sometimes instead of cooking the sauce everything was tossed raw with the hot pasta and cooking water. Which one, I wondered, was the real carrettiera?
Then I realized there were geographical influences. 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 had different ingredients in their cart depending on where they traveled. Farther north that meant preserved mushrooms and fish and tomatoes. But perhaps in the south, fresh tomatoes were more abundant.
This Sicilian version couldn't be quicker or easier to make: Peel and roughly purée some tomatoes, mix with raw minced garlic, chopped basil, olive oil, and red pepper flakes, and then toss with cooked spaghetti and some of its starchy water as soon as it's cooked. Some toasted breadcrumbs, meanwhile, help thicken and emulsify the sauce.
Because the sauce is heated only by the pasta and its cooking water, it retains all of its fresh tomato and basil flavor. It reminds us a little of tomatoey pesto alla Trapanese, except this recipe is even simpler and faster to whip up.
This is just one example, though. Some Sicilian recipes add grated Sicilian Pecorino cheese or ricotta salata, while others omit the tomatoes. The variations are endless (as you travel farther north to Rome, the sauce shifts to a cooked version packed with shelf-stable ingredients like canned tomato, canned tuna, and dried porcini mushrooms).
Keep that in mind when you make this: You can make your own version based on what you have on hand. Don't have fresh basil? Some fresh parsley works well, too. Low on tomatoes? Make an in bianco ("white") version without them. Just like the cart drivers of long ago, your carrettiera sauce can be whatever you need and want it to be.
1 1/4 pounds (566g) plum tomatoes (about 5 tomatoes)
1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling if needed
1/4 cup loosely packed, roughly chopped fresh basil leaves
3 medium cloves garlic, finely minced
1 large pinch red pepper flakes
1 pound (450g) dried spaghetti
1/2 cup (1 1/4 ounces; 35g) lightly toasted panko breadcrumbs, divided
Grated Sicilian Pecorino or ricotta salata, for serving (optional)
Grate tomatoes on largest holes of a box grater into a large heatproof mixing or serving bowl until only the skin remains in your hand; it's okay if some slightly larger pieces of tomatoes and some skin get through, though you can discard the large pieces of skin. Add olive oil, basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Stir well and season with salt to taste. Set aside.
In a pot of lightly salted boiling water, cook spaghetti, stirring frequently, until al dente. When pasta has almost finished cooking, transfer 1/4 cup (30ml) pasta cooking water to tomato mixture and whisk to form an emulsion.
Using tongs, transfer pasta to tomato mixture along with an additional 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water. Vigorously toss and stir pasta to emulsify sauce and coat noodles. Add half of the breadcrumbs and toss to combine. The pasta should be well coated with creamy, emulsified sauce. If it seems dry, add extra pasta water and olive oil, 1 tablespoon (15ml) at a time, until it reaches the desired consistency. Taste for seasoning.
Transfer pasta to warmed plates and sprinkle with remaining breadcrumbs. Top with cheese, if desired. Serve right away.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This sauce is best made fresh, and the pasta is best enjoyed right away.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 20g||26%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||15%|
|Total Carbohydrate 96g||35%|
|Dietary Fiber 5g||20%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 17mg||84%|
|*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.|