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.
This Sicilian pasta sauce couldn't be quicker or easier to make: Peel and roughly purée some tomatoes, mix them 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.
That ease is tied to its history: In the olden days, wandering cart drivers would crisscross the Italian countryside, selling goods, wares, and basic cooking ingredients to the townspeople along the way. When they were hungry, they'd quickly whip up a sauce like this using just the basic ingredients they had on their cart.
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 pound (450g) plum tomatoes (about 4 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
- Kosher salt
- 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)
Using a paring knife, score an "X" on the top side of each tomato and cut out the stem end. In a pot of boiling water large enough to hold the spaghetti, blanch tomatoes until skins just begin to slip off where you scored them, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Using a slotted spoon, remove tomatoes. (Keep the water hot, you'll need it to cook the pasta.)
Run tomatoes under cold water, then remove and discard skins and seeds. Grate tomato flesh on largest holes of a box grater into a large heatproof mixing or serving bowl; it's okay if some slightly larger pieces of tomatoes remain. Add olive oil, basil, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Stir well and season with salt to taste. Set aside.
Return water to a boil and season with salt. 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.