Penne All’arrabbiata is quick and super-easy to make. It’s penne served in a fiery hot, rich sauce of tomato, onion, and garlic, cooked in olive oil and butter. Plus a little sugar and a bit of salt. Hard to believe that such simple ingredients combine to be so outstanding. That’s why I reckon it’s a must-have recipe in a chili fan’s repertoire.
Penne all’arrabbiata often gets enjoyed as a starter, particularly in those Italian restaurants that even stoop to serve it – this definitely isn’t posh pasta. That’s a shame. It’s so good that I make it as a single course meal.
It’s generally acknowledged as a Rome-style pasta. Italians were eating chilies in the late 16th Century, so the origins of this fiery dish could go back several hundred years.
Arrabbiata – not what you may think
For ages, I assumed this was a reference to Arabia and its hot, spicy foods – flavored with something like harissa from Tunisia or Morocco. Wrong.
I was in my early twenties when I first ate penne all’arrabbiata – not in Rome but in a London restaurant. Back then, in the early 80s, I didn’t associate Italian food with chilies. ‘Italian’ was bolognese and lasagne. So, it seemed like a fair assumption – pasta in the Arabian style.
No way. Turns out that ‘arrabbiata’ is an Italian word for angry. As in red-faced, sweating, and choking angry, rather than all steely-eyed and icy. The difference between the volcanic Sonny and the glacial Michael in The Godfather.
When you think about it, the true meaning is instructive. Why? Because it gives you a big clue to the necessary heat level in a proper arrabbiata.
Without question, the real deal should put a bit of angry color in your cheeks and maybe a little gasp in your throat.
Penne. The perfect pasta for a big sauce
As a pasta, penne is an excellent sauce-carrier. Its hollow tubes are much wider and thicker-walled than macaroni and it’s not smooth – it’s finely-ridged down its longer length. Result? It picks up sauce both outside and inside.
It’s chunky bulk also means it can go toe-to-toe with a strong sauce. Penne has the build to handle it. Unlike silky spaghetti, linguine, or tagliatelle, it’s a pasta with an uncomplicated mission. In Godfather-speak, it has the bluntness of Luca Brasi as opposed to the sleekness of Virgil Sollozzo. Kapeesh?
But not just any penne. Now, I’m no pasta connoisseur. The little I know means I always go for 100% ‘durum wheat’ pasta. A pale goldy, amber color, it’s made from hard wheat and water – and nothing else. If it doesn’t say ‘100% durum wheat’ – on the packet, don’t buy it. It’s not a rare or fancy type of pasta – I’ve never come across a supermarket that doesn’t stock it. It may be slightly pricier, but it’s worth the extra cents.
The arrabbiata sauce
- 6 red chili peppers roughly chopped, red jalapeños or serranos work well
- 20 ounces cherry tomatoes roughly chopped, seeds and all. The skins on cherry tomatoes are so soft there’s no need to remove them.
- 2 cans peeled Italian plum tomatoes juice and all, 14-ounce cans
- 1 yellow onion medium-sized, peeled and finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 2 ounces salted butter
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground sea salt
The pasta – 100% durum wheat penne.
- 14 ounces penne pasta
- 2 teaspoons ground sea salt
Cooking the sauce
- Begin by heating the olive oil and butter over a medium-high heat in a large saucepan. As the buttered oil starts to sizzle, add the diced onions and sea salt. (Adding the salt now means the onions will soften more quickly and draw more of their flavor into the oil and butter.) Turn the heat to low-medium, and cook slowly for about ten minutes with some frequent stirring. The onions shouldn’t brown at all.
- Add the chilies and garlic. Turn the heat to medium high, stirring for about 90 seconds to pull out the flavor of both.
- Add all the cherry tomatoes, return the heat to medium-low and cook for 10 minutes until the tomatoes start to lose some of their body – help them on their way with some stirring and crushing.
- Once this is starting to look like a sauce, add the canned tomatoes and the sugar – which will cut the tomatoes slightly sharp acidity. Continue cooking and for another ten minutes. You’re aiming to reduce it down to the thickness of a good tomato ketchup, but to also keep a little body in the tomatoes. This isn’t a completely smooth sauce. Turn off the heat, put a lid on the pan, and let it sit while you cook the pasta.
Cooking the pasta
- Fill a good-sized saucepan ¾ full of water, add the salt and bring the water to the boil on high heat. Now add the pasta and keep the heat on high until the water returns to the boil. Turn down the heat to medium-low and let the pasta cook for 10 minutes at a fairly brisk, bubbling simmer.
- Try a piece of the penne – it should be just (and I mean just) – al dente. If it isn’t, let it keep bubbling and wait for a few more minutes – until it is al dente. Drain the pasta. I use a big colander for this and give it a good shake to remove all the cooking water.
Bringing it all together
- Start by heating the sauce on medium heat until it just starts to bubble. Now add all the pasta, cut the heat back to low and gently stir the pasta so it all becomes coated in sauce. Serve at once in large bowls with a fork and spoon.