How to Make Perfect Penne Al'Arrabbiata: The King of Tomato Pasta Dishes

Updated on June 5, 2019
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Byron Dean has travelled widely in the Mediterranean, gaining cooking tips from local 'nonnas', shopkeepers and professional chefs alike.

Penne all'arrabbiata
Penne all'arrabbiata

An Introduction to Penne Al'Arrabiata: The Finest of All Tomato Pasta Dishes

The sweet, aromatic simplicity of a traditional, Neapolitan sugo di pomodoro is undoubtedly the benchmark according to which all tomato sauces must be judged; and the intense, robust flavours of a puttanesca sauce's vibrant, salty avalanche of umami certainly make it a contender when it comes to deciding which is the very best tomato-based accompaniment to pasta. But when all things are considered, can there be any doubt that penne al'arrabbiata truly is the finest of all tomato pasta dishes?

Deriving its name from the Italian word for 'angry', arrabbiata is a spicy and strongly flavoured dish of tomatoes, garlic and dried chillies, traditionally served with penne pasta. The dish originated in Lazio, and it remains much loved and highly celebrated across the region—and particularly in its capital, Rome.

Like many of the best Italian dishes, an authentic arrabbiata is extremely simple and requires only a few ingredients to make. As is always the case with these kinds of recipes, the secret lies in using only the very freshest and best quality ingredients, and in preparing these ingredients with patience and care. There aren't many corners to cut with a dish this simple—so doing so will always leave you with a noticeably inferior end product!

However, as long as you use the best possible ingredients and follow the correct procedures, you'll discover why this quick-and-easy tomato pasta entirely deserves its reputation as one of the most unique, versatile and delicious contributions Lazio has made to the rich Italian culinary tradition.

With simple dishes, buying quality ingredients and conducting careful preparation is essential
With simple dishes, buying quality ingredients and conducting careful preparation is essential

A Note on Dried Chili Peppers

The two most distinguishing characteristics of sugo di arrabbiata are its distinctive fiery kick and the unique flavour of rich, deeply infused dried chili peppers. Without these components, it is simply an extremely basic tomato sauce which happens to have some spice.

In order to avoid ending up with a sauce which carries little more flavour than would a simple combination of canned tomatoes and chili flakes, it's important to focus on the quality of the chilies you're using. One of the best pieces of cooking advice I've ever received was to get into the habit of buying (or—even better—growing) my own chilies and drying them myself, rather than relying solely on shop-bought dried chili products.

In Italy, people hang their chilies outside of their homes to dry slowly over a matter of weeks, but this technique admittedly works best for those who happen to be blessed with Mediterranean sunshine. You can just as easily leave your chilies in the oven at a low temperature overnight, and the results will be just as good. With this tip alone, you'll take your cooking to another level.

For this recipe, cayenne is the ideal chili to use, but most red chilies will suffice (serrano is another good option). If you really can't find a suitable chili to dry yourself, don't be tempted to use ground cayenne. Instead, just use another teaspoon of dried red chili flakes, but be aware that the results won't be nearly as good.

Authentic Italian Recipes and Non-Traditional Ingredients

The recipe below includes some ingredients and techniques which are not usually included in the traditional preparation of penne al'arrabbiata. Whilst some purists may consider the addition of red onion to be a form of culinary sacrilege, it should be noted that all non-traditional ingredients and procedures have been carefully selected so as not to replace but to enhance the authentic flavours and textures of the dish. When prepared correctly, the combination of red onion and garlic will oxidise and react in such a way as to create a flavour which is greater than the sum of its parts, without leaving the final dish tasting of onion.

Ingredients

  • 310 grams penne, cooked in highly salted water with a little olive oil
  • 320 grams tomato passata, choose a quality, Italian brand (such as Cirio)
  • 200 grams tomatoes, vine-ripened and cut to ensure they have a flat surface on the skin-side
  • 45 grams red onion
  • 15 grams garlic
  • 1 dried red chili pepper, cayenne is perfect, but any red chilli will work
  • 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
  • 1 anchovy, rinsed and finely chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Fresh basil
  • Pecorino Romano cheese, for garnish
  • Parsley, for garnish

Instructions

  1. Start by chopping the red onion and garlic together on a chopping board until they're cut into fairly fine chunks. Even better, chop them roughly before pulsing them in a food processor. If using the second option, be sure not to take it too far and turn them into a paste. Then set the mixture aside while you prepare the other ingredients. (A small but important chemical reaction will take place during this time)
  2. Combine the whole chili pepper (including seeds) with a teaspoon of coarse salt in a spice/coffee grinder until you have a powder.
  3. On a medium-low heat, begin heating just enough olive oil to coat the bottom of your pan (ideally, avoid using a non-stick pan for this recipe). After a few moments, lower the heat a little and add the powder of chili and salt. Let it simmer gently for a few minutes, infusing the oil with the flavour of chili. These are the deep, background notes of the dish which are essential.
  4. Be careful not to let the powder burn, and after a few minutes add the teaspoon of dried red chili flakes. Leave for a few seconds before carefully placing the tomatoes in the pan, *skin-side down (important)*.
  5. Monitor the tomatoes as they cook for around 8 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally and if necessary adjusting the heat a little to ensure there's plenty of sizzling but no actual burning. Don't turn the tomatoes over.
  6. Around the 8 minute mark you should notice the aroma starting to change. At this point, add the onion and garlic mixture, along with the anchovy. Stir, finally allowing the tomatoes to turn over revealing their deeply caramelised skins.
  7. Cook this mixture for another 5 minutes or so, before adding the passata along with the tomato vine if you have it. Leave to simmer for 10 minutes, tearing in the basil when you have around 2 minutes left.
  8. Remove the tomato vine and take the pan off the heat. Ideally, pass the mixture through a food mill. If you don't have one, blend with a stick blender and pass through a coarse sieve—or even just leave it as it is.
  9. Add cooked penne pasta to the sauce and return it to the pan with a generous splash of pasta water. Cook until the sauce has thickened back up to the desired consistency. Serve with fresh parsley and a little Pecorino Romano (don't be too generous, or it'll overpower the freshness of the tomatoes and the parsley).

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