My wife and I have been traveling the San Francisco – Reno route the past few months to help son Brian find and move into a new house. We were tired of “the usual” stop at Ikeda in Auburn, not to mention their long lines and limited menu (cheeboigie or cheeboigie?). A friend suggested stopping in Newcastle for Newcastle Produce and La Fornaretta, an Italian place (“the best pizza,” she said).
Our first Newcastle stop was in the late afternoon and La Fornaretta was closed, so we had a sandwich and salads at Newcastle Produce. Excellent, and what an interesting shop with lots of good and local products.
Last week we arrived in Newcastle on the stroke of noon and were the first seated at La Fornaretta. As he took us to our table, the ebullient Italian owner raved about his fresh seafood and especially the fresh clams over linguine. How could I resist?
The dish was magnificent and so simple I figured I could recreate it at home.
What I could see —
lots of clams in their shells
lots of sliced garlic
a reddish sauce, more liquid-like than saucy
What I could taste —
Clammy, winey, garlicy broth with a hint of tomato.
My plate clean, I asked the owner, “So you take wine, a little tomato paste and sliced garlic, cook it a little, add the fresh clams and it makes its own broth. Right?”
“Some water, as well,” he said, “and no tomato paste, we use fresh tomatoes… everything is fresh. Anything else, you have to ask my wife… she cooks.” I made some notes in my “hip pocket notebook” and we ventured on.
Driving on to San Francisco, I got to thinking, I didn’t see any tomatoes… or any onions either, but you gotta use onions for any decent sauce… they must have strained it.
I settled on a recipe in my mind. Saute chopped onion in olive oil (it is Italian, after all) until soft, add chopped tomatoes and cook down, add wine, water, salt and pepper and cook some more. Check seasoning. Add clams to the pan, cover and cook until they open. Strain the sauce and put the strained sauce back in the pan, add the sliced garlic and some butter or olive oil to achieve the right consistency. Add the clams back to the pan to heat and pour all that over your linguini. Garnish with chopped basil.
I got the goods I needed at the Ferry Building Thursday Market, with a few substitutions. I believe La Fornaretta used the little Manila clams, but SF Fish Company didn’t have any of those, so I got 2 pounds of the slightly larger littlenecks. The Village Market has a wide selection of specialty pastas, but nothing so mundane as linguine, so I substituted La Fattoria Umbra Strangozzi which looks a lot like linguini. I was good to go.
This dish was going to go together fast, so I got my mise en place together and the pasta water boiling. This pasta takes 13 minutes to cook… I figured the sauce would take about that long.
250 grams (1/2 pound) linguine type pasta
about 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 cup chopped tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup water
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons sliced garlic
1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons chopped basil
Put the clams in a bowl of cold water and sprinkle with corn meal.
Heat a large saute pan (I used my Joyce Chen Wok) and add olive oil to generously coat the bottom. Add the onions and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook down until the tomatoes melt into the onions, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the wine and water and cook until the liquid is reduced, about 10 minutes. Check seasoning. Add the clams, cover and cook until the clams open, about 3 minutes.
Strain the sauce and pick out the clams. Discard the other solids. Clean the pan and put the strained sauce back in the pan. Add the butter and cook the sauce until smooth. It should be the consistency of cream, so it coats a spoon. Add the clams back to the pan and mix to heat through.
Drain the pasta and divide onto two plates. Cover the pasta with the clams and sauce. Garnish with chopped basil. Serve.
That was good… the fresh briney clam taste with a hint of tomato was achieved, but as with any first try, there was a miscalculation or two. The sliced garlic was still fairly raw (not necessarily a bad thing) and not caramelized. The sauce took far longer to cook than the pasta, so I drained the pasta, put it back in the warm pot, drizzled with a little olive oil and covered. Turned out fine. That pasta is amazingly good — a new discovery — but expensive, about six times the cost of Barilla on sale. That being said, the whole dish cost about $18 for two, and took about 40 minutes, including mise en place, to prepare.
I served it with a lettuce and vegetable salad and Bonny Doon Vin Gris de Cigare, 2008.