Contrary to popular myth, authentic Italian cooking is actually rather cautious when it comes to garlic – a little goes a long way. In a dish feeding four to six people, one or two cloves are plenty. It is actually English (and American) versions of Italian dishes that tend to overdo the garlic, what Anna del Conte calls “Britalian” food. Even genuine pesto is not as garlicky as the ones most foreigners are likely to taste outside Italy; I myself put very, very little garlic in my pesto, if anything at all, as is also suggested in this version here.
For the faintest aroma, garlic is often even used whole, unpeeled (in camicia, that is “wearing its shirt”) or peeled (for a stronger, but still tamed flavor) and then fished out at the end. When I adopt this approach, I slit the clove as this helps its essential oils to be released and to gently infuse the dish.
I like the sweet and mellow flavour one gets from slicing garlic very finely, almost paper thin. The best way to do this would be to use a razor blade, like in the Goodfellas. To save my fingers, I content myself with a super-sharp knife. When I want the full garlic flavour, I chop it. Garlic presses do not belong in the Italian kitchen – the pulp they extrude turns harsh and unpleasant during cooking.
Whatever route one takes, it is essential to handle garlic with care – it must cook slowly and gently. Burn it and it will turn bitter, making the dish fit only for the bin. I start with a cold pan, cold oil and chopped garlic and I then cook it ever so carefully until soft and just off white/very pale creamy colour. I never let my garlic even get close to the “golden stage” I see recommended in many recipes because I think that by then it already tastes a little harsh.
Having said all this, it’s true that that there are of course excellent dishes in the Italian repertoire where garlic stars. Bagnacauda and agliata, for instance, or this super quick and restorative pasta dish, spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino, spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli. It is the classic late night, rewarding, cheap and cheerful dish, spaghetti glistening with oil, lifted from blandness by the kick of garlic and chilli and enlivened by chopped parsley. When the fridge is empty and it looks as if there is nothing to eat, at least one can always rely on “spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino” to eat like a king (even if a slightly impoverished one).
Spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino/Spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli
Dried, store bought pasta is the only choice – fresh pasta simply does not work here. You can use either dried red chillies (peperoncino) or fresh chillies, but they should not take over the dish. The final addition of chopped parsley lifts the dish to another level.
spaghetti/spaghettini/bucatini – 70g/100g
extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling – 3-4 tbsp.
garlic – 1 clove, peeled and very finely chopped
a tiny pinch of peperoncino or a small piece of fresh red chilli finely, chopped
parsley – 1 tbsp. finely chopped
Cook the pasta as usual.
Meanwhile warm up the oil, garlic and chilli in a largish pan, on a very low heat. The aim here is to infuse the oil with the garlic and chilli. Remove from the heat as soon as the garlic is thoroughly cooked and soft and of a light pale creamy colour.
When the pasta is al dente, reserve a little of its cooking water, drain it and transfer it to the saucepan with the garlicky oil.
Raise the heat, toss well, add a little of the cooking water to loosen up the pasta.
Add the parsley, toss again and finish the dish with an extra drizzle of oil.
Many variations of this basic dish are possible:
With anchovies and lemon zest: add a couple of anchovy fillets in olive oil alongside the garlic and chilli and let them dissolve. Add a little grated lemon zest alongside the parsley in the end
With black olives and capers: add a few stoned black olives and one tsp. of rinsed capers to the garlic and chilli
With cherry tomatoes: add two or three small, diced cherry tomatoes to the pasta when you toss it in the pan to sauce it and before adding the parsley. This adds a welcome freshness to the dish. For a heartier flavour, you can substitute a couple of julienned sundried tomatoes instead
With rocket: instead of the parsley, add a handful of roughly chopped tender rocket
On garlic presses being useless gadgets, check this ebuliant article by Elizabeth David.