The ingredients are familiar—al dente pasta, meaty canned tuna, sweet tomatoes, heady garlic, and plenty of extra-virgin olive oil to round things out—but the resulting tangle, known as pasta al tonno, is anything but pedestrian. The provenance of this satisfying Italian staple is unknown, but I do know that it delivers big flavor and practicality, making it ideal to keep on file for midweek suppers.
The formula is loose—every family has its own routine for seasoning a simple tomato sauce with aromatics, folding in tuna, and combining it with pasta—so I ran a series of tests to crystallize my wish list. I wanted a tuna-forward sauce accented by tomato, not the inverse, as presented in some recipes. That would mean two jars (or cans) of fish to a pound of pasta. Speaking of pasta, spaghetti was more alluring than chunky shapes; I liked the way it cradled the flakes of tuna.
For the tomato, I opted for canned, not fresh, because at its heart, pasta al tonno is a meal from the cupboard. I preferred small, supple pieces strewn throughout the spaghetti strands, so I opted to hand-crush the whole type into soft, irregular shapes.
Eschewing a kitchen-sink approach, I skipped the onion, wine, oregano, and basil found in some iterations. Olives and capers gave off puttanesca vibes, so I left them out, too. On the other hand, garlic—and lots of it—was essential. To capture the allium’s broad range, I added it in two stages, sizzling some in olive oil for nutty sweetness and just warming some through in the hot pasta for an assertive edge. Red pepper flakes heated things up a bit, while a few minced anchovies supported the dish with a savory backbone. After stirring the tomatoes into the aromatics, I let the sauce bubble gently to thicken it up.