Pescatarian Pantry Pasta

Oil-packed tuna stars in the gutsy weeknight savior that is spaghetti al tonno.

Published Jan. 19, 2022.

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.

Next-Level Tuna

With rich flavor and silky, thick‑cut yellowfin fillets, our favorite oil-packed tuna—Tonnino Tuna Fillets in Olive Oil—is a step above most brands. It costs a few extra dollars, but it yields pasta al tonno that’s posh enough for company, and it can bring a luxurious touch to any weeknight meal.

On to the tuna. First off, I wholeheartedly agree with the prevailing recommendation to use the olive oil–packed type. In both flavor and texture, it easily edges out the water-packed stuff. What’s more, if budget and availability allow, a high-end brand can really elevate the dish.  

To ensure that the tuna tasted its best, I borrowed a trick from one of our tuna salad recipes and seasoned it with salt, pepper, and lemon juice. These simple additions really perked things up. Since cooking tinned fish risks drying it out, I added the tuna to slightly underdone spaghetti along with the tomato sauce and then let everything sit off the heat, covered, for 3 minutes. This not only warmed the fish through gently so that it stayed moist but also hedged against mushy spaghetti. 

Tucking into the finished dish, I noticed that it seemed a little heavy on pasta. Dropping the amount from 16 ounces to 12 produced a more balanced, saucier dish that easily served four.  

And there you have it: spaghetti al tonno. Down‑to-earth? Absolutely. Dull? Not a chance.

Finish the pasta with grassy fresh parsley and a gloss of olive oil.

Spaghetti al Tonno

Oil-packed tuna stars in the gutsy weeknight savior that is spaghetti al tonno.
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