Plump, tender shellfish
Rich, savory seafood flavor in every bite
Sauce that clings to the pasta
Italian seafood pastas such as frutti di mare and pescatore promise noodles teeming with shellfish and saturated with clean, briny-sweet flavor. And while many versions are chock-full of shrimp, clams, mussels, lobster, scallops, squid, or any combination thereof, I’ve yet to eat one in which the pasta actually tastes much like the sea. The shellfish flavor tends to be locked up in the pieces of seafood themselves rather than awash throughout the dish. Together with the typical tomato-based sauce, these dishes resemble nothing more than pasta drenched in marinara and punctuated by the occasional bite of seafood.
Most recently I came across this problem in a bowl of linguine allo scoglio, another mixed shellfish-and-pasta classic that’s named for the rocky Italian seashores where seafood is abundant (scoglio means “rock”). Tangled in the noodles were shell-on mussels and clams, shrimp, and squid, as well as cherry tomatoes, garlic, and fresh herbs. The sauce was white wine–based, which gave me hope that the seafood flavor might come through more clearly here than it does in tomato-based preparations. But instead the pasta barely tasted like seafood and was relatively dry, as the thin sauce had slipped right off the linguine and puddled at the bottom of the bowl. Worse, the mussels, shrimp, and squid were dense and rubbery, obviously having toughened while waiting for the longer-cooking clams to pop open.
Overcooked seafood would be easy enough to fix with a strategic cooking method. But for this dish, I also had my sights set on a light-bodied sauce that clung nicely to the noodles and infused them with the flavor of the sea.
I ignored recipes that suggested sautéing or simmering the shrimp, clams, mussels, and squid together in a pot until every piece was cooked through, since that would surely lead to the rubbery results I’d had before. But I didn’t want to tediously cook one type of shellfish at a time, transferring each to a bowl as it finished cooking. I had to figure out how long it would take each type of seafood to cook, add the longest-cooking item first, and stagger the additions of the others.
First I sautéed minced garlic and red pepper flakes in a Dutch oven over moderately high heat, which would get the sauce base going. In went the clams, which popped open after about 8 minutes, followed midway through cooking by the mussels. With no hard, protective shells, shrimp and squid cook very quickly, so I lowered the flame and added them to the pot. They plumped nicely in about 4 minutes and 2 minutes, respectively—but would have toughened if I hadn’t kept a close watch on them. Down the road, I’d see if there was an even gentler way to cook them, but for now, I had at least established a sequence.
Left behind in the pot were the aromatics and the liquor shed by the cooked shellfish, which would fortify my sauce. It wasn’t much, though, so I borrowed a technique we’ve used in other shrimp preparations and made a quick stock with the shells by browning them in a skillet and simmering them with wine. In this case, I finished building the sauce by adding lots of chopped parsley, a dash of fresh thyme, and about ¾ pound of whole cherry tomatoes; as the sauce simmered, the tomatoes collapsed into a pulp that added body to the sauce. Meanwhile, I boiled the linguine in a separate pot. I then tossed the cooked seafood into the sauce and poured it over the drained pasta.
The seafood was well cooked, but the sauce was still thin in both body and seafood flavor. To kick it up another notch, I skipped the shrimp broth and instead added a bottle of clam juice and four minced anchovies. If that sounds like it would be unpleasantly fishy, trust me that it’s not; we often use an anchovy or two to add rich, savory flavor in both seafood and nonseafood preparations, and mincing them to a fine paste ensures that they meld seamlessly.
Adding a spoonful of tomato paste along with the anchovies and simmering the liquid until it had reduced by about one-third yielded much richer, rounder flavor—but only marginally better body. When I poured the sauce over the linguine, it still slipped right through to the bottom of the bowl.
That’s when I realized I hadn’t implemented one of the oldest Italian pasta-cooking tricks in the book: parboiling the pasta until it’s just shy of al dente, draining it, and simmering it directly in the sauce to finish cooking. Doing so not only allows the pasta to soak up the flavor of the sauce but the starches it sheds during cooking also thicken the liquid. (I made sure to reserve some of the starchy pasta cooking water in case I needed to adjust the consistency of the sauce before serving.) At last, the sauce was viscous enough to cling to the strands.
I was about to declare my recipe finished when I got a forkful of squid that was a tad rubbery. So were the shrimp, I realized with another bite. Both had overcooked as they’d sat in the warm bowl, which got me thinking that I could add them to the sauce along with the pasta rather than precook them with the clams and mussels. After I’d let the pasta simmer in the sauce for about 2 minutes, I lowered the heat and added the shrimp and a lid. About 4 minutes later, I followed with the squid.
Now plump and tender, the shrimp and squid were perfect. To freshen up the flavors before serving, I tried one more batch in which I added lemon zest, halved cherry tomatoes, and more parsley along with the squid, plus a drizzle of olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. Every bite was bright, fresh, perfectly cooked, and—most important—packed with seafood flavor from top to bottom.
Recipe Shorthand: The Scoglio Sequence
Perfectly cooking pasta, sauce, and four kinds of shellfish at the same time was complicated—and often ended badly. We got around this by precooking some of the components and adding other components near the end of cooking. With the right order of operations, our version of linguine allo scoglio is much easier to prepare.