The Spaghetti Dish That You Burn (On Purpose)

Making spaghetti all’assassina requires patience and bravery—and a blatant disregard of the rules.

Published Aug. 8, 2022.

If you dine out in Bari, a bustling port city on Italy’s Adriatic coast, the hyperlocal spaghetti all’assassina is an absolute must-try. Some credit the extreme popularity of the dish to its “killer” pedigree, but I argue that it has earned a cultlike following not for its provocative name but because it’s unlike any other pasta dish anywhere. A novel cooking method that involves simmering and frying the pasta in a single vessel yields spaghetti that is deeply saturated with a concentrated, spicy umami bomb of a tomato sauce and boasts textures that run the gamut—even within a single strand—from soft to al dente to crunchy. 

“The tomato-ness, the acidity, is imbued in the noodle . . .”
—Food journalist Katie Quinn

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Assassina is so well-liked that it’s not just restaurant fare—home cooks prepare it, too. But review blogs and cookbooks and you’ll get the impression that the dish is usually learned stoveside, as most recipes offer no more than a hint of a method and an ingredient list that leaves amounts to the whims of the cook. 

Ingredient Spotlight: Passata di Pomodoro

A staple in the Italian pantry, passata di pomodoro is a smooth, relatively thin strained tomato puree. Unlike American tomato puree, which has been cooked and reduced to develop a rich, sweet taste, passata is made with raw tomatoes to maintain the fresh, clean brightness of the fruit. It’s available in jars or aseptic boxes.

Partners in Crime

To fully understand the nuances of the dish, I connected with two American expatriates living in Italy who have feasted on spaghetti all’assassina in Bari restaurants many times. Elizabeth Minchilli, the Rome‑based author of The Italian Table (2019), homed in on the consistency of the sauce: “A thoroughly reduced sauce that is partially charred is a hallmark of a proper assassina,” she explained. 

Food journalist Katie Quinn recalled that the first time she tasted spaghetti all’assassina, it knocked her socks off. The author of Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France (2021) was thrilled by the way “the tomato-ness, the acidity, is imbued in the noodle, more so—so much more so—than in a spaghetti dish where you just put the sauce on top.”

A plate of spicy, tomatoey assassina delivers a trio of textures: soft, al dente, and crunchy.

It’s Good to Be Clingy

When pasta is boiled for a standard recipe, it absorbs lots of liquid: 12 ounces of dry spaghetti weighs about 30 ounces after it’s cooked. That means you’re serving 18 ounces of salted water as part of the meal, and plenty of flavorful sauce is needed to compensate. But spaghetti all’assassina simmers the pasta directly in a tomatoey base, so the noodles are permeated with flavor, not just moisture. When we weighed the components of our finished assassina separately, we found that the exterior sauce amounted to less than 2 ounces; the rest either evaporated, leaving the flavors all the more concentrated, or was absorbed by the pasta.

The distinctive qualities of the dish are achieved via a procedure that includes the risottatura method, which calls for slowly adding broth to raw pasta. The recipe goes like this: Heat extra‑virgin olive oil in a large skillet with garlic and a generous sprinkle of minced fresh or dried pepperoncini (chile flakes). Add a few glugs of passata di pomodoro (uncooked strained tomato puree) and simmer vigorously to reduce the liquid before nestling in dry spaghetti and topping it with a cup or so of ruddy tomato broth (tomato paste heavily diluted with water). Let the strands sit, untouched, in the bubbling liquid so that they can drink it up and start to crisp and char and then, each time the pan threatens to dry out, ladle in more broth. Continue on, periodically adding more broth, turning the spaghetti over, and allowing the sauce to reduce, until the strands are cooked through. Finally, increase the heat so that the pasta at the bottom of the pan crisps, caramelizes, and scorches even more. Pull the spaghetti from the stove; twirl it onto a plate; and adorn the deliciously, deeply satisfying tangle with a drizzle of your best extra-virgin olive oil.

Proper Execution

Simmering and then frying the pasta in a single skillet requires a sauce with a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil. I use 1/3 cup, along with a couple cloves of minced garlic, a hefty dose of red pepper flakes, and 1 cup of passata. To the sauce and the raw spaghetti, you’ll periodically ladle in a total of 5 or 6 cups of tomato broth (I like to bolster it with a bit of sugar to draw out fruity sweetness). 

Step by Step: Spaghetti all’assassina

This unique dish calls for gradually adding tomato broth to raw spaghetti and an olive oil–laced tomato passata. At the end of cooking, the heat is turned up to crisp and char the bottom of the pasta.

The process requires a good bit of patience. Unlike with risotto, where the cook more or less constantly stirs the rice, assassina requires periods of leaving the pasta undisturbed. Fight the urge to fuss, and trust that leaving the spaghetti to bubble, sizzle, and splatter in the thick, oil-laced sauce will deliver the panoply of textures that makes the dish so appealing. That is, an intriguing mix of “downright soft parts,” per Quinn, as well as crispy ones, so that “every bite is different.” In the final step, a periodic peek under the pasta with the help of a thin spatula is the only effort allowed.

Lastly, be unafraid: The ultimate test of bravery occurs after the final addition of broth is absorbed and you turn the heat to full blast, allowing the bottom of the spaghetti to darken and crisp, developing a sultry smokiness. 

Some say that this final, climactic act of “killing” the pasta gives the dish its name, but I know better, as this aggressive sear undeniably brings assassina to life.

Spaghetti All'Assassina

Making spaghetti all’assassina requires patience and bravery—and a blatant disregard of the rules.
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