We often take for granted simple foods, like a traditional Margherita pizza or a warm grilled-cheese sandwich. That is, until we taste a bad version; then we gain a new-found appreciation for them. It's also then that we begin to realize that our beloved Margherita pizza and grilled-cheese sandwich aren't quite as simple as we thought.
A perfect example is spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), a relatively straightforward dish that hails from Venice, where bivalves are available by the boatload. Sometimes tomatoes are added to the mix, but the recipe usually includes clams, parsley, white wine, garlic, chilies, and extra-virgin olive oil.
Ubiquitous at restaurants both in Italy and abroad, this pasta dish frequently disappoints despite its simplicity. According to Macchialina Taverna Rustica's chef and co-owner, Michael Pirolo, "spaghetti alle vongole is one of the easiest dishes to mess up."
See also: Fabio Vivani Brunch at Siena Tavern
The South Beach spot deploys its version with care, and though there's nothing particularly newfangled about it, the slightly spicy spaghetti alle vongole is utterly scrumptious ($25). All the pasta at Macchialina is made in house, but so much of this dish's greatness boils down to the clams.
Pirolo uses littleneck clams, which are cultivated when they're small. Unfortunately, he says he can't source the clams from Italy because they would lose their quality by they time they arrived. Instead, he goes the local route, and if small clams aren't available, he won't serve the dish.
"The big clams take forever to cook, and then they get overcooked. It's supposed to be a delicate dish, and that takes the delicacy out of it," explains the Queens, New York-born chef who previously helmed the kitchen at Scott Conant's Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau. Indeed, at Macchialina, the petite bivalves are plump and smooth and dissolve in your mouth. Plus, there's no fishy aftertaste.
Once the clams are done cooking, Pirolo tosses them and the spaghetti in a sauce comprising garlic, olive oil, Calabrian chilies, a bit of white wine, parsley, and arugula. His pasta is perfectly al dente and blends seamlessly with the other assertive, clean flavors. For $2 extra, order the grilled country bread and let it soak up the remaining liquid. Or grab a spoon and down it as you would soup. Have no shame -- it's that good.
As the name of the dish suggests, the clams are typically paired with spaghetti. However, that's not the case at Seagrape, Michelle Bernstein's Floridian brasserie at the Thompson Miami. Here, Michelin-starred chef de cuisine Steven Rojas uses rigatoni to give the entrée more texture ($24). It works.
Made in house, the rigatoni boasts a beautiful chewiness and allows for better absorption of the sauce. And though it tastes complex, the sauce is simple, Rojas says. It consists of a wine reduction enhanced by the clams' natural sweet juices as well as plenty of fresh herbs. Tender roasted tomatoes add a pleasant acidity.
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To get the sauce just right, Rojas uses a variety of clams, some of which are fairly large. They're extra-meaty, but not chewy, as can often be the case with larger bivalves. Like the vongole at Macchialina, Seagrape's version is elegant, aromatic, and well seasoned. Both are different but remarkably light as far as pastas go.
So, yes, a lot of time and effort go into preparing memorable, simple dishes, and here are two Miami restaurants that prove the extra work is worth it.