This pasta sauce turns on the heat

If I had to eat one cuisine forever, I think it would probably be Italian. The sheer variety, from the potato dumplings of the Dolomites to the saffron-spiked couscous of Sicily, has much to do with it.

Plus the fact that - unlike traditional French or British cooking - it is not shy of a bit of heat.

Not only does the south produce a lot of very fine peperoncino (hot chilli peppers) but, as Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers write in the River Cafe Classic Italian Cook Book, "in Italy, many cooks grow their own chillies".

Pasta all'arrabbiata, a dish apparently native to Rome, is a case in point. The name refers to the "angry" heat of the chilli-spiked tomato sauce.

However hot you dare to go, this is a simple, quick and satisfyingly spicy meal using store cupboard ingredients.

As the thing that distinguishes arrabbiata from the tens, possibly hundreds, of other tomato-based sauces in the Italian repertoire, the chilli element feels important.



    2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra to finish

    1 tsp chilli flakes

    2 garlic cloves, finely sliced

    400g tinned chopped tomatoes

    200g penne

    1/4 tsp red wine vinegar

    Handful of basil leaves


    1. Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and add the chilli. When it begins to darken, stir in the garlic and cook just until it colours slightly, then add the tomatoes and a generous pinch of salt, breaking up the tomatoes with a spoon.

    2. Simmer for about 15 minutes while you cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water until just al dente. The sauce should be thick by this time. If it looks too dry, add a splash of the pasta cooking water.

    3. Stir in the vinegar and season to taste, then drain the pasta and stir into the sauce. Cook until the sauce coats each piece, then divide between two bowls, drizzle over a little oil and tear the basil leaves over the dish.

    Serves two

Gray and Rogers go on to say that in Italy, home-grown chillies are "hung upside down to dry in the autumn" to keep the household going until the following year.

That said, Jamie Oliver and Lucio Galletto's book, The Art Of Pasta, both call for fresh red chillies.

The effect is surprisingly fruity rather than fiery. There is no doubt a different variety could be used with better effect, but the keener heat of the dried kind proves more popular.

Gray and Rogers go for a whole dried pepper, but I find chilli flakes more effective at perfuming the oil (and be generous - a decent amount of oil is necessary in such a simple sauce).

The other most important ingredient in an arrabbiata sauce is, of course, tomatoes.

Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy's The Geometry Of Pasta is the only book to call for fresh fruit, pureed and then cooked until they taste "fresh but no longer raw".

While this proves a delicious destination for the last of the season's harvest, craggy and wrinkled as they are, testers express an overwhelming preference for the deeper, richer flavour of those made with tinned tomatoes, as in Gray and Rogers' recipe.

I do not think there is any need to puree them - a good bash with a wooden spoon during cooking should do the trick, just enough to break them up and give a more interesting texture.

Oliver sticks in anchovies, which melt into the sauce, but again, good as they are with tomatoes, the dish really does not need them.

The most surprising ingredient in his version, however, is a slug of vodka, apparently a popular addition to pasta sauces in Italian-American cooking.

It is alleged elsewhere to bring out the flavour of the tomatoes, but we can not detect the difference - although everyone is very enthusiastic about going back for more, just to check.

The pasta penne is the usual choice, though having run out, I have to use rigatoni for the River Cafe iteration and can confirm it is a perfectly serviceable alternative.

Oliver uses spaghetti which does not carry the sauce in quite the same way.

Whatever shape you use, taking it to al dente and then adding it to the hot tomatoey pan and allowing the two to finish cooking together will encourage the sauce to really coat the pasta, rather than just sitting on top of it.

Recipes are divided between those who believe cheese to be an aberration on an arrabbiata (Gray and Rogers, Hildebrand and Kenedy) and those who could not care less, such as Oliver, who adds parmesan and Galletto, who goes for pecorino.

I do not think this particular dish needs it - a glug of good olive oil feels like a better pairing with chilli.

Oliver also stirs in flat-leaf parsley, which is a classic combination with tomatoes and chilli, but I like the sweetness of basil. If you have neither, however, no one will judge you for eating it as it is, straight out of the pan.


• The writer specialises in food and drink.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 15, 2017, with the headline 'This pasta sauce turns on the heat'. Print Edition | Subscribe