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Penne all’arrabiatta for two

Thanks to Eddie Izzard, Brooks and I were on the lookout for penne all’arrabiatta on menus during our trip to Italy. We didn’t find it until we reached Rome, which makes sense, as it’s apparently a Roman dish. Why the Death Star would have it in their canteen is a whole different set of entertaining speculation. Having done no research other than watching humorous YouTube videos, we had no idea what to expect; the arrabiatta turned out to be a spicy tomato sauce that is simple and yet delicious. Simple and delicious happen to also be my benchmarks for weeknight meals, so upon our return, I set about recreating the arrabiatta sauce.

Penne all'arrabiatta

Penne all'arrabiatta, devoured at Piazza Navona, Rome

A few drunken Google searches later, I felt very uncomfortable about the recipes I was finding. Our foray to the Sorrento Cooking School had underscored that Italian sauces need not contain huge numbers of ingredients to be great, and my taste memory of what I had eaten several times in Rome didn’t match up with the onions, oregano, chicken, sugar (!) and other ingredients that were appearing frequently in online American arrabiatta recipes. Additionally, there was the matter of the spiciness. To what was it owed? One Roman version we tried had clearly used fresh red chilies of some unknown variety, but another probably had at least some dried chilies. Therefore, as I usually do, I ventured out to figure out a reasonable facsimile of the sauces we had enjoyed in Rome on my own.

Key considerations:

  • The sauces we had eaten were pretty smooth in consistency, not chunky
  • There had been no hint of onion, but definitely flavor of garlic
  • Cheese, always Pecorino Romano, was listed on some menus as an ingredient
  • Spiciness was rich and somewhat smoky
  • Basil sometimes was a component, but sometimes not
  • Flavors were bright enough that it was clearly not one of the “simmer all day” varieties of sauce
  • The sauce was not tart, but sugar could not be responsible, please god no–more likely, the Pecorino Romano was helping counteract the acidity of the tomatoes
  • We like spice, but prefer one that builds gradually over time rather than choking you up at the first bite

Here’s what we came up with. This is a recipe that can be easily prepared in 30 minutes or less using common pantry staples, and it’s also vegetarian! A word on your pasta choices. Penne is of course great, but we found that radiatori also worked well to capture the sauce. You do want a pasta with some ridges or other spots to collect tomato goodness, so I’d stay away from spaghetti, linguini, and other similar, smooth shapes for this particular recipe.

Penne all’arrabiatta

Serves two as a hearty entree, or four as a side


  • Three cloves garlic, diced
  • 3 T good olive oil
  • 1 t crushed red pepper flakes (start with less if you don’t tolerate spice well)
  • 1 t aleppo pepper powder (totally optional, and certainly not authentic, but it gives a long slow build of sweet spiciness without too much heat)
  • 1 t salt
  • 8 or so basil leaves, sliced into thin strips (optional)
  • 1 14.5 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 4 oz dried pasta of choice (penne seems traditional, but others work fine…see note above)
  • Heavily salted water in which to cook the pasta
  • 1-2 oz Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated and separated
  • 1 T finely chopped parsely for garnish (optional)
  • Bottle of tasty red wine of your choice, which you may commence to drink at any step of this process


  1. Heat olive oil over medium heat in 1 quart or so saucepan while prepping garlic, spices, basil, and opening can of tomatoes. Everything for the sauce needs to be ready to go, as you don’t want the garlic to burn!
  2. Add garlic and chili powder(s) to hot oil and shake pan a couple times to mix. Cook until garlic is fragrant but not golden or browned, about 40 seconds. DO NOT OVERCOOK! It will make your sauce bitter and shitty.
  3. Add basil and give pan another shake or two.
  4. Immediately add tomatoes and salt. If you are afraid of splattering from the oil, wrap your arm in a towel beforehand, or, if you are lucky enough to live in St Johns, enlist the help of a passing methhead.
  5. In another medium pan, begin heating water for pasta according to manufacturer’s instructions. Salt VERY liberally. We are talking several tablespoons or more of salt, the far, far left of saltiness that Obama only remembers from his undergrad days.
  6. When sauce reaches a boil, reduce temperature to simmer. Stir occasionally. Taste, and adjust spices and salt as desired.
  7. When pasta water reaches a boil, begin cooking pasta to manufacturer’s specifications.
  8. Enjoy some wine. Pet your dog. Wax your upper lip. Why waste a few free moments?!
  9. As pasta reaches completion, find a colander in which to drain it. Allot a couple of minutes for this step if you have been guzzling the wine.
  10. Cause the sauce to become less chunky, either using a fork or masher, or using a stick blender.
  11. Drain pasta well, then mix the pasta in with the sauce.
  12. Mix in most of the grated cheese, reserving a tablespoon or so per person for serving.
  13. Serve this awesome concoction in large, flat bowls, garnishing with the remaining cheese and, if desired, the chopped parsley.

There you have it. More to come on our Italian adventures, soon!

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