Pasta Arrabiata

I can't talk about arrabiata pasta without telling you about Sergio, the guy who taught me what arrabiata means in Italian.

I didn’t usually go to bars by myself, but that night my roommate stood me up, and I found myself alone chatting with a cute bartender who generously refilled my wine glass each time the owner looked away. His name was Sergio, and he also spoke Spanish and English, but I preferred to use my newly acquired Italian to chat away about cooking school and the months I'd been living in his country. He convinced me to stay until closing that night, offering to drive me the few blocks home in his tiny Italian car.

He worked at a private club called Lochness that my culinary school classmates and I frequented. Private clubs are common in Italy, where the "members only" policy allows the bar owners to skirt one (or a dozen) of those complicated Italian government regulations. The term is used casually in this city, though, and I was able to offer a smile in lieu of the membership fee. I still have my card buried in the bottom of an old purse; a green laminated rectangle featuring a cartoon image of the famous monster inviting me to “get messy with Nessy.”

I met him at the bar again the next night and again the following evening, but I was quickly starting to realize that the problem with dating the bartender is that he can never leave the bar. That, and the fact that a cute bartender fluent in English in study abroad-saturated Florence is never a good idea.

After a week or two of copious text messaging and late-night makeout sessions against ancient buildings, I arrived a few minutes later than usual to find him kissing the neck of a willowy blonde.

Furious and humiliated, I shot him a look of death and quickly turned to head out the door. He darted past me, blocking my exit, and in a pleading ménage of languages explained that he was just "helping her with her Italian."

I stared at him in stony silence, prompting him to ask me nervously:

“Sei arrabiata??”

I laughed despite myself. I hadn’t officially learned the word yet, but I recognized it from countless dinner menus back home. Arrabiata.

I instantly understood the way my raging feelings at that moment mirrored the fiery, spicy red sauce I'd been ordering and eating for years.

“Si!” I shouted angrily, followed by a stream of Italian insults, as I pushed him out of the way and walked out the door.

That was the end of my time with Sergio, but the edible version of arrabiata will forever be one of my favorites. A simple mix of tomatoes (fresh or canned work depending on the time of year) seasoned simply with crushed red pepper flakes and garlic. It's fast and satisfying. Toss it with your favorite pasta shape (penne is traditional, but I prefer orecchiette) and top with a shower of chopped parsley and freshly grated Pecorino.

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Pasta Arrabiata (Spicy Tomato Sauce Recipe)
Serves 4

1 pound small shape pasta (penne, orecchiette, rigatoni, etc.)
Extra virgin olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper (use more or less depending on your desired heat level)
3 cups canned whole plum tomatoes with sauce, crushed by hand
1 small handful fresh parsley, minced
Kosher salt
Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly grated

Bring 4 quarts of salted water to boil and cook pasta according to package directions for “al dente.”

While the pasta cooks, prepare the sauce: combine oil, garlic, and chili flakes over low heat, until the garlic is golden brown (about 5 minutes).

Add crushed tomatoes and a generous pinch of kosher salt, stir to combine, then let simmer, uncovered, about 10 minutes or until slightly thickened and fragrant. Stir in chopped parsley and taste to adjust seasoning.

Add the sauce to the cooked and drained hot pasta, and toss to coat. Divide into bowls and serve topped with Pecorino Romano cheese.

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