It was the first of many evenings without George Clooney. We flew over the gorgeous hills north of Florence on the flight from Paris. I think we passed over Lake Como. Being under strict orders from a friend to Find George, I took as mental a note as I was capable of. On the flight to Paris, I’d been trapped in a window seat on the wrong side of the restrooms since approximately Newfoundland by a nice nurse of the missionary persuasion. She’d been traveling between family in the U.S. and the Ivory Coast for 40 years. She knew how to sleep on a plane. I can be quite polite. So I was a little ragged when I flopped into Florence at 3:00 in the afternoon, 18 hours after I had first taken off (though it was a couple of days before I could do the math).
Leaving the airport was like walking into a pizza oven: hot, only hotter. I took a taxi to the daughter’s apartment, where the kind concierge was expecting me and let me in. I forced myself to stay awake until the daughter arrived a couple of hours later, but don’t ask me how. I was determined to start living on Italian time from the start so as not to miss one precious moment of the whole experience. I suspect a shower was involved, and probably a change of clothes. Lordy, it was hot. How few clothes could I get away with? I was never going to see most of these people again, right?
When the daughter and her roommates arrived home, the first thing she did was take me for a walk along the Arno and around her neighborhood: the favorite morning café, the nearest market, and most important, the best gelato place. With free wifi. Have I mentioned it was hot? I didn’t exactly hang on the daughter’s arm, beg abjectly and weep, but I did suggest that perhaps for just the first night we could have dinner Americanly early rather than Europeanly late. The daughter, who was getting by on the 10,000 calorie a day extreme dancer’s diet, was up for it.
She took me to their favorite student-priced restaurant. Its name? I could barely remember my own. (Here’s a clue: it was in Florence. Italy.) I felt myself disintegrating, practically hallucinating. I wasn’t sure I could make myself understood in English, let alone Italian. I was easy pickings. I would have eaten anything I could gather the strength to point to on the menu. Somehow I managed to choose This. I don’t recall what the daughter ordered (pizza would be a safe guess). But I will never, ever forget this pasta. I took the first bite. My mouth dropped open. I gasped. I gently set my fork down in my plate and folded my hands in my lap. I very slowly said, “This. Is. The best thing. I have ever tasted. In my entire. Life.” The daughter, who’d been eating like that for a month, sort of shrugged – oh, that old thing – and tucked into her dinner. If this re-creation – I believe one says “avatar” these days – comes even slightly close to the one I tasted that night, you may get to experience some of what I did. I really don’t believe it was the fatigue talking. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Make it with and for people you love. Buon apetito. —boulangere
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- Serves 2 with leftovers; easily doubles or triples
1/2 package spaghetti or bucatini
Sea or kosher salt
Good olive oil, and lots of it
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes of whatever colors are to hand, halved
A couple of generous handfuls of fresh spinach, stems pinched off
Juice of 1/2 lemon, Meyer if possible
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
A good Pecorino Romano cheese
1 can tuna packed in olive oil, typically 5 to 6 ounces - not drained!
2 cloves garlic smashed, peeled, minced
- I first tasted this over bucatini, so if you can find it, grab it. No delicate, frail stuff allowed. The pasta has a front and center seat here. It’s not a mere conveyor of other flavors, it’s right out there with its arms around them all. Pull out about 1/2 of it from the package. Check the cook time. Set a timer for 3 minutes less than the recommended cook time. Drop the pasta into the water and begin making the sauce. Multi-tasking necessary here: keep a set of tongs to hand to gently move the pasta around so that it doesn’t sink and stick, and also to move the sauce ingredients about.
- Set a skillet over medium-high heat. It should be large enough to hold the sauce and pasta at the end. Force yourself to add 2 or 3 times as much good olive oil as you usually would.; we’re not “filming” any pans here. This is all about bold flavors that flow from delicate ingredients. Use a good 4 ounces.
- When the oil is hot (it’ll shimmer, or ribbon), add the halved tomatoes. They’ll cook along quickly, releasing those precious juices to concentrate in all that lovely olive oil. If the skillet is too spattery, turn the heat down a bit. As the tomatoes begin to soften, add the garlic. When it’s very fragrant, add the tuna and its oil. Break up any large chunks with a wooden spoon. Turn down the heat to a good simmer.
- When the timer goes off for the pasta, use tongs to lift it out of the boiling water and drop it directly into the skillet. Please trust me, it wants to be way more dente than al. It’s going to cook some more in the skillet. Dip out a couple of ladles of pasta water and add to the skillet. Move everything around and together with your tongs. Toss in the spinach and add the lemon juice. Tong it all about until spinach is just wilted. Taste the sauce before you season to taste with salt and pepper. Use your tongs to lift pasta out onto plates. Divide any remaining sauce between them. If you wish, grate some good pecorino over the top; Italians typically don’t permit cheese and fish to occupy the same plate, but it’s your kitchen. Serve with slices of focaccia or baguette so that not one drop of sauce is left behind.
- As noted, this all comes together very quickly, so be on your toes. Thank God I didn’t have to make anything my first night in Florence, and thank heaven the daughter took me to it. It was worth the price of the entire trip to have tasted it. With my daughter. I was in heaven. George was on his own.