First Night in Florence Spaghetti

August 17, 2011

Test Kitchen-Approved

Author Notes: 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 my friend, Marci, 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 was capable of doing the math).

Leaving the airport was like walking into a pizza oven. Hot. Seriously hot. 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 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 we 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? Friends, I could barely remember my own. 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 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 whatever she had ordered. 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. And I really don’t believe it was the fatigue talking. Make it with and for people you love. Buon apetito.

Serves: 2 with leftovers; easily doubles or triples
Prep time: 25 min
Cook time: 30 min


  • 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
  • 2 or 3 good sized cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 can tuna packed in olive oil, not drained, opened, homage to Pierino who appreciates the value of very good canned tuna
  • A couple of generous handfuls of spinach leaves, stems pulled off
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon, Meyer if possible
  • Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
  • A good Parmesan or Romano cheese
In This Recipe


  1. A note about the tuna: Italian tuna packed in olive oil is heavenly. There are many brands available. Ortiz is heavenly; Roland offers a decent one. That said, I live in Montana. When I want pasta, I don't want it when Amazon or anyone else can get tuna to me. I'm happy to to stop into World Market and buy Tonnino yellowfin for $2.95 a can. And a note about the cheese. No, it is not traditional to serve fishy pastas with cheese. But if you have to have Parm with your pasta, by all means go ahead. Just use it sparingly.
  2. Start heating a large pot of generously salted water (it should taste like the ocean). This comes together fast. Good for evenings when you need dinner to almost make itself.
  3. I had this over a spaghetti that was more like what we consider bucatini, so if you can find bucatini, grab it. No delicate, frail pasta 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.
  4. 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 the bold flavors of delicate ingredients. Use a good 5 ounces.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 good 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. Move everything around 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. Grate some good cheese over the top. Serve with slices of focaccia or baguette so that not one drop of sauce is left behind. You’ll be a happier person for it.
  7. 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.

More Great Recipes:
Pasta|Italian|Vegetable|Seafood|Serves a Crowd|Summer|Entree

Reviews (174) Questions (1)

174 Reviews

mallory B. December 30, 2018
Things I can't believe about this dish: 1) It calls for no cheese. I am a cheese lover (overuser, most likely) and never feel the need to add any dairy to this dish. 2) It takes truly humble ingredients and makes something entirely exceptional. I've made this numerous times and will continue to! This dish is the perfect intersection of cooking — easy enough for a weeknight, but good enough for guests.
Marie F. October 3, 2018
Made this with what we had in the pantry, canned tomatoes, and used almost a quarter of a small lemon's zest minced instead of the juice, and added red pepper flakes. honestly amazing. new weeknight staple.
Siobhan October 2, 2018
I made this tonight and my boyfriend and I both loved it! Great quick and healthy (I used whole wheat spaghetti) weeknight meal. The tuna + pasta combo definitely isn’t something I would have thought to try, so thank you for sharing! Your side notes were also appreciated :)
BoulderGalinTokyo August 9, 2018
Cynthia, you rock! Wonderful flavors! I followed your directions of poaching in olive oil but found "bincho" tuna at the store. After saving half for hubby's sashimi, I did use 2 or 3 times more oil than I usually would (hard for someone on a perpetual diet). All the flavors came together deliciously with the lemon singing in the sauce. Very pretty with cherry tomatoes and spinach. Leftover sauce used at breakfast on grilled zucchini. Thank you for sharing!
Author Comment
boulangere August 9, 2018
You made my day! Few things make me happier than knowing food has made someone happy. And your breakfast sounds fabulous. Thankyouthankyouthankyou!
Tammy July 28, 2018
This was soooo good! I would absolutely make this again. Thank your for sharing!
Author Comment
boulangere July 28, 2018
Thank you, Tammy. Im so glad it's found another home.
Laural H. May 10, 2018
As other commenters have said, I too was hesitant about tuna and pasta, but taken I'm by the writing about this dish. It was delicious, the flavors well-balanced, a blending of tastes that was wonderful! Thank you for sharing.
ljd May 7, 2018
My husband was skeptical but I gave this a try. Followed the guidance exactly and it was DELICIOUS (and beautiful). We were going to save the leftovers for my lunch tomorrow but ended up eating the whole thing. It's quick and easy with a huge payoff. It's going in our 'rotation."
Victoria C. April 21, 2018
If I had just read this recipe, I would never have made it, but the writing was so evocative that I had to make it. If I had not, I would have missed a scrumptious meal. I had my friend read the article and asked him if he would be willing to try the dish, but my guess was the thought of tuna and pasta would not appeal to him. But he said sure and loved it as much as I did, so now it will be in my repertoire. Bucatini really adds to the pleasure of eating it. My "house" tuna is Bumble Bee Tonno in Olive Oil so I use that next time to see how it works. (I drain it slightly and add mayonnaise and softened unsalted butter to make sandwiches. Try it.)
BoulderGalinTokyo April 10, 2018
What an interesting story so well written! Brought back memories of our Florence trip after hubby had passport stolen in Rome. Same fatigue, same pleasure in a wonderful dish. No Whole Foods here so can I substitute poached tuna with extra love oil? Or I can Order international from Amazon if the canned-edness is what is necessary. Thanks for sharing.
BoulderGalinTokyo April 10, 2018
Olive oil-- not love oil. Whoops to spell-checker...
pierino April 10, 2018
You can order Ortiz tuna tinned in olive oil from Zingerman's on-line or La Espanola. No reason to make Jeff Bezos any richer when there are quality purveyors out there.
BoulderGalinTokyo August 1, 2018
Hey pierino- Zingerman looked great but will only deliver in US so, sorry, Bezos has my back. But the Ortiz tuna will cost about 20$. Really worth it? I can poach sashimi in olive oil much cheaper.....
Author Comment
boulangere August 1, 2018
I've made it also with ahi poached in olive oil for a Christmas Eve dinner for my son's in-laws. It was exquisite. I first poached the tuna, removed it to a platter, then proceeded with the rest of the recipe. After I'd tossed everything but the tuna with the pasta, I thinly sliced the ahi and arranged it over the top.
Author Comment
boulangere August 1, 2018
Love the love oil! Did you see my comment about using ahi? Do it!
BoulderGalinTokyo August 2, 2018
Wonderful Idea. Will give it a try. Thank you!<br />
BoulderGalinTokyo August 2, 2018
I loved your tongue-in-cheekness--more dente than al--what fun! Move over George....
Pam January 20, 2016
Just made this for dinner (stumbling across it when searching for a way to use extra Meyer lemons) - amazing and delicious! The only thing I changed was adding some diced preserved lemon rind, which I thought added a nice dimension. I used Ortiz tuna (from Whole Foods), pretty expensive, but outstanding - will check out World Market and try their version next. Cheese didn't add anything to it (in my opinion), and I'll try it without that addition next time. I may try a bit of hot red pepper flakes... Thanks so much for this recipe!
Author Comment
boulangere January 20, 2016
Pam, you know the saying: change is good. I'm.ove the addition of preserved lemon and red pepper flakes. I'm very glad you are enjoying it.
Angela S. October 24, 2015
I've been making this for 60 years with canned crushed tomatoes. Years ago there were not any little cherry tomatoes available. Now that I am involved with a CSA I can utilize these little beauties we get every week in the summer. Thank you.
Author Comment
boulangere January 20, 2016
Angela, I am ashamed to say that I only tonight came across your lovely comment. Lucky you for having such a good CSA.
Joy H. February 9, 2015
Just tried this with squink ink pasta instead of bucatini. I've never made pasta with tuna before, and I can't believe how delicious this was! Thanks for sharing!
Chiara December 7, 2014
I tweeted this recipe today with attribution (I hope)<br />It is heavenly.
Author Comment
boulangere December 24, 2014
Thank you kindly, Chiara!<br />
Bevi June 17, 2013
I made this tonight for my friends. They said they would be talking about this meal for months.
healthierkitchen March 3, 2013
I actually just made this again for my husband and me while my daughter (completely vegetarian now) was out. It is delicious, and so easy, and you don't want to waste a bit of the sauce.
Author Comment
boulangere March 3, 2013
No, not a drop! I'm glad you've enjoyed it so; thank you.
Bevi February 27, 2013
This has been served to an appreciative crowd many times. And my kids make it regularly - it's perfect for their budgets. And their pasta cravings.
Author Comment
boulangere February 27, 2013
All of the above apply to me and mine, too; I'm so glad to hear you all enjoy it! Thank you, Bevi.
Mlouise March 10, 2012
Maybe the tuna I used was too good....not very fishy. If I did again, I would probably add a tiny bit of anchovy paste or Unami. A perfect "pantry" dish as you usually have spinach or some green. Thanks!
Author Comment
boulangere April 25, 2012
A touch of anchovy sounds lovely. I, too, think of it as a pantry dinner.
soupandsong March 9, 2012
My husband and I made something similar on one of our first nights in Tuscany on our honeymoon last fall, with good tuna in olive oil and the brightest red cherry tomatoes we'd bought at the local market. It was what we had on hand, and we had no idea that it was going to be as amazing as it was. It was seriously heavenly! The good italian tuna in olive oil is just plain dreamy compared to the stuff in cans. This brings back the sweetest memories, and I will definitely try your recipe, which looks delicious!
Author Comment
boulangere April 25, 2012
What a sweet peek into a lovely time for you. Thank you for sharing it.
sel E. March 2, 2012
I've always been skeptical over the idea of pairing tuna and pasta. The combinations I've had in the past never seemed to knock my tastebud. However, having a couple of good quality tinned tuna laying around in the pantry that needed some loving, I decided to give this a try for a quick dinner last night. But because I didn't have any spinach on hand, I steamed some yellow zucchini, pencil asparagus and white button mushrooms and added those in. The result? It was heavenly! I couldn't stop "tasting" the pasta out of the pot before finally setting them on the dinner table. My husband who usually prefers a more asian-type dish, kept on asking for seconds. This recipe is a winner and a sure keeper!
Author Comment
boulangere March 2, 2012
I know just how you feel. And I love your combination! Thanks for sharing it. I hope you enjoy it as much and as often as we do.
lapadia February 29, 2012
Winner! :) ! :)
Author Comment
boulangere February 29, 2012
Can't tell you how often we all make this. It has the happiest of associations. Not to mention an almost instant dinner ;0))
fiveandspice March 1, 2012
Second the motion! :)
Bevi March 1, 2012
Author Comment
boulangere March 1, 2012
You are all so kind! I'm very glad you enjoy it.
lapadia March 5, 2013
Oh! This lovely recipe is back...ditto to my prior comment! :)
Author Comment
boulangere March 5, 2013
Thank you, my dear!