Serves a Crowd

First Night in Florence Spaghetti

July 12, 2021
38 Ratings
Photo by Julia Gartland
  • Prep time 10 minutes
  • Cook time 10 minutes
  • Serves 2 with leftovers; easily doubles or triples
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 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

What You'll Need
  • 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
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Erin Brady Harlow
    Erin Brady Harlow
  • Therese
  • Reagan Parr
    Reagan Parr
  • Emily Serven
    Emily Serven
  • Lynn Niederman Levine
    Lynn Niederman Levine

225 Reviews

Erin B. February 26, 2024
This is a staple in our house, especially during the week. Everyone I have made this for has loved it. I usually order Ortiz tuna from Amazon, they come in a 4 pack and I use 2 per recipe. I have even used diced canned tomatoes in a pinch and it was still delicious. It tastes like you spent a lot more time on dinner than you did!
Karen October 5, 2023
Looking forward to trying this.
I grew up eating spaghetti and tuna sauce every Friday, but the addition of spinach and lemon sounds divine!
(and my very Italian family loves
Pecorino on tuna sauce!)
boulangere October 6, 2023
Thank you for your story of spaghetti with tuna sauce, Karen. It's always the story that makes food interesting.
Nancy M. July 19, 2023
This. Is. Good. Make it. I used a jar of tuna fillets but it would have been good with canned anyway. Do have bread. The sauce needs to be mopped up.
boulangere July 19, 2023
I totally agree: mop up that sauce!
karmaya January 4, 2023
never would have thought 'tuna with pasta', but this is delicious. i use a can of Tonino tuna in oil for this.. the only tuna i buy now. Now and then I have used arugula when i had no spinach.. and it's not a bad substitute. i prepare "first night in florence" about once every 6 weeks and I've passed on the url to many friends. (oh and the story is a delight to read!) Thanks!
boulangere January 5, 2023
How kind of you to share your story! I'm so glad you've enjoyed it. I make it as often as you do - just last night, in fact. Thank you, and Happy New Year!
Therese April 27, 2021
Lovely! Really really good. Made just as written. My whole family enjoyed. Will definitely make again!
boulangere April 28, 2021
Thank you, Therese! It always makes me so happy to hear this makes others happy.
Michelle March 14, 2021
Love love love this recipe, which is more than the sum of its parts. However, one thing confuses me. The instructions mentioned garlic, but the ingredients do not. Can anyone solve the mystery of the missing garlic? thank you!
boulangere March 14, 2021
Thank you and your good eye, Michelle! I’ve edited it accordingly.
Michelle March 15, 2021
Thank you!
Reagan P. January 9, 2021
Cannot recommend this recipe more! I've been making it at least once a month and sometimes more for the last 2 years and it truly never gets old. It's incredibly quick, simple, but the flavors are so so good. Don't skip this one!
boulangere January 10, 2021
Thank you, thank you!
Emily S. July 17, 2020
I made this tonight, exactly as written, and we were not disappointed! I am amazed that a dish that came together in under 15 minutes could have such good, complex flavor! Mallory B stated my thoughts exactly: this recipe takes really humble ingredients and makes them into something exceptional. This was a great use for the cans of tuna that we stocked up on early in the COVID lockdown! :)
boulangere January 10, 2021
Your kind words are so appreciated!
Lynn N. July 15, 2020
Made this tonight exactly as written. Delicious!
boulangere July 16, 2020
Thank you so much, Lynn!
NXL July 14, 2020
Thank you for giving me permission to use all of that delicious olive oil! The sauce was fantastic. I think it would be just as good without the tuna.
boulangere July 14, 2020
Oh, you are so very welcome! I have made it without the tuna, and you’re right, it’s delicious. Thank you so much.
Hollyo1224 July 7, 2020
I made this last night. It was heaven. I doubled the recipe because my fam loves pasta, and I had enough to save for another time. I used fresh escarole instead of the spinach for more bite, and I also added a Vidalia onion for its sweetness. Definitely will make again!
boulangere July 14, 2020
I LOVE escarole, and I have no doubt it was good. Thank you very much!
Heather B. June 20, 2020
I made this one last night, with spaghetti, and it was So good. Lots of olive oil, and prep. everything beforehand so that you’re ready to go. A useful recipe if you have a glut of tomatoes, and spinach growing in your garden. This is one that I will do again soon.
boulangere July 14, 2020
Using what is on hand is always a good idea, especially these Covid days. I’ve even made it with bow ties. Thank you, Heather!
Jennifer P. May 16, 2020
I followed the recipe exactly, using high quality ingredients, but this was just not for us. The delicious dish was ruined by (relatively expensive) canned tuna. I love fish, I love Italian pasta, but the fishy taste of catfood was just unbearably off-putting. It also needed more vegetables, so I quickly sauteed some zucchini and eggplant I had on hand.
One thing to those making it... Do NOT skip the lemon.
We'll go back to making the same style tomato sauce with fresh basil and cheese. Sorry!
boulangere May 17, 2020
One size doesn’t fit all. You make a good point, though: don’t skip the lemon; it’s what brings all the flavors together. Good for you for trying something new, and thanks for giving the recipe and its story a go.
Mary J. May 10, 2020
I think I was drawn to the story and am actually surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Thanks for sharing!
boulangere May 17, 2020
You are very kind; thank you,
Regine April 28, 2020
Delicious pasta and sauce. My only comment is to say that salting this dish properly further heightens flavor. I found myself adding more salt after mixing the pasta into the sauce. I had no bread to
eat with the remaining sauce so I stored the little bit that was left. Also, this dish was barely enough for the 2 of us so next time I may double it. Thanks for recipe.
boulangere May 17, 2020
You prove the cooking rule: always taste everything! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Mm April 18, 2020
Had to use penne and baby kale and it was still wonderful! Topped with freshly ground black pepper and red pepper flakes.
Thank you boulangere!!!
Laura R. April 16, 2020
This dish holds a special place in heart. It always takes me back to Italy as it was a staple for a cheap and quick meal any night of the week or “pranzo.” And now during these unprecedented and difficult times, it has brought comfort and true joy to make and eat, if only to bring me to a happier (more delicious) place. Its also oddly more delicious eaten room temp. Thanks for sharing, Stay Safe!
Laura R. April 16, 2020
This dish holds a special place in heart. It always takes me back to Italy as it was a staple for a cheap and quick meal any night of the week or “pranzo.” And now during these unprecedented and difficult times, it has brought comfort and true joy to make and eat, if only to bring me to a happier (more delicious) place. Its also oddly more delicious eaten room temp. Thanks for sharing, Stay Safe!
boulangere May 17, 2020
It is! I’ve even turned leftovers into a next day panzanella with lots of fresh greens. Good to know we share similar memories.
Alyson C. April 15, 2020
Question: How many ounces of tuna in the above recipe?
boulangere April 15, 2020
5.5 ounces, Alyson. Thanks for asking for clarification.
Alyson C. April 16, 2020
Thanks. Made this and loved it!
boulangere April 16, 2020
Thanks so much!
Deb April 10, 2020
As much as we looovved this recipe, it would be nice if you could print it without the (great) backstory included. It takes up almost a page!
Thanks for the recipe!
boulangere April 10, 2020
I agree, Deb, and thank you. I’d suggest you pass your comment along to the editors .
Alyson C. April 15, 2020
I loved the backstory. Brought back memories of trips to Italy and inspired me to want to make it!
carswell April 17, 2020
The backstory brought back memories of my first jet lagged meal in Italy with the friends I was travelling with. I enjoyed reading it and remembering how sublime simple food in Italy can be.
boulangere May 17, 2020
Isn’t that the truth!