Serves a Crowd

Spaghetti Napolitan, aka 'Ketchup Spaghetti,' a la Tonari

February  9, 2021
0 Ratings
Photo by Chris Hagan
Author Notes

This recipe is after the one served at Tonari in Washington, D.C., a spot in Chinatown that does Japanese-style or 'Wafu' pasta and pizza. The dish is a twofold reminder of my favorite pre-pandemic luxuries: restaurants and live NBA basketball, and the “treat yourself” nights when one would follow the other.

Rewind back to the beginning of 2020 (I know, I know): Something I had resolved to do more often was go to Wizards games. The arena was four stops from me on the Metro, and since the Wiz were pretty bad, it was always easy to find good-to-great seats on the cheap whenever a player or team I liked was in town.

I’d just watched from behind the visiting team’s bench as Ja Morant, the electric young Grizzlies star and Rookie-of-the-Year-to-be, notched the first triple double of his professional career the evening I sat at Tonari’s bar and ate this dish for the first time.

I‘d come for the Mentaiko spaghetti.

A version of it appeared on their sister restaurant Daikaya Izakaya’s menu, and it was so good I’d ordered a second helping in the same sitting more than once. So when I read the restaurant group was opening a whole place dedicated to this type of cuisine, I planned to check it out the next time I went to a game, as it was just across the street from the arena.

The mentaiko was as I remembered, but not on this occasion memorable, if that makes any sense.

It was this other pasta, the one called “Napolitan,” that stuck with me. Known colloquially as “ketchup spaghetti,” it had a colorful backstory dating to the post-WWII era that all the reviews I’d read so far had highlighted. What I thought would be kind of a gimmicky dish ended up being something much more: homey but complex, and extraordinarily soulful: comfort food but with finesse. It’s an apt descriptor of both the dish and Tonari.

I went back for more after watching the Wizards lose in overtime to the Bucks, despite league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo fouling out early in the game and Washington’s Bradley Beal going for 55 points. I ate it again after they lost to the eventual conference champion Miami Heat, who were led by the dominant Bam Adebayo and the sweet-shooting Duncan Robinson. And on March 10, 2020, I ate it for the last time, before I watched the Wizards and the Knicks play an obstensibly meaningless mid-season game between two extremely non-playoff-bound teams. The next night, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced their positive coronavirus tests, and Rudy Gobert became the first NBA player to test positive, shutting down the entire league. Two days later I saw my office for the last time in nearly 11 months and counting, and a night after that I worked what was clearly going to be my last bartending shift for a while, going on hiatus just as spring was arriving and the weather in DC turned most hospitable to al fresco drinking. I had two customers all night.

I didn’t think about Tonari or this pasta again until recently, when I suddenly became obsessed with perfecting a version of it after a trip to the Asian market inspired me to make it on a whim for me and my partner. Since they haven’t offered carryout service during the shutdown, I don’t have a basis for comparison outside my sense memory, so I’m not sure how close my take on the ketchup sauce is to the actual thing; probably not very. The early months of 2020, when I first fell in love with this dish, feel like they happened approximately 40,000,000 years ago rather than merely one. I’ve certainly taken some liberties with the recipe over time, adding cabbage, sundried tomatoes, and scallions to the traditional mix of onions, bell peppers, sausage, and mushrooms. I like andouille for the sausage because it provides a nice undercurrent of heat to balance the sweetness of the ketchup sauce, but anything smoked or hot dog-like will do. (Even hot dogs.) If you want to lean into the sweetness of the sauce a little, Chinese-style sausage is a fun variation. I also find that a touch of cream or half and half, along with the pasta water and the last addition of butter, adds richness and helps round it all out. Tabasco and parmesan—the cheap shaker kind you find in the pasta aisle in the supermarket—should be served alongside. —Chris Hagan

  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 20 minutes
  • Serves 4-6
Ingredients
  • 10-12 ounces spaghetti, thick spaghetti, or spaghetti rigati (2-3 oz per person)
  • a slick of olive oil
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 8-12 ounces button or cremini mushrooms, sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 small onion (4-6 oz), sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 small bunch scallions (2 oz), trimmed, whites and 1 inch of the light green part sliced 1/2-inch-thick on a bias; the remainder sliced ¼-inch-thick on a bias and reserved for garnish
  • 1 small head savoy cabbage, cored, sliced crosswise 1/4-inch thick (8-12 oz)
  • 1 medium bell pepper (~6 oz), any color, seeds and ribs removed, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick strips
  • 4 or 5 sundried tomatoes in oil, minced (2 tbsp; you could also substitute 2 tbsp sundried or double-concentrated tomato paste)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced, microplaned, or mashed to a paste with salt
  • 1 teaspoon Korean or Aleppo chile flakes
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth, sake, or white wine (a generous splash)
  • 6-8 ounces andouille or other smoked sausage, sliced ¼-inch-thick on a bias (two 3-4 oz links)
  • 1 teaspoon Hungarian-style paprika, sweet, hot, or half-sharp
  • 1 teaspoon Tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire or Bulldog sauce
  • 3.5 ounces ketchup (7 tbsp/heaping 1/3 cup)
  • Up to a ½ cup cream or half and half (optional)
  • salt and pepper
  • finely chopped Italian parsley to garnish
  • Pamesan to garnish ((the cheap shaker kind is optimal, but do you)
  • Tabasco sauce to garnish
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Bring some water to a boil and salt it to taste. Don’t use a lot more water than you need to cook the pasta. This will give you nice, starchy pasta water. Cook the pasta according to package directions, planning to pull it a minute or two early, as it will finish cooking in the sauce. Start cooking the pasta when you add the bell pepper in step 2.
  2. In a saute pan or skillet large enough to accommodate all the ingredients including, eventually, the cooked pasta, melt 2 tbsp butter in a little oil over medium heat. When foaming subsides, add mushrooms; saute until they give up their liquid and turn golden brown, tossing occasionally. Add 1 tbsp butter, the onions, and the scallion whites and light greens. Season with salt and saute until they start to soften and turn translucent. Add 1 tbsp butter and the cabbage, and season with salt and pepper. Cover and let steam a minute or two, then uncover and toss; continue sautéing until cabbage wilts and begins to tenderize. Add bell pepper and also start your pasta now.
  3. Once the pepper starts to soften, clear a space in the middle of the pan and add the minced sundried tomatoes or tomato paste. Let cook a minute or so, stirring occasionally, then incorporate into the rest of the ingredients. Stir in garlic and chile flakes and cook until fragrant, then deglaze with dry vermouth, sake, or wine, stirring to scrape up any browned bits. Simmer until you can no longer smell the alcohol, then add sausage and continue sautéing until it takes on some color.
  4. Meanwhile, whisk together the paprika, Tamari, Worcestershire, ketchup, and dairy, if using. I usually use ¼ cup, maybe a 1/3, but you can use more, less, or none at all.
  5. Is your spaghetti ready? If so, use tongs to transfer it to the saute pan along with the ketchup sauce, the remaining butter, and 1/3 cup of its cooking water. Cook pasta and sauce together, tossing and mixing with tongs until sauce clings to spaghetti and the pasta takes on a glossy appearance. It will sound satisfyingly squelchy when you’re there. It’s ok if you go a little past al dente. Remove from heat and fold in reserved green onions. Plate and garnish individual servings with a little chopped parsley. Serve parmesan and Tabasco alongside.

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