The Literate Chef

I Found This Dish in San Francisco, High on Russian Hill it Called to Me

In General Articles on May 8, 2011 at 4:42 PM

Penne Arrabiata, another family favorite, resulted from a business trip to San Francisco in the mid 80s. At that time, I was enmeshed in the corporate life and frequently traveled on business. Dinners with clients and local associates were usually an integral part of these trips and I looked upon them as recompense for the hardships of business travel.

One of my favorite cities is San Francisco, which my wife I had first visited in the summer of 1968. We fell in love with ‘That City by the Bay‘ and I wanted to permanently relocate there, but for numerous reasons that never occurred. As a result, I always looked forward to trips back to San Fran (never ‘Frisco’?), whether for business or pleasure.

On this particular trip a group of us were taken to Allegro on Russian Hill, the favorite restaurant of our West Coast Regional Vice President. He was such a regular at Allegro that his autographed picture hung on the wall alongside numerous and more recognizable luminaries than he. Perusing the menu for the pasta course, I noted that among the usual dishes of Baked Ziti, Linguini with Clam Sauce and Rigatoni Bolognese, was something called Penne Arrabiata, which was new to me.

The waiter explained that penne was a hollow-shaped pasta somewhat like ziti, but smaller and with pointed ends like a quill pen. Also that Arrabiata was a spicy tomato-based sauce that meant angry; an allusion to the hot pepper, which is integral to the sauce. Having grown up with Dorothea’s Homemade Hot Pepper Sauce, that sounded right up my alley, so I ordered it for a first course and became immediately addicted. So memorable was the Penne Arrabiata that I have long since forgotten what I ordered for the main course.

Since my first trip to the West Coast in 1968, I have noted that trends, fads and fashions tend to originate there and move eastwards. That seems to me to have been the case with our current obsessions with food, wine and most of all coffee…think Starbucks! In the mid 1980s,  penne was not as ubiquitous as it is today, and I dare say, was practically unknown in most sections of the country. Penne Arrabiata was even more obscure. Or maybe, I was just oblivious to them both. I think that today, penne appears to be fairly common on restaurant menus across the country; there is Penne alla Vodka, Penne Pasta (a redundancy?) with Vegetables and even Penne Arrabiata on the more adventurous menus.

When I returned to New York after that dinner in San Francisco, I described Penne Arrabiata to my wife and daughters and they suggested that I undertake its replication. I thought long and hard about the ingredients and the process, but it would take about ten tries to perfect it to my liking and to come as close to what I remembered it from that night at Allegro.

My first problem was in finding penne. Most of the local supermarkets had limited depth in the pasta area, certainly not like it is today. There were shells (conchiglie) fettuccine, linguini, spaghetti, thin spaghetti (spaghettini), angel hair (capellini), rigatoni, ziti, even ditali and ditalini in some stores, but no penne. So, initially, I made it with ziti, but the ziti were too large and too smooth and didn’t hold the sauce well. Eventually, I found penne in some specialty food stores. However, the penne available at that time was smooth like ziti, and thus, like its counterpart, the sauce did not adhere to it as well as I would have liked. Then I discovered Penne Rigate, which had little lengthwise ridges for retaining the sauce. Perfetto! It appears that pasta maker Barilla eventually discontinued the smooth penne and dropped the word rigate, so that now Barilla produces only one kind of penne, ridged.

Beside the other obvious ingredients of olive oil, tomatoes, hot pepper, and basil, there was garlic. However, garlic was not visible in the dish and the flavor was more one of deeply-browned, but not burned, garlic. After several attempts, I realized that the Chef at Allegro must have removed the garlic after he had browned it in the oil thus giving it that smooth garlic base. I experimented with just how far to brown the garlic without burning it and making the dish inedible.

I also noted that there was very little liquid to the sauce, it was redolent of tomatoes, but they were chunky, not soupy. I first tried draining the tomatoes straight from the can, it was still too soupy. Next I chopped the tomatoes and then drained them of their natural water, close, but still not yet exactly right. Then one day I read about San Marzano tomatoes and how they were riper, meatier and had less liquid in the can as compared to other types. That was it, perfection in a can and the solution to the tomato dilemma!

Then there came the problem of how much hot pepper…one teaspoon was too little and one tablespoon was too much. One time I made it for my daughter and her friends and it was apparently not well received, as the next time my daughter asked me to make it, she requested that I tone down the hot pepper.

In the 1980s, finding basil outside of the summer season used to be a problem as well; but thankfully, that is no longer the case.

I recently looked for Allegro online and found Allegro Romano on Russian Hill, which is a fairly new restaurant, having opened in 2004, but it appears to be in the same location as the Allegro where I was first introduced to Penne Arrabiata. I hope to return to San Francisco and see if they have Penne Arrabiata on the menu and if so, how it compares to my version, the recipe for which can be found at…Da’s Penne Arrabiata.

If you have read these articles this far, you no doubt have come to the realization that pasta (or macaroni as Big Mike referred to it) is a big hit in our family and that travel is also a passion. Next stop on these global peregrinations is Florence Italy, where in 1997, we celebrated Our Italian Thanksgiving.

  1. My all time favorite! Love the story too! Love you the most!

  2. Stumbled on your website through Google. You already know I am subscribing to your rss.

  3. Hi there, I found this page from mixx. It’s not an article I would typically read, but I liked your spin on it. Thanx for creating an article worth reading!

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