The Cart Driver's Spaghetti

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A very long time ago Martha and I came to Sicily on a ferry that landed at some gawdawful hour in the early morning. It meant we were famished by 11am. Southern Italians pranzare late, so all we could do is read menus and drool. Between the two of us, I was best at the drooling.

Just before noon we came upon a huge restaurant. we could see wait staff was scurrying around and the outside tables had tablecloths and everything. We asked if we could eat. We could. We would be the only people for quite a while, but an empty stomach trumps social interaction.

I ordered Spaghetti alla Carrettiere, the cart driver’s spaghetti. It was my introduction to the brilliant flavors of Sicily.

Now, if you happen to search for “Spaghetti alla Carrettiere” or “Sicilian cart driver’s pasta” or some such, you will come upon many pages, each with a very different recipe.

Sicilian carts are famous and numerous. So the tastes of the drivers must have been also.

In any case, we were sitting in front of the restaurant, on a little outdoor terrace backing into the street. Soon after we ordered, the intense smell of garlic hitting hot oil filled our nostrils. The kitchen was in the back. These were some serious “perfumes” as the Italians would say, and after they’d traveled a long way they hadn’t lost a bit of pungency.

More drooling.

In any case, after I have finished my pasta, I formulated a recipe for what I thought happened in the kitchen to produce my plate of Spaghetti alla Carrettiere. I reproduce it here. It’s really something built on the back of spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino, a Roman after theater treat and another pasta sauced in less time than it takes to boil spaghetti.

For 2-3 large servings you’ll need:

  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 4 or 5 anchovies, chopped coarsely
  • olive oil, good quality
  • a tablespoon of tomato paste (I use the little squeeze tubes for this sort of thing)
  • as much crushed hot pepper flakes as you can stand
  • a splash of white wine (I always have a bottle of dry vermouth on hand for cooking)
  • parsley, chopped (or the dish will look unattractively uniform in color, like the picture)

So you get your pasta water boiling in a big pot. When it comes to the boil add enough pasta for two or three people. When the water comes back to the boil ad a palm-full of salt.

In the meantime, heat the pan, then add the olive oil, garlic, and crushed pepper. When the garlic gives off that characteristic smokey. browned but not burnt piece of heaven, give the pan a shake, add the anchovies and a tablespoon of wine or water, just enough to dilute the tomato paste. The sauce is mainly spiced olive oil with just a hint of sweet tomato, it’s not a tomato sauce!

Remove from the heat, returning it when the spaghetti is almost al dente, at which time you’ll drain it and add it to the pan, reserving some of the water in case the spaghetti starts frying and you need some pasta water to make sure it doesn’t scorch. The loose starch in pasta water helps bind the sauce to the pasta.

When you plate this up, you can add some grated cheese. Now this goes against one of those Italian rules we have, in which the cheeser of fish pastas is summarily executed or worse. It’s all based on the fact that most fish are quite delicate and their daintiness will be trampled by the earthy milkiness of the cheese.

But somehow, I think anchovies are exempt—or should be. They can stand up to anything.

So cheese it up. Don’t look back. Eat like a cart driver.

cart drivers pasta picture

The Cart Driver's Spaghetti originally appeared on Mar 20, 2015, © James Martin.



  1. Walter Sanders

    Great piece…making my mouth water. Like you, I really enjoy the simplicity and vibrancy of every day Italian food.

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