Seafood is a prominent feature of Italy’s regional coastal cuisines. While there’s no shortage of unique seafood dishes that can only be found in specific villages at a certain times of the year, there’s also a lot of overlap of culinary techniques and principles. Grilled fish at a restaurant on the Amalfi coast will look pretty similar to grilled fish in Ostia, even if the kind of fish used might be different; odds are it’ll be a whole fish, stuffed with sliced lemon and herbs, and it’ll be filleted table-side.
For pastas, one of the tried and true templates for incorporating seafood is tossing a dried long pasta like spaghetti with aglio e olio e peperonciono (olive oil, garlic, and chile) and a briny regional delicacy. That specialty item could be tiny “vongole veraci” clams for spaghetti alle vongole, or colatura di alici, a fish sauce from the town of Cetara, for spaghetti con la colatura di alici. Or, if you’re in Sardinia, it could be bottarga, for, you guessed it, spaghetti con la bottarga.
For the uninitiated, bottarga is a fish’s roe sac—most commonly grey mullet—that is salted, massaged to expel air pockets, then pressed and dried. As Sho notes in his excellent guide to bottarga, it’s not just a delicacy in Italy—known as karasumi in Japanese, and butarkah in Arabic, it’s highly valued in cuisines across the globe. In Italy, mullet bottarga, or bottarga di muggine, is a specialty of Sardinia, where the roe sacs were traditionally sun-dried after salting. With a texture similar to cured egg yolks or a firm pecorino cheese, bottarga is perfect for grating, which unlocks its delicate but assertive mineral flavor and aroma. It’s an ingredient made for pairing with pasta.
This simple dish starts by browning a couple of smashed garlic cloves in plenty of olive oil (you could also mince the garlic and gently cook it, or keep it raw as in my spaghetti con la colatura recipe). Once the oil is infused with the toasty allium aroma, the garlic comes out (you can rub the garlic on toast, repurpose it for another dish, or discard it) and chiles go in to bloom. I then remove the skillet from the heat and stir in a heaping handful of grated bottarga. Cooking bottarga is a no-no, seeing as high heat mutes its punchy flavor, but steeping the grated roe in warm olive oil coaxes out its best qualities.
The body provided by the grated bottarga, along with starchy pasta cooking water, helps to bring the sauce together into a creamy emulsion without the need for the on-heat finishing step called mantecatura. Some vigorous tossing and stirring is all you need to coat al dente spaghetti. Fresh lemon juice and zest, and some chopped parsley bring acidity and freshness to the dish. The pasta gets plated up and then showered with a fresh grating of bottarga to highlight its flavor in the first few bites.