From the Files of Gabriella: Bombshell Spaghetti
A recipe for Spaghetti alla Claudia Cardinale, starring butter, thinly sliced prosciutto, and fresh herbs
Every once in a while, I dip into my mom’s recipe files and find a treasure. Spaghetti alla Claudia Cardinale, or Bombshell Spaghetti, as I like to call it, is one of them. I originally shared this recipe a couple of years ago when I was freelancing for Italy Magazine, but I haven’t posted it here on Substack and it deserves another turn in the spotlight because it’s that good—simple to make, and yet quite special.
My mom stored recipes in three places. She used manila folders and 8 x 10 envelopes for typed copies of her own recipes, among them her pasta all’uovo and her Bolognese sauce. These Xeroxed copies (which I typed up for her on our electric Smith-Corona, thank you very much) date to the late ‘70s, when she taught cooking classes out of our suburban New Jersey home. I know these recipes by heart, and many of them have made it into my books, with her blessing.
She also had two recipe boxes. One was the small, rectangular tin box pictured above, decorated with vaguely Pennsylvania-Dutch drawings of coffee pots and bowls of fruit. She later upgraded to a hefty square gray metal file box big enough to hold large index cards, plus all the clippings and printed recipe cards that she amassed over the decades. In these boxes, which I now have, you’ll find everything from someone’s (whose, I wonder?) recipe for strawberry Jell-o beet salad (‘Delicious with Ham or Chops,’ it reads) to my late Zia Adriana’s recipe for ‘Bignè’ (cream puffs), written in her fine, angular script.
There are all kinds of other culinary treasures in these boxes, but I try not to go through them too often. I don’t want to memorize what’s in them; I want to keep feeling surprised and wistful and inspired every time I lift a lid and pull out a stained card or a brittle folded sheet of paper.
But there’s too much goodness in these files not to share. So from time to time, I am going to dip into them and cook or bake something that strikes my fancy and post it here, under the heading: From the Files of Gabriella. Consider this the first. I was reminded of it last week, when the celebrity portrait artist David Downton posted an illustration of Claudia Cardinale on his Instagram to mark the actress’s 85th birthday.
If the name Claudia Cardinale is familiar to you, it’s likely because you are a person of a certain age, or possibly a Fellini or Visconti fan or maybe a Sergio Leone fan (or all of the above). Cardinale, a Tunisian-born Italian-French actress, had her heyday during the era of bombshell actresses, in the company of Sofia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, and Gina Lollobrigida. Among the movies Cardinale starred in were Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard, both directed by Luchino Visconti; Federico Fellini’s fantastically indulgent 8 1/2; and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Here’s a recent interview with her, published in February in the New York Times.
How her recipe for spaghetti ended up in my mother’s recipe files I don’t know, but I have a hunch it’s thanks to my mom’s oldest sister, Gilda, who kept tabs on the movie stars of that era through the various Italian gossip magazines she read, Gente and Oggi being two of them. I have a mental image of her sitting on a beach lounge chair on our terrace in Silvi Marina in those dead summer hours after lunch, immersed in her magazines, her thin, sinuous frame wrapped in a sleeveless houescoat, an unfiltered cigarette between her lips.
The recipe is hand-written in blue pen on a piece of Italian ruled paper that looks like it might have been torn from a notebook. It’s not Adriana’s handwriting, and while it looks a bit like my mom’s, it also doesn’t look like my mom’s, which makes me think it might be Gilda’s.
Maybe it was published in one of those magazines she read and she copied it down. It’s old-fashioned, rich and simple, essentially spaghetti tossed with melted butter, julienned prosciutto cotto (ham), herbs, and lots of grated Parmigiano cheese.
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RECIPE: Spaghetti alla Claudia Cardinale
Is this Claudia Cardinale’s recipe? I have no idea, which is why I also call it ‘Bombshell Spaghetti.’ I googled “Spaghetti alla Claudia Cardinale” and came up with no recipe, though but I did find alluring photos of the actress circa 1960-something enjoying a nice dish of spaghetti. Ms. Cardinale’s IMDB bio states that in a 1965 interview she told a reporter that “she liked a dry martini before dinner, caviar for hors d'oeuvres, lobsters or oysters for seafood, or a steak alla Fiorentina. When it came to wine, her preference was for a rich, red wine.”
It seems to me this pasta dish—simple, indulgent—is in keeping with her tastes. I’ve made it with boxed pasta and with homemade pasta all’uovo cut into tagliolini (pictured above) and both are delicious.
Makes 4 servings
Salt for the pasta water
100 g (3 1/2 ounces) butter
100 g (3 1/2 ounces) thinly sliced prosciutto cotto (see NOTE)
Handful (about 1/4 packed cup) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
5 to 6 fresh basil leaves
500 g (1 pound) spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and salt it generously.
2. While the water is heating, make the sauce: Melt the butter in a large skillet set over low heat. Slice the prosciutto cotto into julienne (thin strips). Finely chop the parsley and basil leaves. When the butter is melted and just beginning to sizzle, stir in the prosciutto cotto and chopped herbs and cook just until warmed through. Turn off the heat and cover to keep warm.
3. Cook the spaghetti according to the manufacturer’s instructions until very al dente (slightly underdone). Turn the heat back on under the butter sauce and, using a pasta fork or tongs, transfer the spaghetti to the skillet, along with a splash of the pasta water. Toss the spaghetti in the butter sauce until well coated and glossy.
4. Transfer the pasta to a warmed serving dish and sprinkle liberally with Parmigiano cheese. Toss once more and serve, with more cheese on the side.
NOTE: Prosciutto cotto is simply cooked ham, typically seasoned with rosemary, sage, thyme, and garlic. Parmacotto is a brand name to look for. If you can’t find it, substitute a high-quality American ham from your favorite deli. I’ve used thinly sliced Virginia ham and smoked New England ham, with excellent results.
PICTURE ITALY: circa 1960s
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