If you’re looking for an Italian pasta meal that’s simple and easy to make, Spaghetti Alla Carrettiera is it.
We’ve all recently been thinking about how to make good food out of cupboard basics. A decent meal becomes less important after a while than ensuring sure the food stays interesting, as the 17th serving of the same dish is enough to make anyone stir-crazy.
My recent work on recipes for pasta alla Carretera, “the cart driver’s spaghetti,” is a strange coincidence. There are many various ways to prepare this dish, and that fact speaks to a bigger issue that all home cooks face: how to keep things fresh in the kitchen.
Carretera sauce was introduced to me the first time I heard about it. In the early ’00s, I worked for Cesare Casella, a chef in Rome who was opening a new restaurant in Tuscany at the time and asked me to pore over old Italian cookbooks from the Maremma valley, a coastal region that stretches from northern Lazio (home to Rome) to southern Tuscany.
Soup made from canned tomatoes, canned tuna, and dried porcini mushrooms was presented in those recipes as spaghetti alla Carretera. Tossing those components into a pasta sauce doesn’t seem like the most logical choice, but one bite will persuade you otherwise.
Cart drivers, or Carretera, are credited with creating the recipe, as they used to go from town to town and city to city selling a variety of items to the people who lived there. They’d whip up simple pasta dishes using pantry staples they’d likely have on hand to feed themselves and others while on the road. Because of this, canned tuna was invented. Dry mushrooms are a result. Hence the canned tomatoes. All that was needed to liven up the dish was a clove of garlic and a sprig of parsley.
Many recipes for spaghetti alla Carretera have appeared online and in other books since then, and they’ve frequently stumped me. I couldn’t figure out why they had the same name when they differed so drastically from the version I was familiar with. There was no tuna or mushrooms in these recipes, instead using toasted breadcrumbs instead of tuna or mushrooms, and no canned tomatoes. As for the other recipes, the sauce wasn’t cooked at all; instead, it was just tossed with the pasta and part of its boiling water to warm and bind the ingredients. The true question was, “Which one is the Carretera?”
Eventually, I was able to make some sense of it: Sicily was the source of the fresh sauces, while Rome was the source of the canned tomato sauces. They all shared a basic trait: a cart driver who, depending on the location, appeared to be carrying a distinct selection of ingredients. That meant canned mushrooms, fish, and tomatoes in the north. If you live in the southern part of the country, fresh tomatoes must have been more readily accessible throughout the year (there’s also a Sicilian variation that doesn’t include any tomatoes at all).
And this is why this spaghetti means so much to me right now: You can’t just claim of any recipe that there’s no one correct way to make spaghetti all Carretera—you can say that about any recipe. It’s more complicated than that. It’s the lack of clarity that makes pasta Alla Carretera so unique. Although I’ve mentioned two basic categories of Carretera, there is always some variation within each of those groups. Some Roman-style recipes omit tuna, while others include it, and yet others include it with olives or capers. Sometimes, but not always, in Sicily, the cheese is a solid Sicilian Pecorino or a Salata, while the herbs can be either parsley or basil.
There are two things that spaghetti alla Carretera offers us right now. The first is practical—recipe suggestions that can be used to spice up family mealtimes. The second is a little more in-depth. Carretera is a pantry pasta sauce that shows how much potential there is in our own kitchens. Let’s take a page out of that book.