Aglio e olio e peperoncino. These words first reached my ears in the 1980s, when a man called Nino had a restaurant called, yes, Nino’s, on Burgh Street in Cape Town, in the premises that later became Talk of the Town, our favorite Indian restaurant and press club during non-working hours. meeting for the next decade.
But at that time Nino in his white apron led us to the table and told us, as he did every time we came to visit, that aglio e olio was perfect and made with oil from a large jar of peeled garlic that he kept in olive oil in his fridge. “Tony, Tony, do you want aglio e olio tonight? I’m making it especially for you.” He once even gave me a whole bottle of it to let me languish in my fridge for a year before running out.
You have no idea how garlic can be until Nino has made you his aglio e olio e peperoncino from the sharpness of what was in that jar. The words simply mean garlic and chili oil.
The first time he said those words to me, he had to explain it. Spaghetti garnished with garlic-soaked olive oil and finely chopped red chili peppers. Butter in all its garlicky glory is the sauce, it’s what flavors the pasta, it’s everything. No parmesan (Nino was making a disdainful face; “No, no, Tony, you don’t put parmesan with” aglio e olio!”), no cream, no bacon bits, artichokes, tomatoes, olives, nothing. I was skeptical at first and then he brought out the dish and I passed out. I ordered it every time after that. For years.
Aglio e olio e peperoncino and Nino remembered the other day when Babylonstoren supplied a trio of their olive oils: one a blend, the other made from carotene olives, and the third, in a green jar, from frantoio olives. I opened them and tried two of them.
The frantoio promises “floral, almond and green apple notes and hints of freshly cut grass.” Like sauvignon blanc. I sniffed and then tasted. So gloriously nutty. And fresh as morning dew. The carotene boasts the aroma of artichokes and green tomatoes, as well as the aroma of fresh herbs. The third, which I have not yet tried, is given no description other than “a blend of Italian varietals grown in the sun on the slopes of the Simonsberg”.
I was attracted by the greenness of the cut grass frantoio in its beautiful green jar. And my mind went back to the 1980s and Nino in the apron and those jars of wild garlic. It had to be aglio e olio e peperoncino to pay tribute to this wonderful oil. So it was when I put my favorite little Le Creuset pot from the 1960s on the lowest gas flame, poured in half a cup of cold-pressed olive oil, and added some finely chopped garlic and green chilies. A little heat and it can stay warm in its cozy winter spot on the stove.
Tried and smelled, waited and waited, tasted and smelled. Garlic and chili pepper strengthened; I added kosher salt and black pepper, tried, tried some more, tried until I felt the fainting sensation I had the first time Nino made it for me. This is one of those moments where you have to close your eyes and drift away.
Aglio e olio e peperoncino sings Italy; you hear Puccini Nessun Dorma in your head when the aromas find your nostrils and the first forks your palate. You close your eyes and see Tuscany, olive groves, old farmhouses and hear bells ringing in the distance. Duomo. You are reminded that the history of olive oil, the liquid fat of the olive fruit (actually the stone) has been inextricably linked to Mediterranean culture ever since ancient civilizations from the Greeks and Romans to the Phoenicians began to cultivate olive trees and use the fruit and their oils primarily in their diet.
Even today, when all oils—from avocado to almond to grape seed to sesame to soy—are vying for our attention, taste, and pocketbook, olive oil somehow maintains its place at the center of the kitchen.
Now I’m fired up to simplify pasta dishes, focus more on olive oil and less on other things. Garlic, toasted cumin seeds, coarse salt and dried chili pepper, soaked carotene olive oil; small tomatoes frantoio olive oil, rosemary and salt; eggplant strips marinated in olive oil with garlic and topped with tagliatelle; thin circles of zucchini dipped in frantoio of olive oil and lemon juice (because I love the greens of the zucchini frontouille), with plenty of black pepper and coarse salt tossed over freshly made farfalle.
Always, with any of these, be generous with the salt and black pepper, and try to strike the perfect balance of being just right, on the cusp of too salty and too peppery; to reach that point of perfection by adding little by little, trying until the end and knowing when to stop. These things cannot be measured.
Here’s how I did it using tagliatelle because that’s what I had and it works really well with them, but you can also use spaghetti or linguini. Find a recipe for aglio e olio e peperoncino here. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is the champion of Galliova Food 2021. His the FoodSTUFF book can be purchased from the DM store. Buy it here.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he will see them and respond.
SUBSCRIBE to TGIFood here. Also visit st TGIFood platform, the repository for all our food writing.