CHIAVARI, Italy - Spaghetti with squid ink sauce is a culinary extravaganza that you will find in the most humble of trattorias and the most chic – and expensive - restaurants from Venice to Palermo.
There is a drawback however. You have to have a lot of confidence to eat this dish in public. The intense squid ink turns your teeth a ghoulish black color that really puts a damper on table conversation. And if that is not embarrassing enough, the delicious flavor is so addictive it keeps you slurping away at the spaghetti until you have devoured every strand.
I’m not talking about the black colored spaghetti that you see in gourmet food shops. That’s sissy stuff. I’m talking about the real deal, spaghetti dressed with a sauce made from the ink extracted from squid caught in the Mediterranean Sea.
If you order this dish in a restaurant, you can tell immediately which one it is. If it is the real deal the sauce will be jet black, if it’s the sissy stuff, it’s the spaghetti that will be black.
Italian author Andrea Camilleri’s popular crime solver, Sicilian police Inspector Salvo Montalbano, will stop in his tracks for a good meal, especially if it is for the exquisite spaghetti in squid ink his boss’ wife prepares. In fact, he will do just about anything to appease the cranky Superintendent in order not to jeopardize an invitation to their table.
The dish affects a lot of people that way. My love affair with spaghetti al nero di sepia goes back a long way, at least more than twenty years. It was one of my first food discoveries when I moved to Italy and started to shop at the open-air fish markets in Santa Margherita Ligure and Rapallo.
You will find packages of black squid ink, also called cuttlefish ink, in the refrigerated section of Italian specialty shops, or some big supermarkets. In Italy it is sold in packages of 4 individual packets of 4 grams each.
Here are two recipes from the back of the package of squid ink that I bought: one for spaghetti and the other for risotto. Italian recipes tend to be quite general and assume you have a basic knowledge of how things culinary work, so I've added a little additional info in parentheses to clarify some points.
SPAGHETTI AL NERO DI SEPPIA
Finely chop an onion and two cloves of garlic and fry them in a little (extra-virgin) olive oil. (until they become soft and translucent). Add 300 grams of squid (about one cup and a half), either rings or cut into pieces. Cook the squid with the onion and garlic for a minute or two, then add a glass of white wine and 8 grams of squid ink (two packets) and continue to cook until the squid is tender (about 15 minutes).
In the meantime, cook your spaghetti al dente. When it is cooked, drain it and add it to the sauce and squid. Let it all cook together for a couple of minutes. Serve hot.
RISOTTO AL NERO DI SEPPIA
Finely chop an onion and two cloves of garlic and fry them in a little (extra-virgin) olive oil. (until they become soft and translucent). Add 300 grams of squid (about a cup and a half), either rings or cut into pieces. Cook the squid with the onion and garlic for a minute or two, then add a glass of white wine and two packets (8 grams) of squid ink.
After about 5 minutes add 5 handfuls of rice (Aborio or Canaroli are both good for risotto), and cook on a low flame for about 15 minutes. Add fish broth (as needed) and a pinch of hot red pepper or black pepper. Serve very hot.
You can also add fresh, rough chopped tomatoes to the onions and garlic, and at the end put in a handful of chopped parsley. Whatever way you chose what you will create is an deliciously intense culinary potion worthy of a medieval sorceress (or sorcerer).