outside in


I have long accepted that in matters of Italian food I will always have a sense of being outside looking in. Outside peering in through a steamed-up kitchen window, rubbing it with my sleeve and then pressing my nose up against the pane, trying to understand what on earth is happening inside.

Of course I’m not outside. In some ways I am very much inside, settled in Rome, surrounded by Italians who cook and offer (endless) advice about how and why, and having become a capable cook of Italian food myself. But the sense of outside looking in, of being the English observer remains, possibly even more acutely than when I first arrived. A case of the more you learn the less you know, perhaps.

Not that I mind. Quite the opposite. I like this sense of being outside looking in. After all, it is how it is. I am an English woman with Northern roots, pastry making hands, a soft spot for potted shrimps and without even a distant whiff of Italian blood, living in Rome. It’s this inside outside dichotomy which fuels my curiosity and desire to learn. That’s not to say I can’t be a mardy student from time to time: proud, cross I have so much to learn and jealous of the omnipresent food culture and innate ability to cook and eat well that individual Italians (may or may not) possess.


Which brings me to the recipe. Well nearly. As you may or may not have noticed, it has all been rather basic around here lately. This is mostly because it’s so hot, but also because having felt more outside than usual, I took some advice from a good cook and went back to basics. Not that I ever move much beyond them, but you get the idea. I’ve been frying garlic attentively (and obsessively,) drying salad and flowers thoroughly (it matters and I can be sloppy) searing chops briefly, making batter (I’d forgotten how) brushing up on my beans and greens, using pasta cooking water wisely (it’s the secret) and making spaghetti al pomodoro.

There are as many versions of spaghetti al pomodoro as there are cooks. This is a summer version, using the nicest, sweetest, plum or cherry tomatoes you can find: ripe, tight orbs that burst in your mouth. It was taught to me by the good cook, a Roman capable of great and gutsy culinary feats who tells me he would happily eat this everyday for the rest of his life give or take a bowl of pasta e fagioli.


You smash two cloves of garlic against the work surface with the palm of your hand meaning the skin comes away, the cloves split but remain whole and your hand could ward off vampires. You then fry these two cloves – gently – in far more extra virgin olive oil than is decent. An indecent amount. I like indecent. Once the garlic is just turning light gold and its fragrance swirling up your nose, you add some halved cherry or tiny plum tomatoes and a good pinch of salt. You let the halves sizzle for a minute or so. Once they start softening and releasing liquid you squash them with the back of a wooden spoon and watch their red juices spill into and then tint the oil bronze. You add a few torn basil leaves, stir the pan still over the flame for a minute or so longer. You inhale.

While you have been doing all this your spaghetti has been rolling around a large pan of well-salted fast boiling water. Your timing is good obviously and the spaghetti done (al dente, so tender but with bite) as you inhale and the tomatoes bubble ‘ready‘. You scoop the spaghetti from the boiling water straight into the tomato pan. I use tongs for this which means some of the pasta cooking water clings to the spaghetti. You stir with tongs and a spoon, the pasta cooking water – magical stuff that it is – mixing with the oily, tomatoey juices emulsifying and creating a thickened sauce that coats each strand.


Spaghetti with tomatoes cooked in extra virgin olive oil, scented with garlic and basil: I too could eat this everyday for lunch give or take the occasional pot of potted shrimps on toast. Divide. Eat inside or outside.

Spaghetti al pomodoro  Spaghetti with tomatoes.

serves 3

  • extra virgin olive oil q.b.
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 5oo g sweet cherry or tiny plum tomatoes
  • salt q.b.
  • a few leaves of fresh basil
  • 350 g spaghetti

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and set the timer for a two minutes less than the time on the packet

Warm the olive oil in large saute pan. Smash the garlic on the work surface or press it with the back of a knife so the skin comes away, it splits but remains whole. Fry the garlic gently in the oil until it is pale golden and fragrant.

Halve the tomatoes and add them to the pan along with a good pinch of salt. Once the tomatoes start softening and releasing their juices squash them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so their juices mingle with the oil.  This will take just a few minutes. Add the basil, stir, cook for another minute.

Test the spaghetti, once it is al dente, drain it and reserve some cooking water, or use tongs to lift it straight into the tomato pan. Lower the flame slightly. Stir until the oily, tomatoey juices, pasta and pasta cooking whiter come together into a well dressed whole. Pull from the flame and serve immediately.


a suggestion.

This pasta needs nothing but an appreciative eater and a glass of something tasty but reasonable – a brilliant Lazio white called Capolemole Bianco from the maker Marco Carpineti for example. However, if you would like cheese, a little grated ricotta salata: soft, distinct but sheepish is nice.




Filed under food, In praise of, olive oil, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, summer food, tomato sauce, tomatoes

70 responses to “outside in

  1. Kat

    Yum, yum pigs bum, as my granny would say.

  2. Francesca

    Adoring your recent posts (I just discovered you).. From your cooking & writing style to your take on Roma vita, it’s all wonderfully digestible – & the perfect portion size! Grazie mille.

  3. I, even more outside than you, will make this tomorrow.

  4. I make spaghetti with tomatoes as often as I can during the summer! The cherry tomatoes have arrived at my market, and I’m just waiting for the Sunday when the Roma’s come. It really makes me giddy, this simple meal. Also, “your hand could ward off vampires” might be one of the liveliest descriptions of cooking with garlic I’ve ever read.

    • rachel

      It seems beautifully appropriate that your cherry Tomatoes are called Roma! Well put – it’s a giddy making meal indeed. Rx

  5. sara

    this looks fantastic. perhaps a more “authentic” rendering of that one-pot pasta from martha stewart that has been making the rounds. by the way, that marble is looking really nice, a great canvas for your great food.

    • rachel

      It’s been so hot I wish I was putting my face rather than my plate on the cool marble. On several occasions I’ve wished it really was a truly vast slab and I could lie on it. I”m always cautious of calling this authentic (being on the outside) but yes, this is, at least my Italian friends tell me so. tasty too. R

  6. Our family’s favourite sauce!

  7. “mardy”?

    I made your slow sizzle garlic in oil then add zucchini recipe this past week–really, really good–a technique that is now part of my repertoire.

    You didn’t mention removing the garlic in this recipe. I assume you do?

    Poignancy and pleasure mix in the outsider’s stance. It’s one of the things that makes the foreign so appealing, knowing you have a foot in (at least) two worlds, even if you’re such an adroit chameleon most people would never know. If you weren’t outsider you wouldn’t see some of the stuff that make locals so wonderful. It’s funny, anyone can become an American, and if they appear to have just stepped out of the Burmese highlands last Thursday, so much the better. We’re a nation of mutts. (I realize that not all Americans are quite so welcoming.) But Europe is so old-school. You can be granted citizenship, but you can’t really become French or Spanish or Italian or anything else. You will always be the button of a slightly different color. Ken

    • rachel

      Mardy: a Northern expression for surly, grumpy child. I am often mardy.

      Just to be contrary: i left it in, but mostly because the person with whom I was having lunch asked me to do so. The sizzle was slow though and i think – having done it’s job – the garlic could have been removed. Ah the joy of garlic etiquette.

      Beautifully put (as always) I wonder if you have lived abroad or where your roots lie?

      • I spent a year in the French-speaking part of Switzerland at the University of Fribourg. I was determined to learn to speak French so I hung out with Swiss students, who tolerated my (usually) mute presence. After several months I began dreaming in French and suddenly it was like stepping through the looking glass. I understood the old woman scolding her dog (while using the familiar form of address), the women gossiping in the laundromat, what the vendors in the markets were saying as I wandered past. At the time the Viet Nam War was at its height (I’m OLD) and Americans were not universally loved. I became involved with a couple of leftist anti-war groups, which were much more intellectually demanding (“How’s the Heigel coming along?”) than their American counterparts (“Here, carry this sign.”).

        And all the time I was eating and drinking, and marveling at how serious people were about food, especially very basic kinds of food, like bread, or local cheese. Something in me felt very much like I was coming home, especially since the Swiss French shared a lot of the quotidien details of life with the French, without the incredible Gallic hubris that still existed in the ’70s, about art, about food. It was all very heady for an Irish Catholic kid who started out in rural Michigan. Coming home. Except not quite–there was always the foot in both worlds business. At the time, I wanted to BE Swiss French. How silly. Now I’m content just to be able to stroll in both worlds. I’m sure you’re much much more… (Italian? Roman?) than I was ever Swiss French. I had a Parisian cop start to yell at me in French, after hearing me discussing a CD with an illegal (unlicensed) street singer near the Place des Vosges in Paris a couple of years ago. He assumed that we were in cahoots–I worked the crowd while the other guy sang– and threatened to arrest us for not being registered. The son of a French friend had to intervene to convince the cop I was an American visitor, and not French. It made my day.

        My taste for heady political analysis has fallen away (replaced mostly by resignation), but I still marvel every time I smell the crust of a mîche paysanne. One night during my visit to Puglia last year a kind of rock-folk group from Salentino performed at the masseria where I was staying. The young female lead singer sang in a style that was quite rough and raw and–to me–wild, almost like keening. Her singing sounded more Catalan than Italian to me. Afterward she explained that she was singing in Salentino, one of the four or five archaic languages that survive in only in a handful of villages in Puglia and Basilicata. How extraordinary that something as precious as that has managed to endure. And at that moment, I thought, I could live here, a foot in both worlds, and it would be fine. (Sorry to be so long-winded.) Ken

      • rachel

        The best thing I’ve read in weeks. More please. Rather like you, I’ve had moments, or should I say, years when I wanted to be Italian. After nearly nine years and now being more settled than I ever expected to be (which is much to do with the brith of Luca) I am – as you put so well – happy to have a foot in both world. After all, my life is richer for it.
        I wonder if we have heard and watched the same singer. As we’ve already established I’ve spent time in Puglia (vincenzo is a musician and they are often supported by local groups when they paly near Lece. It’s a nice thought that this might be another thing that links us.

  8. Bellissimio! And the perfect way to enjoy summer tomatoes.

  9. Regardless of what is happening in my life, this dish always makes me feel better- especially the indecent amount of olive oil!

  10. Puss N. Boots

    How much olive oil is indecent? Rhetorical question in some ways. But for those of us without the luxury of the roman sun on our backs, a Roman kitchen window to press our nose against or especially an Italian friend to show us – give us a starting point in the real world PLEASE. Even if its a translation in the recipe section which doesn’t detract from the romance of the prose of the article, it allows us the luxury of saying “HOW MUCH!!!” Indecency in a London bedsit may represent total prudery on the strada romana.
    “q.b.” is a get out .

    Now don’t be a mardy cow and really share the recipe – reminds me so much of a dear South Yorkshire friend
    s xx

  11. laura

    Ciao, Rachel. How DO you keep topping yourself without over going OTT? Well, loved this post because this has always been my favorite pasta dish and it’s amazing how many variations on this apparently simple theme there are. I like to put the spaghetti in the pan a couple of minutes before it is “al dente” so that it gets to al dente – and not beyond – in the sauce with the pasta water. Loved discovering the etymology of “mardy”! 🙂

  12. There’s no such thing as an indecent amount of [EV] olive oil!

  13. This looks like just the thing. I will make it immediately. Being an outsider can be a bore, but it is useful to remember that it has its privileges, including an interesting perspective on things. Lucky for us – it makes good reading!

    • rachel

      I hope you did (make it that is) and that it was tasty.

      You are right and I’m glad you think it makes good reading, after all I do ramble on about it rather a lot Rx

  14. Kat

    Oh Rach, I am so going to make this one for lunch today. As I really have no patience today for long prep and it’s only my second woman cycle after birth (breastfeeding has that effect but maybe a conversation for us both, in private. ha). And I told Fra he should really read your blog more often and learn how to cook Italian food. He took that a slap on the face (my intention) but really, an italian who makes pasta fritata instead of carbonara on one of our first dates – unforgivable. but I hear you on the outsider bits. It does have its privileges as I am not entirely a big fan of everything Italy. thankfully the food has remained uncorrupted!

  15. Rachel, I am running out of words to say how much I enjoy your blog posts, especially as someone slightly more on the outside compared to you. Pasta con pomodoro fresco is my boyfriend’s favourite summer dish, and he, too, could happily eat this for the rest of is life, give or take a bowl of pasta e fagioli funnily enough! As my favourite summer ‘dish’ is a slice of cool watermelon and wanted to get to the bottom of his deep love for pasta con pomodoro fresco, I too whipped out a frying pan the other day, poured in an indecent amount of olive oil (covering the bottom of the pan and then some), watched the garlic turn golden and the sweetest little tomatoes dance in the hot oil and inhaled the heedy smell of the basil before sitting down to a remarkable yet remarkably simple lunch. And yes, a hunk or two of ricotta salata is never a bad idea. Must try the wine you recommend as well – as much as I love the wines from Lazio I am even more on the outside there than when it comes to Italian food.

    • rachel

      Hello Sophia – thank you and I am so happy you enjoy reading, as I’ve said before, we have lots in common. It sounds like you have found your way with pasta e pomodoro – your man must be happy. Do try the capineti wine, it is so delicious for a great price.

  16. I’m mesmerized by your writing and recipe! I can’t wait to try this. Thank you for making beautiful dishes look doable.

  17. I understand what you mean about being outside looking in…!

    After almost 4 years living in Buenos Aires, (I’m from Singapore) there are many things that I view from a very local perspective..and foodwise, I’ve incorporated almost 99% of the foods on the Argentine menu. Yet, in terms of politics, lifestyle, way of thinking, there are still many things that jerk me once in a while to remind me that while i’m close to getting a permanent residence permit, or that I understand most of the frustrations living here, I am still a foreigner, in more aspects that I’m aware of.

    Thanks for the recipe as well, I definitely have to make it one day!


    • rachel

      You clearly understand the sense of outside in: in some ways so integrated and part of a place, yet in others so removed. It makes for an interesting perspective on life though. R

  18. Amy

    yeah, I’ve always kind of clung to the idea of l’etranger, being an outsider looking in. Everything just seems full of potential. It’s a little maddening sometimes, but it’s a cool position to be in (everything has some sort of fee, doesn’t it?).

    • rachel

      It can be frustrating, also I can feel quite isolated at times, even when I am surrounded by people and things I love. I am back in the UK at the moment so feeling very comfortable, even though that is not always the case now, having been away so long. Hope you are well? x

  19. victoria2nyc

    I read this post yesterday while I was a passenger in a car coming back to NYC from New Haven, Connecticut. It was dinnertime, and as this sounded so good, I told the driver if he pulled in to the Harlem Fairway, I would make him this for dinner.

    He did, and I did.

    Thank you for this perfect dish for a 91-degree summer evening. If there had been any left over, I would have eaten it cold for breakfast. Alas, there was none.

    • rachel

      That is the best and highest compliment. I am back in the UK and made this for my family (another hot day here too) and we too declared it the perfect summer lunch. Rxx

  20. We’re still packing–we are about 1 month away from moving now. Not much cooking going on around here, but this dish really makes me want to cook–even in this close-to-100 degree heat. Enjoy!

    • rachel

      Oh the packing. I am back in the UK as my parents are about to embark on a massive move. It is a wonderful move though to a beautiful part of England. Again, wishing you pleasant packing if that is possible love Rxx

  21. Susan

    Oh yes, planning on making this exactly as you describe this weekend! I can already taste it. Simplicity at its best. Thanks for always inspiring me.

  22. That’s tonight’s meal sorted then 😉

  23. That shot of tomatoes and garlic in olive oil is actually making me drool right now. And its not even lunch time yet. My kitchen has been woefully under used lately, on the 2nd floor with no air conditioning. I start sweating when I so much as look at the oven. I’ve been living on popsicles and steamed rice and veg from my rice cooker. But this recipe looks like just the thing to get me back in the kitchen. Just need to swipe some tomatoes and basil from my parents’ garden!

    • rachel

      I am in London, sweating and fancy nothing more than a popsicle. By the sounds of it, your parents have a thriving garden! Lucky them and lucky you, get swiping.

  24. Rachel! How awful of me to have waited so long to get over to your blog and find out what I’m sure many, many people already know….that you have a way with words and food! Brava, my friend. Toni
    BTW: Did you ever happen to figure out which restaurant here in Orvieto you were threatening to come back and try with me as your accompanying food tester? Fammi sapere.

    • rachel

      Hi Toni, so nice to have you here and thank you. I still haven’t found the scrap of paper with two names of places to eat scrawled on it…maybe I should just let you guide me. Lets plan a time to eat Orvieto together x

  25. Kate

    I just wanted to say thanks for your blog–I’m an American expat living in London with my British husband and we’re about to visit Rome (first time for me) in August with our 17 month old. Your information on food and cooking is fantastic, and I also really enjoy your posts on adjustment to life in another country and the mixed feelings about going back to England. Hot summer weather makes feel homesick for my home in the US South (even though I hate hot weather! we’re visiting in August solely because we’re doing a flat swap with a friend in Rome …). It’s great having this window on life in Rome.


    • rachel

      Hi Kate,

      Glad you enjoy reading, thanks for taking the time to say so. I am sure you have plenty of advice from your friends but if you would like some more eating or 17 month child suitable tips (my son luca is 22 months) for your impending Rome Trip send me an E mail at rachelaliceroddy@googlemail.com and I will happily forward some ideas.

      have a lovely trip

  26. Ah… I’ve been missing the squash w/ the back of a wooden spoon step. Thank you.

  27. Hi Rach, I’ve had my head down, nose to the grindstone of late–catching up on your posts now. love the first photo, the blur of being on the outside looking in, and love learning a new word, Mardy of course. xN

    • rachel

      Mardy is really Northern, My auntie May used to say it all the time. Glad you are nose down as we all want your book asap Rx

  28. Puss N. Boots

    just made it !! lush simplicity even with obscene olive ol for one. surfaced from post chemo nausea long enough to raid t he garden for all the ingredients. Sungold tomatoes may not yield as well as gardeners delight but omg the flavour. surpassed last years green risotto with th glut of flat leaved parsley…
    p xx

    • rachel

      This makes me happy, you deserve the very best, most tastiest food while you manage something so immensely difficult. All the very best Rx

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  31. Oh I am SO glad that siobhan sent me over, your food is divine and I have a garden packed with tomatoes just the right size, olive oil in the cupboard, garlic hanging from the ceiling and basil in the garden and i shall start another batch of pasta right this minute, but tell me what is the secret about the pasta water?

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  33. AnneHD

    We just made this (with farfalle, though — is that a crime?) and is was SO GOOD. Insaporire is everything!

  34. Diana

    Thank you for this recipe. I stopped by just to tell you that ever since I read this recipe on your blog (two years ago!), I have cooked this pasta nearly every week. It remains my (and my husband’s) firm favourite and a week night staple. Thank you!

  35. Pingback: Spaghetti Al Pomodoro (summer version) – sneakyguacamole

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