For some it’s obvious: New Yorkers have their pizza. Cubans have their coffee. San Franciscans have cioppino. As a Southern Californian (I was born in Tijuana, spent my childhood in San Diego, and now live half the time in Los Angeles, half the time in New York), I have my points of regional culinary pride, too. The list goes like this: fish tacos. Lately they’ve been fetishized but for some of us, the relationship is something deeper, lasting, and sincere. It’s proximity to Mexico. I can’t even begin to tell you the ways–edible and not–that this is beyond cool, and anyone who says that Tijuana isn’t really Mexico (which I’ve been told almost as many times as I’ve told people I was born in Tijuana) is an idiot. And Sea urchins,. Pulled from reefs off the coast of San Diego or Santa Barbara–I think I love them. So when I saw “Spaghetti with Sea Urchin” on the menu at Angelini, where I dined with my mother for her birthday recently, I couldn’t resist.
I was introduced to sea urchin pasta on a trip to Sicily several years ago, where I was writing a cookbook for two Italian ladies. There’s a seaside strip in Palermo called Modello, with one restaurant after another–think Fisherman’s Wharf meets The Godfather III–where men unloaded giant nets of the spiny crustaceans onto the sidewalk. I’d been trapped in the mountains eating nothing but fennel sausage and sheep’s milk ricotta (are you crying for me yet?), so when my captors finally freed me, took me to the seaside, and fed me spaghetti tossed with uncooked, barely warmed sea urchin, I about fell out of my chair.
Below is the entry that I included in the book, headnote and all. The recipe is so whacked I figured it must have been the author’s idea of a joke. So the next day I went back to Angelini and asked for their version, which was just as simple, but just as oddly prepared–and just as delicious. The key, of course, is that you have fresh, delicious sea urchins and that you serve it within seconds of pulling the almost undercooked spaghetti out of the water. From there, you can’t really go wrong.
Spaghetti con i Ricci
From early spring to early fall, it is very popular for Palermitani, those who live in Palermo, to visit the seaside community of Mondello. There you will find outdoor restaurants al along the waterside, every one of which claims to serve the very best spaghetti con ricci. I got this recipe from my friend Paolo, because i knew there was no way that a restaurant would give me their true recipe. To have the full taste of the sea urchin eggs, you must not cook them.
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to add to the pasta water
2 garlic cloves
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh italian parsley, plus more to sprinkle on the pasta
1 1/3 cups sea urchin roe
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti
For this pasta, the sea urchin roe is not cooked. It relies on the heat of the spaghetti to warm it, which means you must have the table set and everyone a tavola before you begin to cook the spaghetti.
Pour the oil into a heatproof cup and place it in a pot of hot but not boiling water to heat it without cooking away any of the olive taste.
Crush the garlic very well using a mortar and pestle, or mince it very fine. Scrape it into the bottom of the bowl you will serve the pasta from. Add the parsley, the warm olive oil, and salt and black pepper to taste and stir it all together. add the sea urchin roe and let this rest while you cook the spaghetti.
Bring a big saucepan of water to a boil. Stir in a small fistful of salt and a splash of olive oil. Add the spaghetti and stir. Boil the spaghetti, stirring often to prevent it from sticking together, until it is al dente. Lift the spaghetti out of the water using a spaghetti strainer and place it directly into the bowl with the roe. Don’t worry if a little water comes with teh spaghetti into the serving bowl; the hot pasta water will help the texture of teh condiento. Toss teh spaghetti with the roe, adding more pasta water if necesasary. SPrinkle with more parsley and serve immediately.