There are sauces that enjoy universal acclaim with off-the-charts Tomatometer and audience scores—sauces like carbonara, vodka, and Marcella Hazan’s tomato-butter sugo. They’re the pasta equivalent of season four of The Wire, or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: undisputed classics. At the other end of the spectrum are the under-appreciated sauces with smaller but passionate followings—you could call gricia and beans and greens the Sobotkas or 808s and Heartbreak of the pasta world. They may not be at the top of many peoples’ all-time favorite lists, but that doesn’t mean they’re not deserving of praise and respect. Pasta burro e alici definitely falls in this latter category.
Think of this dish as Alfredo for anchovy lovers. There’s lots of unsalted butter, salty anchovies in place of Alfredo’s Parmesan cheese, and starchy cooking water cooked into a creamy glaze, perfect for coating long strands of al dente pasta. For the true ‘chovy heads—the ones who love being gifted stocking-stuffer tins of Cantabrian conservas—you can call it a day right there, and bask in unadulterated salty fish bliss. I like to add a hint of acidity to the dish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of finely grated zest. A showering of toasted breadcrumbs and chopped parsley lends the dish crunch and freshness to balance the richness of the butter and the savory punch of the anchovies.
I’ll tell you upfront: This pasta isn’t for everyone. To paraphrase Mitch Hedberg, “You can’t please all the people all the time… and last night, those people were at my dinner table.” To be fair, the only person I’m sharing meals with these days is my wife, but she made it abundantly clear early on in the recipe development process that burro e alici is not her jam. However, with some tinkering to the anchovy amounts in the recipe (I settled on a range to suit a sliding scale of tastes), I got this dish to a place that can appeal to both casual and die-hard fishy umami fans, and she admitted on the final test run that it had become a dish she’d eat again.
The cooking process itself is a breeze. Melt butter, dissolve anchovies in it, then cook pasta a little over halfway in a small amount of water to get that extra starchy good stuff. Build an emulsion with pasta cooking water and the anchovy-butter, then finish cooking the pasta in the sauce. To ensure that the sauce holds the perfect creamy emulsion, I save a couple tablespoons of butter to add off-heat at the very end of the cooking process, followed by the lemon zest and juice. The rich, savory sauce glazes each strand of pasta for a simple, delicious weeknight meal that doesn’t have to be a crowd-pleaser. But real ones know.