Spaghetti con Scungilli
Region: USA, Italian-American
Category: Pasta with Shellfish
Difficulty: Easy but long cooking time
Italian-Americans growing up on Long Island remember well a popular dish of spaghetti with scungilli which was none other than the mollusk known as the murex or whelk. In the 1920s and 30s my grandfather who was from a little village near Benevento bought the fresh scungilli at the fish market on Manhattan’s
East Side where they lived. My mother says she was too young to
remember exactly how her father cooked it, but she remembers eating it and enjoying
it. She doesn’t believe her siblings
liked it. Pop cooked the tough fresh
scungilli directly in the tomato sauce for a long time and then poured over
spaghetti. He never pre-cooked it nor
did he use canned scungilli. I too remember this dish fondly
from when I used to order it at Christiano’s in Syosset, Long
Island when I was growing up as a teenager. They made it just like Pop did, or so Mom
thought. We also collected whelks at the beach on Long island Sound, but I don't remember making the dish. Whelk or murex, those beautiful spirally shells, are the homes for sea snails, or conch (pronounced “konk”) as they are known in the Caribbean. They are also sold in a can, a product that seems to lack flavor. If you use the canned product, it will only need one minute of heating. Fresh murex, on the other hand needs some preparation. The murex must be placed in cold water until it purges itself of its waste. Keep changing the water until the last change results in perfectly clear water after 2 hours. This process could take two days. The most likely place to find fresh or frozen whelk is in an Asian market. Lastly, it should be pointed out that this dish is unknown in Italy, in fact, even the word scungilli is unknown and might be a Neapolitan dialect word.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 4 servings
Preparation Time: 2 days
12 small fresh murex (each about 2 inches long), purged of their waste (see above) or two 6-ounce cans, drained
3/4 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup very finely chopped fresh parsley
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
2 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Cook the murex in salted boiling water for 2 to 3 hours. Remove from the water, drain and detach the small shell-hard “foot” from the opening. Chop and set aside.
2. In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat, then cook the parsley and garlic for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, murex, and season with salt and pepper and cook for 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, for every pound of pasta, bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat, salt abundantly with up to 1/2 cup of salt, then add the pasta in handfuls. Cook over high heat, stirring occasionally so the pasta doesn’t stick together, until al dente. Drain without rinsing. Transfer the pasta to the skillet and toss with the sauce and serve.