Pasta with clams in red sauce

Pasta with clams in red sauce

Dinner on Christmas Eve, La Vigilia di Natale, at our place ALWAYS begins with pasta con le vongole and pomodoro, spaghetti with clams and red sauce.

In fact, it is the beginning of several fish dishes we happily consume over the course of the evening. Sprinkle in some vegetable and salad side dishes. Top it off with all the wonderful baking that has happened over the last few weeks and you have a table full of family and friends that are too stuffed to move out of their chairs! But we are all smiling at our heroic efforts to eat more food than you can imagine would be possible. It is our favorite meal of the year by far!


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how to make italian pasta with clams in tomato sauce

Growing up, my parents kept a tradition of consuming nine different foods on Christmas Eve. This included several fish dishes such as baccala, shrimp and calamari as well as veggie dishes such as rapini and green beans.

The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve dates back to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat and dairy on the eve of holidays such as Christmas. But it is not common with all Italians. This tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes is mostly practiced in the Southern areas of Italy. As Italians immigrated to the US, they kept this tradition alive in order to keep their families feeling connected to their birth homeland of Italy.

italian recipe for pasta with clam tomato sauce

But why seven dishes of fish? The number seven appears often in the Roman Catholic religion. For example, there are seven sacraments, seven deadly sins and seven days of Creation to name a few. Hence, perhaps it is for these reasons it evolved that there are seven fish dishes prepared for Christmas Eve dinner. While other Italian households celebrate with nine or even eleven and twelve fish dishes some symbolizing different aspects of the Roman Catholic religion.

Whatever the number, we love that this tradition of preparing multiple dishes and gathering family and friends on Christmas Eve remains alive and well with us here in North America.

spaghetti with tomato and clam sauce recipe

There are several variations of pasta con le vongole with red sauce but I wanted to share my mother-in-law’s version which we all love.

At first glance it may seem a bit intimidating with too many steps, but trust me it is easy and quick to prepare. You just want to make sure you find the freshest of pasta clams, clean them properly and keep them properly stored right up until you throw them in their wine bath to cook.

Don’t forget to check out our baccala recipe here salted cod in tomato sauce, that we will be enjoying Christmas Eve too!

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Pasta con le vongole, pasta with clams


A classic Italian Christmas dish. Spaghetti with a fresh and flavourful tomato and clam sauce.


For the pasta:

1 pound, 454g, of pasta (spaghetti, spaghettini, linguine)


For the fresh pasta clams:

1-¼ pounds fresh pasta clams, cleaned well and kept cold until immediately before cooking

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves

1 tbsp parsley, finely chopped

¼ cup white wine


For the sauce:

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed

½ medium onion, large chunks

2 litres tomato passata (puree)

2 tsps salt

½ tsp chili flakes (more if you like it hot!)

Chopped parsley for sprinkling


For the canned clams:

1 can whole baby clams, 142gm drained weight (284gm unopened net weight)

1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed

Good sprinkling of chopped fresh parsley leaves



In a medium size sauce pot (4 litre), over medium high heat, heat the oil for a minute.

Add the onion and cook, stirring often to soften slightly and let color. After a couple of minutes add the garlic and continue to cook for another 1-2 minutes stirring often until both the garlic and onion are lightly colored. Do not let the garlic burn!

Add the tomato puree, salt, and chili flakes and stir to mix well.

Cover and allow to come to a boil. Simmer covered on medium heat for 20-25 minutes.

Remove the garlic cloves and onion that have been cooking in the sauce.

Then in a separate small saucepan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil over medium high heat for a minute. Add a clove of garlic, allow to cook  until colored lightly about 2-3 minutes while stirring often.

Add in the drained clams and the sprinkling of parsley.

Cook altogether for 2 minutes, remove the garlic clove, then add the sauteed clams to the tomato sauce.

Cook the sauce for another 5 minutes.

Check for seasoning and adjust to your liking.


Halfway through cooking the sauce, put a large pot of salted water to boil. When the water, comes to a full rolling boil, add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions.


At the same time as you put the pasta water to boil, prepare the pasta clams.

Take the clean pasta clams, check for any opened ones and discard.

In a saute pan, add 2 tbsp olive oil and heat over medium-high heat for a minute. Add 2 garlic cloves and saute for about a minute stirring constantly. Add 1 tbsp of parsley and saute together for another 15 seconds.

Add the white wine and stir to mix everything well.

Add the clean, raw, unopened pasta clams to the pan and cover with a lid.

Allow the clams to steam open about 5 minutes.

Remove the lid, lower the heat to low.

Remove the garlic cloves and any unopened clams and let simmer for about another 5 minutes. You want the pan juices to reduce a bit but not dry out.

Add 1 cup of the tomato sauce to the clams and any remaining juices and stir together over low heat for a couple of minutes.


When the pasta is cooked, drain and place back in its pot.

Add a couple of big scoops of the sauce and mix well to coat all of the pasta.

Immediately, plate up some dishes with the pasta, add more sauce over top.

Place some of the pasta clams onto the pasta and finally sprinkle with some chopped parsley.


Be sure to have a nice chunk of fresh bread and a glass of wine ready to enjoy with your pasta.


Buon appetito!


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