Al Forno is an Italian restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, opened in the early 1980’s by two RISD students, Johanne Killeen and George Germon. The couple had traveled to Italy to attend art school and eventually fell in love – with each other and with Italian food.
Among other things, they’re credited with helping start the craze for wood-fired pizza in this country; in their attempt to recreate the thin, smoky crusts they’d devoured in Rome, George got the wild idea to throw pizza dough onto the grate of an open fire. It worked liked a charm.
I was working at a restaurant around the corner from Al Forno a few years after they opened. One busy Friday night a fellow waiter brought in some of the pizza for us to try, wrapped in foil and hot off the grill. It was nothing like the traditional pie I’d grown up with; it had a chewy, pita-like crust that was infused with the flavor of charred woodsmoke and held a light hand with toppings; it was just simply strewn with a few crushed tomatoes, fresh basil leaves and some creamy blobs of milky mozzarella.
I would never turn my back on or lose my taste for my favorite childhood pizza, but that first bite of grilled pizza was unforgettable and instantly addictive.
Johanne and George are also known for their simple, rustic pasta and they wrote a cookbook, On Top of Spaghetti, devoted to it. I was teased by a recipe name in the book for hot, spicy spaghetti topped with vegetables – La Bomba – or as George calls it, Boom-Boom.
I love all kinds of spice and heat in my food, so anything called Boom-Boom promised to set my mouth on fire in the best way.
The “Bomb” in this recipe comes from red hot chilies, a typical ingredient in food from the Campania region. Along with harissa, I’ve recently become very attached to my little jars of Calabrian chili sauce.
My own version of Boom-Boom spaghetti is made with thick hollow noodles called bucatini, and also includes fennel, both fresh and in spice form, and a fresh sheep’s milk cheese from Missouri’s Green Dirt Farm.
Of course, you can use regular spaghetti and whatever Pecorino available to you (any Italian cheese made with sheep’s milk). Enjoy the blast!
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or more to taste
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 3 or 4 cloves garlic, smashed with back of your knife and chopped
- 1 medium eggplant, peeled and diced
- 1 very small fennel bulb, stems trimmed (save the fronds for garnish); thinly sliced
- 1 tablespoon Calabrian chili sauce (or 2 teaspoons dried chile flakes) - or to taste
- 2 small zucchini, unpeeled and diced
- 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1 pound imported Italian spaghetti
- Handful fresh basil leaves, lightly chopped
- Fresh sheep's milk cheese or grated aged Pecorino
- In a large saute pan (12-inches), heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the salt, onion, garlic; stir and cook until softened, 2 or 3 minutes, stirring a little.
- Add the eggplant and fennel bulb and stir around to mix. Cover the pan and cook 5 minutes, stir around, recover and cook another 5 minutes or until the vegetables are softened and lightly golden in color.
- Stir in the chili sauce, zucchini and ground fennel and cook a few minutes. The zucchini should turn bright green but don't let it get too mushy by cooking too long.
- Meanwhile, cook the bucatini in a large pot of water salted with 1 tablespoon salt. Reserve some of the pasta water before draining.
- Add a little of the pasta water to the vegetables. Serve the pasta in a large bowl tossed with the sauce. Garnish each plate with some basil, cheese and chopped fennel fronds.
Inspired by a recipe in On Top of Spaghetti