[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

More than a century ago, carrettieri—cart drivers—would roam the Italian peninsula selling tools, cookware, wine, fabrics, and basic cooking ingredients like grain, preserved fish, and oil. Their peripatetic lifestyle meant they often had to feed themselves on the road. One of their standbys was a simple pasta sauce that came to be known as alla carrettiera, or “in the style of the cart driver.” There are many different versions of this recipe, likely a consequence of the fact that the drivers were often making do with whatever ingredients they had available.

This version is emblematic of the style most popular in and around Rome. It features a quickly cooked sauce built from pantry staples like canned tomatoes, olive oil, canned tuna in olive oil, and dried porcini mushrooms—an admittedly weird-sounding combo but a delicious one. Minced garlic and parsley, meanwhile, add a hint of freshness while red pepper flakes bring a background heat.

While you can follow this recipe exactly, it’s important to keep the spirit of the dish in mind: You can vary it based on what you have in your pantry. Olives and capers are great additions, and you should feel free to leave out the tuna or mushrooms or both, depending on your tastes. It’s not typical to add cheese to this dish, but there’s no law that says you can’t. Just keep in mind that the more you change, the more you may have to use your own cooking judgment to ensure the recipe still works.

Why It Works

  • Adding some of the mushroom soaking water to the sauce adds even more flavor.
  • Some of the oil from the canned tuna infuses the sauce with additional flavor as well.
  • If you can get it, ventresca (belly) tuna is silkier and more tender than most other canned tuna.
  • Yield:Serves 4
  • Active time:30 minutes
  • Total time:40 minutes
  • Ingredients

    • 1 1/2 ounces (40g) dried porcini mushrooms
    • 1 cup (235ml) boiling water
    • 1/2 cup (120ml) extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for finishing pasta
    • 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
    • Large pinch red pepper flakes
    • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh parsley leaves and tender stems, divided, plus more for garnish
    • One (28-ounce; 795g) can whole peeled tomatoes with liquid, thoroughly crushed
    • One (5-ounce; 140g) olive oil-packed tuna, preferably ventresca (tuna belly; see note), oil reserved
    • Kosher salt
    • 1 pound (450g) dried spaghetti


    1. 1.

      In a small heatproof bowl or measuring cup, soak mushrooms in boiling water until fully softened, about 20 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove mushrooms from soaking liquid and squeeze out excess moisture back into the bowl or measuring cup. Reserve rehydrated mushrooms and 1/4 cup (60ml) soaking liquid, making sure to dispose of any grit that has settled at the bottom.

    2. 2.

      In a 5-quart pot, combine 1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil, garlic, pepper flakes, and 1 tablespoon minced parsley. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until very fragrant and garlic is just beginning to turn the lightest shade of gold, about 3 minutes.

    3. 3.

      Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, until lightly sautéed and fragrant, about 1 minute.

    4. 4.

      Add reserved 1/4 cup (60ml) mushroom soaking liquid, tomatoes, and 2 tablespoons (30ml) reserved tuna oil (if your tuna doesn’t have that much oil, just add as much as it does), and bring to a simmer. Season with salt.

    5. 5.

      In a pot of salted, boiling water, cook spaghetti, stirring frequently, until just shy of al dente, about 1 minute less than package recommends. While spaghetti is cooking, flake tuna into pasta sauce.

    6. 6.

      Using tongs, transfer spaghetti directly into simmering sauce along with 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water, stirring to combine. Cook, stirring, until pasta is al dente and sauce has thickened, so it coats noodles and isn’t watery, about 3 minutes. Add remaining 1/4 cup minced parsley and 1/4 cup (60ml) olive oil, stirring vigorously to combine. If sauce is too thick, add more olive oil or pasta water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring well between additions, until desired sauce consistency is reached. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary.

    7. 7.

      Transfer to warmed plates and sprinkle with minced parsley. Serve right away.

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