The only thing better than a good recipe? When something’s so easy that you don’t even need one. Welcome to It’s That Simple, a column where we talk you through the dishes and drinks you can make with your eyes closed.
Years ago, when I first traveled to Italy’s southern region of Puglia to meet my boyfriend’s family, I was determined to try as many dishes as possible. I relished in orecchiette with a bounty of broccoli rabe, a custard-filled pastry called pasticciotto, spaghetti with local mussels and cherry tomatoes, olive-oil-rich fava bean purée heaped with wild chicories, espresso on ice with sweet almond syrup, raw red shrimp from Gallipoli, and more.
But what blew me away most were the dishes thrown together at home. When I was growing up, if my family was short on groceries and pressed for time, we turned to American standards like boxed mac and cheese, PB&J sandwiches, and grilled cheese. My boyfriend’s family’s speedy go-tos were something else: pastina in brodo, mozzarella and prosciutto sandwiches, and most life-changing of all, spaghetti tonno e burro.
Spaghetti with tuna and butter sounded puzzling at first. Italians typically serve fish pasta in a dairy-free sauce, founded on olive oil, wine, and/or tomato. But my boyfriend’s family has been whipping up this rustic recipe for decades. And when I tasted it, I understood why. Somehow the simple combination of olive-oil-packed tuna, abundant butter, and a crack of black pepper, tossed with well-seasoned pasta, yielded something surprisingly complex—a little rich, a little briny, and super satisfying.
I’ve since incorporated this pasta into my own weeknight lineup. It’s great for a busy day when you want a satisfying dinner without having to chop for eons or hover over the stove. As with many minimalist recipes, this dish will taste as delicious as the ingredients that compose it. It’s a good moment to spring for higher quality tuna and a rich block of European butter. It’s also a chance to slow down and focus on the pasta itself. Here’s the no-recipe recipe for this no-brainer Italian meal.
How to make spaghetti tonno e burro
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Generously season the water with kosher salt, add 1 lb. spaghetti, and cook according to the package instructions.
While the pasta cooks, transfer two 5-oz. cans or jars olive-oil-packed tuna (oil included!) to a large mixing bowl and break up the tuna with a fork. Cut ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter into small pieces and add these to the tuna, along with lots of freshly ground black pepper.
Taste the pasta while it’s cooking—is it delicious already? If not, add more salt to the water. The moment it is al dente, use tongs to quickly transfer it to the mixing bowl, and begin tossing energetically until the spaghetti looks saucy. If it looks dry, you can add a small splash of water or live a little and add a few extra pats of butter. Taste and season with salt if needed. Top with more pepper and eat immediately.
Of course, you could add all sorts of things to this pasta: chopped parsley or basil, grated lemon zest, or crushed olives. Or you could serve it with lemon wedges for squeezing on top. Or you could fry up some breadcrumbs and minced garlic in olive oil for a crunchy topping. All of these would be worthy additions, but my boyfriend’s father would scoff at me for even suggesting them. And he has a point—the beauty of this dish comes from restraint.