Spaghetti all’assassina has suddenly gone from being a recipe loved by the people of Bari to one of the most Googled and Instagrammed dishes in Italy, and beyond.
A specialty of Bari, our regional capital, spaghetti all’assassina is a pasta dish cooked using a rather unconventional method.
- What is assassin’s spaghetti?
- A taste of Mediterranean noir
- A dish of two halves
- Mission Assassina | On the Assassin’s trail
- Take me to the recipes.
- Puglia by food
- Bari Guide
What is assassin’s spaghetti?
Also known as spaghetti bruciati (burnt spaghetti), the spaghetti in this dish isn’t boiled, but is instead placed – raw – into a black iron frying pan containing a mixture of tomato passata, garlic and plenty of chilli. Once crisp, the pasta is cooked ‘risottata’ (risotto-style), with tomato broth added ladle-by-ladle, until the pasta is cooked, red with tomato sauce and chilli, slightly burnt and crunchy at the right point. The quintessence of Bari at the table.
To cook spaghetti all’assassina you need the black iron pan that is only found in Bari Vecchia. Purists demand that it is ‘seasoned’ wok-like: never washed but wiped clean with newspaper. The method is as important as the ingredients!
A taste of Mediterranean noir
The renewed interest in the dish is in part thanks to two well-known Italian writers of the ‘Mediterranean noir’ genre. Well suited to the role as the name suggests, spaghetti all’assassina becomes an integral part in the plot of novels by brothers Gianrico and Francesco Carofiglio (La casa nel bosco) and by Gabriella Genisi (Spaghetti all’Assassina).
Both novels include the recipes (along with others from the Bari table that feature in the narrative) as appendices.
Genisi’s protagonist Lolita Lobosco, a deputy police commissioner from Bari described as a beautiful, sensual thirty-six year old, bold and ‘good in the kitchen’ is the main character of the derivative RAI television series. In Italy the show is a hit, further contributing to the fame of the dish.
TV cooking shows have also raised the profile of assassina. Italian Masterchef’s Bari champion wowed the judges when he prepared the dish, leading one of them to exclaim that the dish was out of this world, a view recently echoed by American actor and food writer Stanley Tucci.
“This goes against everything I know about pasta,” he remarked, effusive in his praise for the dish.
“Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like that before… And I’ve been around, too!”
A dish of two halves
In recent years the dish has become a “status symbol” for Bari restaurants. A badge of honour to be earned judged by the quality of the assassina they put on the table.
There are two schools of thought as to where and when exactly the dish found its way onto Bari’s restaurant menus. Just as there are two philosophies as to its origins. And two competing academies whose self-appointed role it is to protect the patrimony and authenticity of spaghetti all’assassina.
There are even two takes as to the meaning of ‘assassina’ in the name of the now iconic dish.
Assassina on the menu
The debut of spaghetti all’assassina on restaurant menus most likely took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In common with many great culinary traditions, the history of the dish has not been documented. A result of kitchen serendipity, necessity, economy and invention and instead passed from mouth to mouth. Literally.
Like the best murder-mysteries there are rumours and red herrings along the way.
Many trace the original assassina back to the Marc’Aurelio restaurant (which is now closed). Others champion the Al Sorso Preferito restaurant, where the dish is still served today. Legend has it that when they took over adjacent space, previously a rotisserie, they found the recipe on a scrap of paper, which they revived.
It is the latter version of events favoured by the Accademia, a view that is also confirmed by local historian Felice Giovine.
Some consider the origins of the recipe to be more distant. This is either a recycled dish made from leftover pasta cooked the day before, or the clever invention of Bari housewives diluting the tomato sauce to make it go a little further and transforming it into a surprising spaghetti for unexpected guests. There is, after all, a well known saying in Bari dialect: “Addò màngene do, màngene tre” (where two people can eat, so can in three).
On this, both academies are at one and do not compromise. Spaghetti all’assasina is not a recycling solution for leftover spaghetti and tomato sauce. The spaghetti must be cooked from raw, using the required ingredients and according to the specified if not unconventional risottata method. Which includes that black iron frying pan from Bari Vecchia!
The (original) Accademia dell’Assassina was founded by experts and enthusiasts in 2013. Their meetings were reserved exclusively and strictly for men only. This initiated a women only ‘Contraccademia’. The job of both continues to be to meet, taste and opine on the assassina dishes offered across Bari. Relations have thawed to the extent that ‘plenary’ meetings now take place where tastings are shared.
The academies have a social purpose, but more importantly in their view, have a role to prevent the diffusion of the dish. Which serves up another dichotomy. Cooking respects tradition. But one of its best traditions is innovation and evolution in the kitchen. Our eating out experience has rewarded us with some amazing versions of assassina that go beyond the rules of the Accademie.
Killer spaghetti or spaghetti killer?
So, what is the ‘assassin’ part all about? Some say it comes from the ferocious heat of the dish. The chef is the assassin trying to kill us with such spicy spaghetti. But the more popular view taken is that the chef is killing the spaghetti. It yearns to be boiled. Instead it is fried, pressed hard against the iron pan until it screams out in agony and ‘dies’.
Mission Assassina | On the Assassin’s trail
Which leaves us with only one last job, before we leave you with the recipes. To give you our recommendations on where to go in Bari to eat it.
Fortunately we have our own well plotted assassin’s trail. These are restaurants that we have eaten at or are still on our waiting list, the favorite spots and regular haunts of friends from Bari.
Ai 2 Ghiottoni
Via Nicolò Putignani 11, tel 080 523 2240 | website.
Al Sorso Preferito
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. No homage to Bari’s spaghetti all’assassina would be complete without eating the dish at ‘source’. Served piping hot and wafting a glorious burnt scent, we almost cried. 11€ for a very generous plate, a 2,50€ cover (included bread and potato chips) and 3€ for a glass of house negroamaro. Via Vito Nicola De Nicolò 40, tel 0805 235747 | website.
Located in the beating heart of Bari Vecchia along an artery off Piazza Mercantile. Cooked strictly in adherence, the spaghetti are mixed no more than twice to ensure burnt crispness, and served with a basil leaf. Two other versions are on the menu, one with tuna, and the other with stracciatella cheese. Via Re Manfredi 6, tel 080 576 0033 / 333 913 5300 | website.
The spaghetti is boiled for a few minutes, before being killed-off in the frying pan. Via Einaudi 69, tel 080 548 4836 | Facebook.
Le 2 Aquile
Via Salvatore Cognetti 53, tel 080 202 2483 | website.
For nonna’s home cooking, serving up a no frills spaghetti all’assassina. They also have the original Assassina di Rape. Via Pio XII 43, tel 080 202 1568 | website.
Accademia dell’Assassina approved, enjoy the classic assassina or try to the version with cardoncelli, Parmesan and datterino tomato fondue. But the killer here might just be the assassina al mare, with seafood. Via Antonio Lucarelli 82, tel. 0805 668097 | website.
Pizzeria & Spaghetti House Bari-Napoli
Via Niccolò Piccinni 187/189, tel 080 990 5452 | website.
Another pizza restaurant well known for its excellent spicy spaghetti all’assassina. Via Generale Carlo Alberto dalla Chiesa 2, tel 080 502 5561, 389 207 8422 | Facebook.
Via Ottavio Tupputi 10, tel 080 548 6289 | Facebook.
Via Giuseppe Bottalico 34, tel 080 975 5019 | Facebook.
Don’t be put off by the name. Pizza may be the main focus, but the assassina is served up fiery and robust, in generous proportions. Via Nicola Angelina 12, tel 393 9707309 | Facebook.
After being featured on Italian TV chef Alessandro Borghese’s Quattro Restaurants, Tabula Rasa’s assassina is high up on the list of many Baresità. Made with fresh severely scorched cherry tomatoes. Via Orfeo Mazzitelli 268, tel 329 304 0917 | website.
The new kid on the block. We predict this will quickly become the must eat 2023 destination on Bari’s increasingly trendy assassina trail. Unlikely to become Accademia approved, this assassina was made with thinner rice noodle, vegetables, some Korean spices and chilli paste. But it blew us away with crisp, crunchiness perfectly suited to this dish, a classic fusion and innovation of crossover cuisine. And the fragrant basil leaf lifted it beyond wonderful!
We had kimchi focaccia baresi (another amazing fusion), assassina, 2 glasses of bio wine, coffee and 2 digestivi (one was an amazing Korean digestivo), all for 25€. Via Roberto da Bari 130, tel 080 918 8664 | website.
Urban L’Assassineria Urbana
Located in the hipper University quarter in downtown Bari, the restaurant focuses on spaghetti all’assassina. On our visit there were nine different versions with two “specials” which change every month.
With so many variations to try, we went for the classic and also tried the ‘full house’ with tuna tartare and smoked burrata. We will return for the ‘cacio e pepe’ assassina, the ‘san juannidde’ and the ‘cantabria’. Via Nicolai 10, tel 080 645 8469 | website.
Try their interpretation of classic Barese dish done Puglian style with rapa, crumbled tarallo and burrata. Via Giovanni Amendola 145/A, tel 080 918 7350 | website.
Take me to the recipes.
Spaghetti all’Assassina v1.0
The version of the Accademia dell’Assassina of Bari.
For 4 people
- 400 g of spaghetti
- 150 g of tomato passata
- a tube of tomato concentrate
- extra virgin olive oil
- chilli pepper
- black iron pan from Traversa Fratelli, Bari Vecchia
- wooden spatula of non-specific origin
In a separate pan prepare and bring to a boil a broth. Made with plenty of water, the tomato concentrate and salt. It must be bright red and tasty.
In your seasoned black iron pan, pour approximately 150 g of oil, three cloves of garlic without the green centre and an abundance of chilli (two whole and a little chopped). With a lively flame, brown the garlic, then pour in the tomato passata.
The pan will spit and splutter, but the Assassin is well worth the cause. If necessary, add a pinch of sugar to correct the acidity of the tomato. Spread the passata over the entire base of the pan. For this a wooden spoon can be used. Then release the raw spaghetti directly into the pan.
With skill and mastery, you have to start turning the spaghetti carefully, letting them start to stick a little to the bottom of the pan, the iron ones you can only find at Traversa Brothers in Barivecchia (unfortunately temporarily closed due to indisposition), lifting up those that start sticking. Use a wooden spatula it serves the purpose better than the spoon.
Pour a medium-sized ladle of broth over the spaghetti and continue to stir. As soon as the broth begins to simmer, let the spaghetti absorb it, without turning the spaghetti. Listen carefully to the start of cooking. When you hear “sizzling” again, with the wooden spatula, lift the spaghetti that has stuck to it and, as before, turn it over bringing those starting to burn to the top and letting those less cooked find the bottom.
Pour in another ladleful of broth and continue like this, as if you were preparing a risotto, but without stirring constantly, one ladle after the other with the necessary breaks to listen to the sizzling of the oil. Gradually the spaghetti will begin to bend, to assume sinuous shapes in the pan, to fall in on itself. Have no pity. Continue to treat it harshly and after 8 – 9 minutes of punishment, when the balance of colors turns towards red-brown with burnt bits from the spaghetti that does not want to detach itself from the base of the pan.
Then finally taste and evaluate the degree of cooking. Of course, by cooking directly in a pan it will not be possible to obtain the same degree of consistency as a spaghetti cooked in water and salt. As it should be. The spaghetti must be more calloused, more inviting under the teeth. Be careful though, only the scorched spaghetti should “crack”. The degree of cooking and burning is for you to decide. You must have an eye and taste. When it is decided, in your opinion, the Assassina is ready, serve immediately, taking the pan to the table and dishing up from there.
This is the more or less the version of spaghetti all’assassina that we make at home, albeit with slightly different measurements. The photos used are in this section are our efforts killing the spaghetti at home.
Spaghetti all’Assassina v1.5
This version involves boiling the spaghetti briefly for a few minutes before killing it in the frying pan.
For 4 people:
- 400 g of spaghetti
- 250 g of already cooked and reduced tomato sauce (better if ragù alla barese)
- a little extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- chilli pepper to personal taste (the dish is still spicy)
Drop the desired quantity of spaghetti into plenty of lightly salted water, and wait a few minutes for them to soften, then drain them well with tongs, keeping the cooking water aside while still warm; dress them immediately with a ladle of sauce and mix them.
In the meantime, in a large iron pan you will have already heated the oil with the garlic and the chopped chilli pepper over a high flame. Once browned, remove the garlic clove and put the spaghetti, already partially seasoned with the sauce, in the pan.
Spread the spaghetti to the edges using a wooden spatula, leaving a void in the center. Now pour a ladle of sauce in the void, diluting it immediately with a little water from cooking the pasta. Without stirring, but with a circular movement from the edges of the pan, push the pasta towards the centre.
Open out the spaghetti to make a well once again in the center, add the sauce and quickly repeat the same operation. The pasta should be touched as little as possible because it must absorb the sauce and cook over high heat. It should not be skipped or stirred, but almost caressed in a circular direction with the wooden spatula. When, to the eye, it will seem almost cooked – if you are not sure, taste it – add a ladle of undiluted sauce, then turn up the flame to the maximum letting it toast for a few minutes more without stirring further. Bring to the table and serve immediately.
Spaghetti all’Assassina v2.0
Known as ‘o ragù de la dì appriss’ – ragù of the day after. We tried it, but Riccardo dismissed it. Despite forming a crust, rather like an omelette, the pasta lacked the distinctive crispness of v1.0.
For this recipe you need leftover cooked spaghetti with tomato sauce or meat sauce from the day before, abundant chilli pepper, extra virgin olive oil. Warm up the oil in an iron pan, release the spaghetti, add the chilli pepper and brown it until a dark crust forms.
With one caveat: this dish should be eaten piping hot to appreciate the crunchiness of the pasta.
Spaghetti all’Assassina vLolitaLobosco
This is Lolita Lobosco’s version from the novel ‘Spaghetti all’Assassina‘ by Gabriella Genisi, using red wine from Puglia.
- 500 g of spaghetti
- 10 cherry tomatoes
- a couple of chillies
- 250 ml of full-bodied red wine, Primitivo di Mandria preferably
- oil q.b.
In a pan, sauté the garlic with the oil, the chillies and the cherry tomatoes cut into quarters. Gradually add the wine and let it evaporate. Boil the spaghetti al dente, drain it reserving a ladle of water. Add the al dente spaghetti to the sauce and sauté them together, adding the pasta liquor as needed.
Spaghetti all’Assassina vCarofiglio
This is the preferred version of Mediterranean noir author Gianrico Carofiglio, included in the novel ‘La casa nel bosco’ written with his brother.
“It is a classic recipe from Bari which takes its cue from the popular tradition of using leftover food. The question of food is delicate in novels, because, like certain spices, you need to use an extremely small quantity, otherwise they make the dish cloying. I stop reading novels that talk too much about food. It is a matter of portioning it carefully, because there is a risk of ruining the dish. I like to think that, like all the digressions contained in the novel, they have a metaphorical value, a narrative function”.
- 500 g of spaghetti
- 1/2 l of tomato sauce
- 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
While you put the water to boil, prepare a tomato sauce with the oil, the garlic, a pinch of salt and plenty of chilli.
Drain the spaghetti when they are very al dente, I would say a little undercooked.
Pour the sauce into a very large non-stick pan (which is the secret to the success of the recipe); the ideal would even be a wok.
In the pan, or in the wok, pour the spaghetti.
Put the pan on a stove with a rather high flame and with a wooden ladle press the spaghetti against the bottom and sides of the pan, like an omelette, for about ten minutes or in any case until the pasta comes into contact with the pan has not hardened and scorched.
At this point, again as if you were making an omelette, turn the spaghetti upside down and repeat the procedure.
The idea is that, in the end, a burnt crust is produced, while the inside remains soft, but always al dente. When serving, pour a drizzle of raw oil over each portion.
Puglia by food
#WeAreInPuglia. Other regional dishes are available. #EatPuglia and enjoy Puglia’s best dishes, streetfood, and regional produce. Buon appetito.
You won’t understand the people of Bari, its seasonality or its soul, if you don’t wander the streets, the restaurants, markets, bars and cafes, picking up a local habit here and there. When you do you will discover a city that is vibrant and amazing.