Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Olive Oil). Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post

“It’s one of my favorite things to eat,” said Amy Brandwein, chef and owner of Centrolina and Piccolina in Washington. “It’s delicious. It doesn’t take very long to cook. It’s easy to digest. You don’t have to go shopping for it.”

Spaghetti aglio e olio is the object of Brandwein’s affection, and it’s one of the most basic staples in an Italian kitchen. As the name suggests, it consists of just a handful of ingredients: spaghetti, olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes or a fresh chile, and parsley. But even with such a classic dish, different cooks offer various ways to achieve their ideal version.

No matter the recipe, it always includes cooking garlic in olive oil until golden.

“You can go out and buy super expensive olive oil, (but) I don’t necessarily recommend that for this because you don’t really want the olive oil to overpower the pasta and the garlic,” Brandwein said. “You want to have something that’s kind of fruity, balanced,” which is typical of the olive oils from Liguria that she prefers for this dish.

“In typical Italian restaurant kitchens, we always have our garlic sliced paper thin,” Brandwein said, which conjures that one scene from “Goodfellas” where Paul Cicero, a.k.a. Paulie (Paul Sorvino), uses a razor blade to achieve the precise result. However, in Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking,” she calls for chopped garlic instead. Regardless, all the sources I reviewed agreed on one thing: “You want to get a little color on the garlic, but you don’t want to burn it,” Brandwein said, which can lead to bitterness.

“When sautéing garlic, never take your eyes off it, never allow it to become colored a dark brown because that is when the offensive smell and taste develop,” Hazan wrote.


At some point while the garlic cooks, chopped fresh chile pepper (which is what Hazan calls for in her book) or crushed red pepper flakes (Brandwein prefers the smoky flavor of the dried spice) get added to the pan.

Once the garlic reaches the right color, Hazan instructs cooks to toss in the cooked pasta and parsley, and then it’s all set. In “Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine,” Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali take a different approach by adding 2 cups of pasta water to the garlic and letting it reduce to form an emulsified sauce that gets combined with the pasta and parsley.

Brandwein prefers to first add the parsley directly to the oil. “When you’re cooking herbs in olive oil, it’s what releases the oils and the flavors,” she said. After that, she adds the pasta with just a splash of cooking water and tosses it until it’s evenly coated.

And for those wondering, the choice of pasta is always the same. “Romans say ‘spaghetti aio e oio’ as though it were one word, and they would as soon expect another pasta to be in the combination as the moon to change its course,” Hazan wrote. “If any substitution may hesitantly be suggested, it is spaghettini, thin spaghetti, which takes very well to the coating of garlic and oil.”

For Brandwein, the success of this dish all boils down to timing. “You have to have everything in line, because it goes very, very fast. So you need to have all your ingredients, all of your mise en place, right in front of you ready to go,” she said. “You can’t be searching around (asking), ‘Where did my parsley go?’ Because then your garlic is going to burn.” As long as you’re able to avoid this tragic fate, you’ll have a delicious bowl of pasta ready in almost no time.

If you’re looking to take the flavor profile in a different direction, there are plenty of options. Though purists may disagree, I found that a sprinkle of cheese when serving takes this simple pasta dish to the next level. Brandwein loves to use a buckwheat spaghetti that they make in-house at Centrolina – “That’s my favorite” – and said breadcrumbs can add nice texture. Bastianich gives the option to add basil in her recipe and offers adding anchovies or capers as further variations.


On the one hand, there’s beauty in the simplicity of the more streamlined version. But on the other, you’re the one who gets to eat it, so add whatever you like.

Thinly sliced garlic, crushed red pepper flakes and olive oil cooking in a skillet. Rey Lopez for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio (Spaghetti with Garlic and Olive Oil)

3 to 4 servings (makes 4 cups)

Total time: 20 mins

Spaghetti aglio e olio is a classic, humble Italian pasta recipe starring garlic and olive oil. It comes together with a handful of pantry ingredients even on nights when you feel like there’s nothing in your kitchen. Thinly sliced garlic and crushed red pepper flakes cook in olive oil until the allium just starts to change color. (It’s important to not let the garlic brown too much, as it can turn bitter.) Then parsley infuses the oil with grassy flavor before it’s all tossed with cooked spaghetti and more of the fresh herb. Though purists may disagree, a sprinkle of cheese when serving takes this simple pasta dish to the next level.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.



Fine salt

8 ounces spaghetti

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 to 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes


1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, divided

Finely grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese, for serving (optional)


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the package instructions until al dente.

About 5 minutes before the pasta is done, in a medium (10-inch) cold skillet, combine the oil, garlic and crushed red pepper flakes. Set over medium heat and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the garlic turns pale golden, about 5 minutes. (Don’t let the garlic get too brown.) Add half the parsley and cook, stirring constantly, until aromatic, about 30 seconds.

When the pasta is cooked, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and use tongs to transfer the pasta to the skillet and toss until combined with the sauce, adding a splash of the reserved pasta water if it looks dry. (Alternatively, reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water and drain the pasta in a strainer, transfer the pasta to the skillet, add 2 to 4 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water and toss until combined.) Remove from the heat. Taste, and season with salt, if needed. Toss with the remaining parsley, divide among bowls, sprinkle with cheese if using, and serve hot.

Substitutions: Spaghetti can be replaced by any regular or whole-grain long pasta shape. Instead of crushed red pepper flakes, use 1 small fresh chile, such as bird’s eye, diced. No parsley? Omit it.

Variations: For a different flavor profile, add 4 anchovy fillets with the garlic. If you want some acidity, add a bit of fresh lemon juice when you transfer the pasta to the skillet. For crunch, toast breadcrumbs in olive oil to sprinkle on top.

Nutrition per serving (1 cup), based on 4: 323 calories, 43g carbohydrates, 0mg cholesterol, 15g fat, 2g fiber, 8g protein, 2g saturated fat, 280mg sodium, 3g sugar

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