Spaghetti all’Assassina “Assassin’s Pasta” | How to Make the Authentic Italian Recipe
Updated: Mar 18
Spaghetti all’Assassina is literally a killer plate of pasta! It’s a very simple and easy-to-master recipe, but with a powerful and unique flavor. Also known as “spaghetti bruciati” (burnt spaghetti), this traditional Italian pasta dish is notable not only for its spicy flavor, but because it breaks a bunch of classic pasta-cooking rules... including don't burn the pasta.
Watch the Pasta Grammar video where we make this recipe here:
Where Spaghetti all’Assassina is From
This dish originated in the southern Italian city of Bari, in the region of Puglia. Up until very recently (when we introduced the dish to the English-speaking world, as a matter of fact!) it remained a local secret for those in the know. Most Italians outside of the region have likely never even heard of pasta all’assassina!
In Bari, an organization called L’Accademia dell’Assassina (“The Academy of the Assassin”) works to promote and preserve the tradition of this local recipe. Perhaps their work will help to spread the word throughout Italy!
What Does the Name Mean?
Quite literally, “spaghetti all’assassina” means assassin’s spaghetti, or killer’s spaghetti. The origin of the name is a little bit mysterious. One theory is that you need to “kill” the pasta (see below for the unusual cooking method). It could also just mean that the spicy taste is simply killer!
This latter theory is supported by one claim to the invention of spaghetti all’assassina. According to this version of the dish’s history, it was created by a chef named Enzo Francavilla in his restaurant, “Al Sorso Preferito,” which is still around in Bari. He came up with the pasta recipe on the fly after two customers asked for something new. The patrons were so impressed, they commented that Francavilla was “a killer!”
What Makes Pasta all’Assassina So Special?
It breaks all the rules!
For starters, this traditional dish dispenses with boiling the pasta. Instead, the spaghetti is placed into a pan raw and cooked like a risotto, by ladling in a little bit of broth at a time until the pasta is cooked. Normally this “one pot” method of cooking pasta is frowned upon in Italy because it allows for no control over the starchiness of the sauce. In this case, however, we want MAXIMUM stickiness! You’ll see why shortly…
Pasta all’Assassina actually requires the use of poor quality spaghetti. Normally, dried pasta with a longer cook time is preferred, but in this case you want to find a spaghetti with the shortest time possible. Barilla is a good place to start! Look for a pasta that cooks al dente in 6-8 minutes. While you can use a longer cooking pasta, be aware that this will mean more time in the pan, more broth added, and therefore more salt. If you go this route, we recommend making extra broth (just in case) and only lightly salting it.
Finally, this pasta breaks perhaps the most cardinal rule in the Italian kitchen: don’t burn the pasta. Spaghetti all’Assassina is called “spaghetti bruciati” for a reason! Actually, we should clarify that (despite tongue-in-cheek claims otherwise) the pasta itself doesn’t burn. Instead, the broth thickens, caramelizes, and slightly burns to create some crispy texture in the finished dish. It’s unusual but truly delicious!
Picking the Right Pan to Make Spaghetti all’Assassina
In Puglia, the region where this pasta originates, it is traditionally cooked in a heavy, iron pan: i.e. cast iron. A lot of people believe that tomatoes and other acidic ingredients should never touch cast iron. While this claim has been debunked, particularly for dishes that don’t take a very long time to cook, if you don’t want to use cast iron we recommend using the heaviest metal pan you have. Now is not the time for a flimsy little non-stick. We want that pan hot and burning!
The pan should also be large enough to accommodate a big handful of spaghetti lying flush on the bottom. See the pictures below to see how the pasta should be able to rest inside.
What's the Trick to Making Perfect Pasta all'Assassina?
Patience and killer instinct! The untraditional method may be difficult to adhere to at first, but it's important to not be afraid of letting the pasta (sauce, really) burn. You'll hear a strange, plopping/bubbling sound when the liquid burns off completely: usually a cause for alarm when cooking. With spaghetti all'assassina, this is where the magic happens!
A lot of recipes that can now be find online tend to rely too much on vague intuition. We've tested the process to come up with a foolproof and repeatable set of steps to ensure that anyone can make the perfect plate of pasta all'assassina. Pick the right pasta and pan, follow the steps below, and you're in for a killer meal.
SPAGHETTI ALL’ASSASSINA RECIPE
Serving Size: 2
Cook Time: 20-30 minutes
For this recipe, you will need:
1 1/8 cup (300g) pure tomato purée (avoid anything with added salt or flavor)
10 tbsp. (150g) tomato paste
3-4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus some extra for drizzling
2 garlic cloves
Red chili pepper flakes or chopped fresh chili peppers to taste
7 oz. (200g) spaghetti (you need poor quality pasta! See above)
Large cast iron skillet
Fill a saucepan with 3 cups (700ml) of water. Add 1/8 cup of tomato purée (save the rest for later) and the tomato paste and bring to a simmer. Salt the broth to taste. All of the salt for the pasta comes from the broth, so be sure it tastes yummy to you!
In a large, cast iron skillet, add the olive oil and a pinch of chili pepper flakes or fresh chili peppers to taste (depending on your tolerance for heat). Peel the garlic cloves. Add one whole into the pan; dice the other and add this as well.
Heat the pan over high heat until the garlic sizzles. When it does, pour in the remaining cup of tomato purée and quickly spread it to cover the pan evenly. Lay the spaghetti down in the center of the pan, and press it out as much as possible into a thin, even layer. The goal is to try and have as much of the spaghetti as possible in contact with the tomato sauce.
Now you need your killer instincts! Let the tomato sauce completely thicken and begin to burn (a little bit). The pasta touching the pan needs to acquire a some crispy caramelization. When it does, use a spatula to gently flip it so that the other side can crisp up a little bit as well. Remember that it’s actually the residue of the tomato sauce that’s “burning” so try to ensure that the pasta has an even coating of it. Completely dry pasta won’t crisp.
When both sides are slightly burnt, add one ladleful of hot tomato broth into the pan. Let the liquid completely boil off; you’ll be left with more tomato residue. Once again, let the pasta sit untouched until the side touching the pan has gotten a little crispy again. At this point the spaghetti will have softened slightly. Stir the pasta around, flatten it down again, and add another ladle of broth.
This process repeats until the pasta is cooked al dente to your taste. Add broth, let the liquid cook off, leave the pasta alone to crisp a little bit, stir it together, flatten it out, repeat. It’s really simple once you get the hang of it!
Once the pasta has cooked to your liking, let it crisp up at the end as much as you like. Serve immediately, topped with a drizzle of olive oil.
Want more food from Puglia? Check out our Focaccia Pugliese recipe! If you're a fan of simple pasta dishes, take a look at our go-to favorite: Pasta alla Scarpariello!