Shrimp scampi is the undisputed king of seafood pasta dishes, and deserves all the room in your stomach. But is it just us, or are we seeing the disappearance of this simple shellfish perfection from Italian menus?
Once a reliable staple of red-and-white checkered tablecloth joints famous for chicken parmesan and fettuccine alfredo, this dish of shrimp, lemon, garlic, shellfish stock, white wine, butter and parsley served over linguine is making a bold comeback in New York City, thanks to PJ Calapa. Currently chef/owner of southern Italian seafood haven Scampi in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, Calapa slings a bowl of buttery, lemony, shrimp-studded malfadini so delectable he rarely closes out a tab that doesn’t include (at least) one order.
“While Italian food has been the focal point of my career, it’s also something I’ve loved my entire life,” he says. “Scampi is the restaurant I’ve always dreamed of opening, and it was inspired by the restaurant where I first experienced Italian fine dining when I was a kid growing up in Texas.”
Calapa agrees that there’s far too little actual scampi in the world right now. His kitchen even cranks out fresh gluten-free pasta — no easy feat, he attests — so that nobody has to miss out on this heavenly tapestry of flavors. We spoke to the chef to figure out what can be done about that.
Does shrimp scampi have roots in Italy?
In pasta form, shrimp scampi is definitely an Italian-American dish. The actual scampi dish from Italy is more about grilled langostines with butter and garlic. The pasta is a riff on it.
What inspired you to use malfadini instead of the traditional linguine?
Mafaldini is such an eye-catching shape and the ridges on the edges make it perfect for a clingier sauce.
Say someone gets addicted to combining these flavors at home. Can you suggest a couple of other variations/twists to keep it fresh?
For a vegetarian version, you can make asparagus “scampi” with butter, lemon, garlic, parsley and grilled asparagus instead of shrimp. I’ve also made red prawn crudo scampi, which is a red prawn tartare with lemon, garlic and parsley.
What’s a tip you have for a home cook making this dish for the first time?
Cook the shrimp gently in the pasta at the very end just before serving. It’s very easy to overcook shrimp, especially when it’s been chopped.
What’s your ideal wine pairing for it?
Marco de Bartoli Grillo from Sicily. It’s the king of dry-style wines from the grape used for Marsala. It’s medium weight, rich and fruity upfront, with a salty and lingering finish that pairs perfectly with our lobster-based stock and the citrusy finish on the dish.