~ When in Rome, start with: Bucatini all'Amatriciana ~
Amatrice is a town in the mountainous northeastern panhandle of Lazio, near Abruzzo (central Italy). "All' Amatriciana" means "made in the style of Amatrice and sugo Amatriciana is one of the oldest Italian sauces. It's a humble, rustic pasta dish commonly found on the restaurant menus of Rome. This immortal sauce is bold-flavored, and, like many Italian classics, it is easily prepared with a short list of ingredients, but, the list is specific and the dish is only as good as the quality of said ingredients. Recipes vary, so there is some room for improvisation, but this is seriously not the time to let your creative self stray too far from the traditions of home Rome, and:
That said, I have no first-hand knowledge of this dish or romantic tale to tell about eating it in a restaurant in Rome or getting an old and authentic family recipe from a friend. I learned about it on TV, more specifically from Mario Batali, and, I was fascinated by what he had to say and what I learned that morning. It was years ago, back in the days prior to The Food Network transitioning to silly, cheap reality game-show cooking programs -- the star of those shows actually cooked and knew their own recipes -- their job required personality + intelligence.
A bit about all' Amatriciana (ah-ma-tree-she-ana): The ancient version of the dish was created centuries ago by the shepherds from the coastal plains near Rome who would drive their flocks to the high pastures near Amatrice for the Summer months. Throughout the "transumanza" ("migration") they prepared "pasta alla gricia" for themselves (Grisciano was a hamlet near Amatrice). Gricia, a lesser-known dish that is still served today, is the original "white" version of present day all'Amatriciana.
Gricia is/was a simple dish of pork, pecorino, peperoncino and pasta -- it contained no tomatoes, because at that time, tomatoes did not exist in Italy. Then, in the latter 1700's, when tomatoes became a culinary ingredient in Italy, the Italians were happy to add them, and, the name was affectionately changed to "Amatriciana", in honor of the town which made it famous!
Amatriciana: Five Basic Ingredients = One Iconic Italian Dish.
When 'Much Ado About Nothing' = Ado About Everthing!
Cured unsmoked pork (guanciale, pronounced gwahn-CHAY-lay, or pancetta): Every traditional and authentic version of Amatriciana is made with guanciale (pig jowl). It is saltier, fattier, slightly sweeter and bolder in flavor than pancetta -- it also gets buttery and translucent after cooking. Guanciale is also hard to find (I need to special order it from a chef friend), so, if you do not have a source for it, pancetta has become, and is, the accepted substitute. That said, some people prefer the taste of one over the other, so, let your taste break that tie. I love guanciale and keep a piece in my freezer at all times. Because American bacon is smoked, please do not do that!
Roma tomatoes (canned or fresh): Surprisingly, in the case of this dish, canned tomatoes are preferred, and, the best fresh tomatoes in Italy are San Marzano. Why canned tomatoes and not fresh tomatoes? As it was explained to me, the rugged mountains of Lazio, where Amatrice is located, was not prime territory for growing tomatoes, meaning: they could be grown, but the growing season was so short, it was normal and common for them to prepare this dish using home-canned San Marzano tomatoes when they had no fresh tomatoes to make tomato sauce with. So, yes, high-quality canned tomatoes in the off-season -- by all means!
Pepper (red peperoncino or black): In the case of this dish, peperoncino (red pepper flakes) are authentic and always used. Black pepper is typically not. It is, however, worth noting that black pepper is typically used in the curing process of both guanciale and pancetta, so, it does make an unnofficial appearence in this dish. Many Americans don't realize that Italians use red pepper flakes much like we use black pepper -- crushed or powdered it gets added to simmering liquids or sprinkled on top of finished dishes. Many kinds of capsicums are grown in Italy, and Calabria grows some of the finest red chile peppers in the world!
Grated cheese (Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano): It is grated Pecorino Romano all the way baby. Pecorino is a hard, salty, sharp grating cheese made from sheep's milk ("pecora") -- it's perfect for bold-flavored dishes and Locatelli is considered Pecorino Romano royalty. It was a staple in the diet for the legionaries of ancient Rome and is still made exclusively from the milk of sheep raised on the plains of Lazio and Sardinia according to the original, time-honored methods. Logic alone should tell you if this dish was invented by the shepherds around Rome, they were not preparing it using cow's milk Parmigiano-Reggiano, and neither should you!
Pasta (bucatini or spaghetti): It depends on who's dinner table you are sitting at. There are two factions, the fanatical left and the fanatical right, and trust me, you do not want to disagree with either. Personally, I say it's the one-of-a-kind super-long stranded, thick, hollow-centered bucatini that gives this dish its real-deal slurpy character and sloppy charm, and, it has nothing to do with arrogantly thinking spaghetti is too ordinary. It comes from making Amatriciana both ways. Bucatini's thickness gives it the surface area during and after saucing to produce the ideal result: a balanced dish consisting of pasta lightly enrobed in, not drenched or hidden by, a bold-flavored, slightly cheesy-tasting sauce studded with crispy pork!
Parting shots before preparing my version for Sunday dinner:
What the food police say about garlic, onion, herbs, wine & EVOO: We Americans tend to associate Italian food with garlic and tend to put garlic in anything and everything we associate with Italian cuisine. Italians ridicule us for this. This dish needs no garlic -- even if you love garlic in general, restrain yourself. That said, adding diced onion to the guanciale fat and sauteing it until translucent adds pleasant sweetness to the tomato sauce -- even the purists agree there is no crime in that. As for herbs, since San Marzano tomatoes have a few basil leaves packed in the can, if you feel the need to include an herb or garnish with an herb, use fresh basil. As for a splash of splendid wine or a drizzle of fruity EVOO to finish off this modestly seasoned, hearty dish -- what happens in an Italian kitchen stays in an Italian kitchen!
16-18 ounces bucatini*
5 quarts water
1 tablespoon sea salt, for seasoning pasta water
*Note: The average length of a strand of real-deal Italian-made bucatini is 40 inches (that's over 3 feet). I'm sure it would be amusing to cook them "as is" some day, but, to make them user-friendly, I break the long strands in half "at the bend", then break the lengths in half again!
8 ounces guanciale, 8 ounces after removing any visible rind
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand-crushed
1 1/2 teaspoons peperoncino
3/4 teaspoon sea salt, to taste, do not oversalt*
6 ounces finely-grated Locatelli cheese, about 3 cups
*Note: If this doesn't seem like enough salt to you, the guanciale is going to add additional salt to the sauce, and to the finished dish. The grated Locatelli cheese is going to do the same.
~ Step 1. Using a chef's knife, slice and discard any visible rind from top of guanciale. Slice, like you would bacon, into thin, slightly less than 1/4"-thick slices, then cut the slices into short 1/4" chards. Slicing it this way results in it being crispy on the outside w/a slightly-chewy center.
~ Step 2. Place the guanciale in a 3 1/2-quart chef's pan over medium-high heat. Using a slotted spatula or spoon, stirring almost constantly, saute until it is golden brown and puffy, about 8 minutes (more or less). To know exactly when it is done, look at these photos:
When the guanciale starts to heat up, the fat will turn translucent (Jello-like looking). As it sautes, translucent will turn to opaque. When opaque turns to golden, the guanciale is cooked perfectly. Overcooking it will dry it out -- don't do that.
Using a slotted spatula or spoon, transfer the guanciale to a paper-towel lined plate and set aside to drain.
There will be a lot of flavorful, fatty drippings in the bottom of the pan. This is exactly want you want.
~ Step 4. Add the tomatoes to the pan drippings, then, add the peperoncino and salt. Adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer, partially cover the pan and cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sauce will be reduced a bit, thickened and emulsified (fat will be incorporated):
~ Step 5. In an 8-quart stockpot, bring 5 quarts of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the salt. Add the bucatini and cook until al dente. This timing will vary slightly, depending on the manufacturer -- the bucatini I used today took 11 minutes. Drain into colander.
~ Steps 6, 7, 8 & 9. Add the steaming hot, drained pasta to the sauce. Using two forks or two spoons, toss as you would a salad, until pasta is evenly and lightly coated. Toss in two cups of the Locatelli cheese. Toss in the crispy guanciale pieces. Cover and rest about 5 minutes.
Toss in the last 1 cup of finely-grated Locatelli and toss again:
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; microplane grater; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides & lid, preferably nonstick; slotted spatula or spoon; 8-quart stockpot; colander; salad servers or two forks or two spoons
Cook's Note: For another Roman specialty, one that I do have first hand experience with, click into Categories 3, 11, 12, 14, 21 or 22, to get my recipe for ~ Melanie's Bolognese Sauce & Bolognese Lasagna: Veal & Rosemary-Tomato Creame Sauce & Lasagna ~. Pictured here tossed with the traditional pappardelle pasta, this long-simmered ragu is perhaps my favorite of all Italian sauces!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)