Pasta all’Amatriciana

It’s interesting how food can transport us to far away places. My host son Julius studied at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy where the curriculum required frequent field trips to the farms, vineyards and production facilities responsible for some of the country’s most iconic foods. He learned, among other things, how the terroir affects the milk used in Parmigiana Reggiano, the unique qualities that define a good olive oil, and the years-old traditions behind balsamic vinegar. There were samples, no doubt, and on occasion, these culinary sojourns concluded with a familial-like feast at the invitation of the purveyors themselves. Not a bad way to get an education, if you ask me.

On a later visit to DC, Julius brought pasta from the Italian food importer he now works for and offered to make dinner, a dish he picked up during his studies that is popular throughout Italy but not well-known here in the states, pasta all’amatriciana. I had never heard of it, but once I tasted it, I was right there along side Julius, traversing the Italian country side and living la dolce vita, if only vicariously through his stories.

Nestled in the upper northeast corner of Lazio, adjacent to the Abruzzo region, is the city of Amatrice, from where this dish takes its name, though it is most popular in and around Rome. The traditional recipe is protected under the STG (specialità traditional garantita) designation, which mandates that it be made with guanciale (cured pork cheek produced in the region), tomatoes, Pecorino di Amatrice or Pecorino Romano, white wine, extra-virgin olive oil, chile, salt, pepper and nothing else. Some “unofficial” versions include a little garlic and onion and perhaps a sage leaf or two.

Nestled in the upper northeast corner of Lazio, adjacent to the Abruzzo region, is the city of Amatrice, from where this dish takes its name, though it is most popular in and around Rome. The traditional recipe is protected under the STG (specialità traditional garantita) designation, which mandates that it be made with guanciale (cured pork cheek produced in the region), tomatoes, Pecorino di Amatrice or Pecorino Romano, white wine, extra-virgin olive oil, chile, salt, pepper and nothing else. Some “unofficial” versions include a little garlic and onion and perhaps a sage leaf or two.

This version uses pancetta in place of guanciale, because the former is more ready available in the US. It also calls for a little rosemary, which pairs beautifully with the pancetta, but Julius warned me to be careful. Rosemary is a bit like a dinner guest who insists on being the center of attention. It can quickly over power the sauce. Use no more than 2-3 sprigs, and pick them out before serving.

Amatriciana is what I call a “pasta pan sauce”. The technique is similar to several others that I make, namely arrabbiata. Sauces like these require a handful of ingredients, many of which are pantry staples, and come together in 30 minutes or less. They are rich and flavorful, and as such, go a long way. This recipe yields enough sauce to coat a pound of pasta. 

The traditional pasta used is spaghetti, but I prefer Bucatini for its thick strands and ridges. I think it does a better job of holding onto the sauce. If you prefer, you could also use penne rigate or rigatoni. 

I use Cento canned San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy, because the quality is better than anything from the supermarket produce department, even in summer. Plus, canned tomatoes allow me to enjoy this dish year round. However, if you prefer to use fresh, substitute 10-12 plum or Roma tomatoes, peels and diced. 

Buon Appetito.

Bucatini all’Amatriciana

Recipe by David EllisCourse: DinnerCuisine: ItalianDifficulty: Easy
Servings

4

servings
Prep time

5

minutes
Cooking time

20

minutes
Total time

30

minutes

Like so many Italian dishes, this rural pasta sauce comes not from the aristocratic class but from farmers and working poor. Traditionally, it’s made with guanciale, cured pork cheek, but I’ve substituted, which is easier to find. If you prefer guanciale, reduce the olive oil to 2 tablespoons.

Ingredients

  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

  • 4 oz pancetta, ½-inch diced

  • 2 large or 3 medium cloves garlic, minced

  • ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes

  • 28 oz canned tomatoes (preferably imported San Marzano)

  • 2-3 springs fresh rosemary

  • Salt & pepper

  • 1 pound dried bucatini or thick spaghetti

  • 1 oz Pecorino Romano cheese, about ⅓ cup shredded,plus more for topping

Directions

  • Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot over high heat.
  • Heat oil in a large skillet skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add pancetta and sauté until most of the fat has rendered and meat begins to get crispy, about 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and heat until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  • Add tomatoes along with juice, breaking them up with the back of a wooden spoon. Add up to ¾ cup of the reserved tomato juice. Add whole rosemary springs. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Once sauce has thickened, remove rosemary sprigs. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • While the sauce is cooking, add 1 tablespoon of salt and pasta to boiling water and cook until al dente per package instructions. When finished, reserve ½ cup of pasta water and drain.
  • Transfer the pasta to the sauce and stir until evenly coated. Add a small amount of cooking water if sauce is too thick or dry. Stir in the Pecorino. Serve immediately and top with additional Pecorino if preferred.

Notes

  • Be careful not to over salt the sauce. Wait until the sauce is cooked down before tasting for salt. There may be ample salt in the canned tomatoes, pancetta and pecorino cheese.