Amatrice, located to the northwest of Rome in the inland part of the bulging calf of the Italian boot, may or may not be the point of origin for this dish. The confusion arises from the name and its popularity outside of Amatrice.
The word Amatriciana means “in the style of Amatrice” and its popularity in Rome cannot be overstated. I’m on the side that believes a Roman liked the food in Amatrice and came up with something evocative of the place thus “in the style of” but I’m open to it being a direct import.
Either way I first encountered it in Rome over dinner with possibly the most pompous person I’ve ever met. Lucky for him, he was interesting and could pull it off.
He insisted that we refer to him as Professor Lupoi.
My father met him doing business in Italy – Dad was an attorney representing a US based company and Professor Lupoi was hired as local council. I’m assuming he taught somewhere though I never asked. Anyway, Dad built up enough frequent flier miles to take the whole family overseas and we were duty bound to have dinner with his colleague. Turns out I really liked the pompous guy, even when he ordered for all of us.
He began by apologizing for not having us over to his villa (he really said villa) for dinner because the place was swarming with archeology students. Apparently, a patch of his back yard fell in on itself revealing a room below covered wall to wall to floor and probably ceiling in ancient mosaics. That must have been pompous rocket fuel for him. After that he set upon a waiter and before we knew it our menus were being gathered.
We started with a squash blossom stuffed with pancetta, anchovy, and a creamy goat cheese and was dusted with cornmeal and deep fried. Amazing.
The main course was lamb with mushrooms. This was back in ’96 so forgive me if I can’t remember what kind, but I think they were morels. There was a mildly thickened jus poured liberally over the top. Amazing as well.
But the showstopper was the pasta course in between.
It was my first time meeting bucatini, an absurd but wonderful fat and hollow spaghetti. It was tossed in tomato sauce with chilis, onion, red pepper flakes, and diced pork I was later to find out was cured pig jowl known as guanciale. There was also tons of black pepper on it because everything in Rome has tons of black pepper on it.
When I got back home I messed with various proportions until I got it not so much right as close to right. Guanciale is almost impossible to find here but pancetta steps in nicely. Applewood smoked bacon takes it in a non-traditional direction but is far from objectionable.
The Birmingham diocese must be overrepresented at the Vatican. It seems like at any given time at least one priest is studying at the See and on their return I’ve had occasion to pick their brain. Amatriciana really is everywhere in Rome and to a white collar these priests love it in all its variations.
This is my go-to recipe at home. It’s a synthesis of cookbook recipes, personal experimentation, and clerical guidance.
- 1 lb bucatini
- ½ medium yellow onion, diced
- 4 oz. pancetta, diced
- 1 red chili, deseeded and diced
- 2-3 clove garlic, chopped (this is not traditional but I love garlic – skip it if you like)
- 28 oz. can whole plum tomatoes with juices, torn by hand
- 1 cup dry white wine (optional)
- 1 tbsp. unsalted butter
- olive oil
- pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
- salt and pepper to taste
Add a few glugs of olive oil to a wide high pan – a Dutch oven is perfect but any similar pan will do. Add the butter and melt over medium high heat.
Add the onions and pancetta and saute until the pancetta starts to crisp and the onion turns toward translucent. Add the garlic and the chili and cook until the chili dulls in color, maybe a minute or two. If you are using the wine, add it now, turn the heat up to high and reduce by half.
Next add the tomatoes. When you tear them be thorough. You want to avoid hunks of tomato flesh and you may well ask why you wouldn’t puree it. Tearing leaves tendrils that grasp the pasta where a puree would just drip off. I do that now with all my tomato sauces because a) I like the tendrils and b) I’ve read in several places that since you canning companies hold back their best tomatoes for the whole presentation as purees hide faults that you would see if you had the intact fruit/vegetable.
Bring to a boil and then simmer on very low for 20 or so minutes, stirring frequently.
Heavily salt the pasta water, bring to a boil, and then cook pasta per instructions.
When everything is set and ready, drain the pasta and pour it into the sauce with as much grated cheese as pleases you. Toss and serve. Oh, turn off the heat. You’re done cooking.
I wish we could serve this, but if we did it would mean paring our pasta selection down a little. Kitchen space is immutable and we are taxing our number of stove eyes as it is.
But who knows. Maybe a popular uprising from the throngs of blog readers will tip the scales toward my will. Tell the owners that you want Amatriciana. If both of you say something I’m sure that will make a difference.