I first had Amatriciana in Rome in the mid nineties. We were eating outside, along a busy downtown avenue at a restaurant whose name is lost to me but it was frequented by such great luminaries as Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone, according to our Roman host. He was a lawyer who preferred to be addressed as “Professor,” which required an eye roll but fit him to a tee. Throughout lunch he carried on as if lecturing a class, rarely ceding the spotlight to another speaker. Thankfully he was the type of pompous that can be interesting. I really kind of liked the guy.
Naturally, in the role of all knowing host, the Professor ordered for us. We began with deep fried anchovies and salted pork wrapped in squash blossoms coated in corn meal. We finished with veal and onions if I remember it properly. What I will never forget was the pasta dish we had in between. It was pasta with pork, red pepper flakes, onions, and tomatoes topped with a healthy grating of cheese. As simple as it sounds, I spent years trying to recreate it. It wasn’t until five or so years ago that I even knew the name of the dish. I was flipping through Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan when I had my Eureka moment. Since then, I have been reliving that afternoon on Rome at least once a month.
The recipe in this month’s cookbook is actually for Spaghetti Amatriciana. The Ultimate Italian Cookbook also calls for spaghetti but calls the dish Spaghetti all’Amatriciana. I have no idea if the “all'” is correct or not, but I do feel that I’m on solid ground when I say this dish is meant to be served with bucatini instead of spaghetti. Cook’s Ilustrated’s Italian Classics suggests bucatini, perciatelli, or linguini. The Geometry of Pasta suggests rigatoni first and then bucatini second. Spaghetti is listed seventh. Finally, Marcella Hazan from the above mentioned The Essentials of Italian Cooking:
It’s impossible to say “all’amatriciana” without thinking “bucatini.” The two are as indivisible as Romeo and Juliet. But other couplings of the sauce, such as with penne or rigatoni or conchiglie, can be nearly as successful.
So stick with bucatini
From this month’s cookbook, The Silver Spoon: Brush a casserole dish with olive oil and then add a “generous” 1/2 cup of diced pancetta and render. Next add a thinly sliced onion and brown. Add a seeded and chopped chile and 1 lb. 2oz. peeled and seeded tomatoes and cook for 40 minutes adding water as needed to keep it from getting too thick. Bring salted water to a boil and cook 12oz (?) spaghetti. When al dente, add it to the sauce and stir. Correct for salt and pepper and eat.
The Silver Spoon version could be very good but it misses the mark for me on two fronts. First, Amatriciana, despite hailing from Amatrice, is a Roman staple. Staples should be made with ingredients that are readily on hand (is “readily on hand” redundant?). Flaunt your fresher-than-though credentials if you must, but few people keep 1 lb. 2oz. of tomatoes around the house. Ditto fresh chiles. Every well stocked kitchen has canned whole tomatoes and dried red pepper flakes. Second, Amatriciana is meant to be a fast sauce. You can make it in the time it takes to boil water and cook pasta. 40 plus minutes is too long.
There will always be variations on classic dishes, especially one that can be made at home with little fuss. Most versions mention guanciale, cured pig cheek, as the preferred meat but suggest pancetta as guanciale is very hard to find in most states. Other ingredients I’ve seen are white wine, thyme, basil, Parmegianno-Reggiano, and Pecorino Romano. While I confess that my experiments with Amatriciana have been less in pursuit of authenticity that in the recreation of that afternoon in Rome, from what I have read, the restaurant of the forgotten name makes as traditional a dish as you are likely to find.
I like to get all my chopping done ahead of time. Chop three or four cloves of garlic, half a vidalia or yellow onion, and rip appart a 28oz. can of plum tomatoes, keeping the juices. For pork, I have tried a variety of products from tasso to speck in absence of guancale. Nothing beats Nueske’s applewood smoked bacon. Get your butcher to cut two slices between 1/4 and 1/2 inch thick (V Richard’s is the only place I know of that cuts their own bacon in Birmingham). Cut the bacon into match sticks and toss into a hot skillet. Just cook the bacon for three or so minutes until they get some color and then drain them on a paper towel and set aside.
Heavily salt some water in the Roman way. That means pour in a lot of salt and then a pinch or four more. They really like their pasta to have a strong flavor. Two tablespoons is enough. Put the water on to boil and then add two glugs of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter to a deep sauce pan – I use a Dutch oven. When the butter melts add garlic, wait a minute and then add the onions. Stir frequently until the onions start to sweat and then add the bacon and cook until the onions turn translucent. Add the tomatoes and a teaspoon of red pepper flakes (the sauce should be spicy so more if you like is just fine). Correct the sauce for salt and pepper but keep in mind that the pasta will carry some salty flavor as will the cheese. When the water starts to boil cook 1lb. of bucatini until al dente. Drain and combine with the sauce. Stir in grated Parmigiano-Reggiano to taste but don’t overwhelm the sauce. Add a bit and try it etc. Serve immediately.
This will go well with any number of reds but I would stay away from heavier wines. Barbera d’Alba would be amazing. If you can’t decide what to have with it, find a pompous Italian lawyer and let him have sway.