Today would have been the day in which the town of Amatrice (in the province of Rieti near Rome) would have celebrated its famous dish Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Instead, it is in mourning, as is the rest of Italy, for the devastating earthquake, or terremoto, last week that razed this picturesque town to the ground. I have traveled similar medieval towns whose paved streets, stone buildings with time-encrusted tiles, and breath-taking vistas, dot the Italian landscape by the hundreds, each one a particular jewel nestled in mountains and countryside.Each one a work of art. Each one Italy’s national treasure. So it is heartbreaking that yet again, as Italy is prone to earthquakes, another area is hit by tragedy. Once again I am struck by the irony of fate as I view the brutal images of nature’s cruel hand. Scenes of utter destruction of building reduced to rubble like matchsticks sit side by side the tranquil scene of a balcony with geraniums growing in pots, a not-so-subtle reminder of an orderly life snuffed out.
Cooks around Italy and the world have rallied with the most powerful weapon they have to help the victims of the earthquake. Some restaurants are offering bucatini all’amatriciana and donating the proceeds to the agencies helping the victims.
In solidarity with those affected by this terrible tragedy, I thought I’d give a bit of history and the recipe of this pasta dish which is probably one of my favorites. Amatrice claims the dish to be its own, but it also has another origin. It is said that the word “matriciana” comes from the word “matrix,” or”marchio” the branding of the pigs’ “cheeks” to identify them and the guanciale , or cured jowl (from “guancia” meaning cheek) from which it is derived. Guanciale is an essential ingredient in the making of Amatriciana, but if you can’t find it, pancetta (although much milder) or bacon (perhaps too smoky and salty) would work as substitutes.
There are some variations, and even disputes, about the dish. One of these is whether to use onion or garlic! Purists claim neither should be used, that the tomato sauce cooked in the grease of the guanciale is sufficient. However, some historians claim that the time of year in which the sauce is made, varies in taste and quality. In wintertime, most cooks would use a tomato sauce preserved in bottles (conserva) which had a tendency to be sweeter and thus garlic would bring out more tartness and bitterness to the sauce. In summer, using fresh tomatoes, onions would prevail because they would counterbalance the acidity. I use onions – always – because I’m a purist when it comes to cooking sauces with a buttery or fatty base…onion prevails.
Another dispute is whether to splash the saute’ of the guanciale with a little white wine. Some cooks do…and I like to do so too. The use of peperoncino (or red chili) flakes is another object of discussion! I never do. And lastly, there’s question of what cheese to sprinkle over it, pecorino or parmigiano? Traditionally, it is pecorino, as the dish is nothing more than the evolution of the “gricia” or pecorino typical of the cheese produced in towns like Amatrice and Grisciano (also hit by the earthquake). Princes of the 1800s and 1900s who ruled these towns in and around Rieti were called “matriciani,” possibly producers of this cheese (?) thus lending their name to the dish. I don’t usually use pecorino because I don’t always have it handy; I’m not a purist here!
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium sized onion or ¾ cup finely diced onion
7-8 oz guanciale (or pancetta) – sliced thinly or diced.
1 8 oz can diced or finely diced tomatoes or 2 cups fresh – puree these in food processor. Do not use canned pureed tomatoes or tomato sauce as these are too thick.
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb of bucatini
pecorino or parmigiano
*Guanciale is not easy to find. I purchase it at the Davis Farmer’s Market from John Bledsoe or you can order from bledsomeats (look on Facebook).
1.Heat the pan and add the olive oil. Coat the bottom and when the pan is hot, add the guanciale. Cook until golden and crispy. Remove half of the guanciale and drain on towel paper. Drain most of the fat in the pan. Leave about 2 tablespoons. Splash with some white wine to loosen the bits of meat from the bottom.
2. Add the onions and sauté lightly until golden brown. Once the onions have become golden, add the pureed tomatoes, stir, add half a cup of water, salt and pepper. Lower the heat to medium low and simmer for about 20-35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add water if the sauce becomes too dry and needs more time to “caramelize” or reduce nicely. Make sure the sauce is no longer watery before turning off the heat.
3. Cook the bucatini according to package instructions. Drain and add to the sauce in a large bowl or provide individual portions. Sprinkle the crispy guanciale on top of the pasta with a good dose of cheese.
This has to be the defining idea of comfort food. I know my family has always come together with this dish, especially in dreary winter months. As we mourn with Italians for their great loss, render homage to their great heritage by making bucatini all’amatriciana sometime this week. Buon appetito!