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Authentic amatriciana pasta – Roman style

Posted in Food, and Food & Entertaining

Made by Giovanni a few nights ago in Rome
Made by Giovanni a few nights ago in Rome

I was born in Bologna, Italy and, before moving to the States I lived in Milan. When it comes to cuisine, Italians are as territorial as dogs: I am able to tell you what goes in a perfect beef ragout, how to make pasta from scratch and that lasagna does not call for ricotta cheese. A Milanese risotto necessitates bone marrow and tortellini should be eaten in chicken broth, not with meat sauce. But when it comes to the traditions of Southern Italy, I can be a bit hazy or, at least, not that well versed.

Last Summer, my sister Maddalena and her boyfriend Giovanni came to visit for a couple of weeks. Giovanni is from Rome, one of my favorite cities in the world, but also a bit of an alien world if you were born in the North – and I say this with great affection and not a hint of sarcasm. Ask a Milanese what distinguishes him from a Roman and he will rattle off punctuality, precision, Lutheran working habits. Ask a Roman the same question, and he will tell you about his ability not to take life too seriously and a more creative mind. Both sides have a point and, when they come together, like in my sister’s relationship, they rub off each other and can produce perfection.

Giovanni, my Roman food consultant
Giovanni, my Roman food consultant

As soon as he arrived at my house, after a 13 hour flight, the first thing Giovanni hastened to do was open his suitcase and appear in the kitchen laden with a chunk of authentic Roman Pecorino cheese and a hefty piece of guanciale (pig’s cheek jowls, which can be found in the States at some butchers’). These are key ingredients for a proper amatriciana pasta: to a Roman, using pancetta, or – horror! – bacon, is anathema. A few days later, recovered from jet lag, Giovanni, who is a very proficient cook, invaded my kitchen and made us a proper spaghetti amatriciana. Recently reminiscing about those perfect spaghetti, I emailed Giovanni and asked for its secret: guanciale and not pancetta (which comes from the belly of the pig and is too salty for this purpose) and very good Pecorino. Well, yes, I could have guessed. Giovanni also sent me a brief history of the recipe, of which I knew nothing about, and  step-by-step instructions.

The official sign welcoming visitors to Amatrice - only claim to fame is Amatriciana
The official sign welcoming visitors to Amatrice – only claim to fame is Amatriciana

It turns out spaghetti all’amatriciana come from the village of Amatrice, a tiny, hilly place on the border between Lazio and Abruzzo. Long before tomatoes arrived from the new world, shepherds would leave for their long days on the hills with some pecorino, dried pasta, lard and guanciale in their packs and, in their huts, made the precursor to the classical recipe we make today. This tomato-less version is now called Pasta alla Gricia. The original amatriciana recipe doesn’t call for onions either but they do lend a sweetness to counterbalance the cheese that Giovanni does recommend (as do most Romans).

It’s a very simple recipe. If guanciale is not available where you live, try using pancetta but stay away from bacon – too smoky. And get the best pecorino you can buy. Spaghetti are the pasta of choice but large pasta like rigatoni works very well too.
I have asked my sister and Giovanni to come back next Summer but their hearts seem set on South Africa this year. It might be sofagirl’s turn for a chunk of real pecorino and authentic jowls.

RECIPE – Serves 4

400 g pasta (such as spaghetti or rigatoni – rigatoni are easier to handle if you are serving many people)
250 g guanciale or pancetta
500 g tomatoes (either fresh or canned)
150 g pecorino cheese
1 T EV Olive Oil (in the old days they would use lard)
a pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1/4 of an onion, diced

  1. Slice theguanciale into thin strips of equal size.

    Slice the guanciale or pancetta in small strps
    Slice the guanciale or pancetta in small strips
  2. If using fresh tomatoes, drop them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, drain and peel. Place them in a bowl and mash them with a fork. Grate the cheese and set aside.
  3. Place the oil in a large pan on medium heat, add the onion and the guanciale and cook for a few minutes, then add the pepper flakes. Cook for a few minutes more until the onion turns golden.

    Good pecorino is a must
    Good pecorino is a must
  4. Add the tomatoes and cook, on medium-low, for 10 to 15 minutes, until the sauce comes together and most of the liquid has evaporated.
  5. In the meantime, cook the pasta. Drain and add it to the pan with the tomato sauce. Mix it on low and, gradually, add the pecorino, all the while mixing and coating the pasta.
  6. Serve immediately with an additional sprinkling of cheese on top.

All images courtesy of Giovanni Tarsia

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13 Comments

  1. Giovanni
    Giovanni

    Grazie per il simpatico post e per le belle parole. Quando vuoi sempre a disposizione per alre ricette romane.

    April 15, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Thank you Gio. Ti usero’ sicuramente di nuovo!

      April 15, 2015
      |Reply
  2. Simple and tasty? My kind of recipe…its on the menu for this weekend!

    April 10, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Beauty of Italian food. No hard technique to master, just good ingredients. But you know that.

      April 10, 2015
      |Reply
  3. Maurits Kalff
    Maurits Kalff

    I have just made this and it was divine. We are very lucky with a phenomenal Italian shop next door with only the very best of ingredients. Best lunch in a long time! Thank you and greetings from London SE1

    April 10, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Despite the perfect sunny day here in LA, I am experiencing envy for SE1 right now. Glad you liked. Cacio and Pepe will be next then, to make sure you put to good use your pecorino.

      April 10, 2015
      |Reply
  4. Wait. I just copied this recipe into my file and after reading it all the way through, I don’t see where to add the guanciale. Did I just miss that part somewhere?

    April 9, 2015
    |Reply
  5. This sounds wonderful and ingredients will be on my shopping list for this weekend. I, too, love the history and cultural references you provide. Thanks, as always, for a really great post.

    April 9, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Blimey, you are right! It goes in with the onion. I just amended the recipe so you can bookmark it again! Thanks for catching it….and I even re-read it four times before posting…

      April 9, 2015
      |Reply
  6. camparigirl
    camparigirl

    Not only are we territorial when it comes to food but also terribly attached to what we learnt growing up. It always amazes me how Italians can rhapsodize about food for hours on end. And I am with you with the short pasta: while I cook spaghetti, bucatini and linguine from time to time, I am a short pasta gal. Way less messy.

    April 9, 2015
    |Reply
  7. silvia
    silvia

    I’m very fond of all related stories/culture/pieces of history to your recipes and sofagirl’s. Every time I learn something. It’s more fun than the recipe itself, but you know me.

    April 9, 2015
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Yes, I know you and I also know you get a great sense of satisfaction the rare times you do cook.

      April 9, 2015
      |Reply
  8. This is one of my favorite Roman dishes!! Seriously.

    My Roman friends argue about it all the time. My first week in Rome, I went to a dinner party and a huge debate broke out because the host used onions in his dish.

    At lot of place here use bucatini pasta. I love the thickness of it but it’s a pain to eat. Which it why when I’m not eating it alone I prefer rigatoni or mezzo rigatoni pasta

    April 9, 2015
    |Reply

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