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.
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.
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
- Slice theguanciale into thin strips of equal size.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Serve immediately with an additional sprinkling of cheese on top.
All images courtesy of Giovanni Tarsia