Italy is dealing with a natural disaster of grave proportions right now. Again. The earthquake that struck central Italy in the areas of Rieti and Amatrice has devastated several beautiful and charming hill towns (of which there seem to be countless iterations peppered throughout Lazio, Umbria, Abruzzo, and Le Marche). These are the core of Italy's charming and historic central regions that span from the Tyrrhenian Sea in the west to the Adriatic on the east coast. In a country obscenely rich in tourist attractions of every variety, these smaller towns often get overlooked by many travelers -- often to the delight of local residents. These hill towns, somewhat unfortunately, are nestled in the Apennine mountains, which are essentially the geological spine of Italy, and run along a fault line where Eurasian and African tectonic plates meet. So, as we saw seven years ago in L'Aquila, activity along these fault lines can be disastrous, and deadly. The images of Amatrice before and after, for example, are sad and humbling.
I've spent plenty of time in these central regions of Italy, as friends have houses in the countryside from Lazio to Umbria, from southern-central Tuscany over to Ascoli-Piceno in Le Marche. I've attended countless sagre (food and wine festivals) in these parts, traveled through mountainous, winding roads, often in search of a great little restaurant off the beaten path.
My memories of these parts, and the people here, are numerous, and fond. So it was heartbreaking last week that I was receiving play-by-play texts from friends a little too close for comfort to the epicenter of the earthquake, experiencing very scary after-shocks. And what saddened me to no end is the reality that last weekend was supposed to be the 50th annual sagra (festival) of Amatrice's most famous (namesake) dish, pasta all'amatriciana. I know many restaurants, both in Italy and in America, are helping out victims and towns that suffered heavy damages in the earthquake by donating a portion of their sales of pasta all'amatriciana to Italy's red cross. And that's great, but I don't have a restaurant and all I can do is encourage others to donate as much and as often as possible. And as comfort, I can instruct and share my recipe for my favorite Roman pasta dish. It's one that I turn to time and again, and it happens to be best at this time of year, when tomatoes are at their sweetest and most flavorful.
A little note: guanciale is THE meat of choice in Roman pasta dishes. It may not always be possible to find it, but I promise you the search for authentic ingredients will always pay off. Pancetta (unsmoked bacon) can be used in a pinch, but guanciale is cured pork jowl, and the flavor is much more unctuous and distinctive. It does, in fact, go a long way towards making a good amatriciana into a great amatriciana. And so, without further delay, my trusted recipe for this Roman classic...
BUCATINI ALL’AMATRICIANA (4-6 people)
This is one of a few quintessential Roman pasta dishes. You’ll find as many different versions as there are trattorie in Rome: some prefer the guanciale soft, some crispy; some prefer a thin sauce, some a more chunky, hearty tomato sauce; some use any short pasta, others insist on the thick hollow spaghetti known as bucatini. Here is the version I prefer after years and years of trial, revision, and much animated discussion among my Roman friends. But 2 things are a must for the integrity of the dish: 1.) the meat must be guanciale, cured pork jowl and not any old pancetta, and 2.) the cheese must be the sharp, salty pecorino romano, not the more common parmigiano reggiano.
3-4 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, finely diced
¼ lb. Thickly sliced guanciale, cut into small strips
3 cups canned San Marzano tomatoes, or equal amount of fresh plum tomatoes
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Salt & pepper to taste
1 lb. bucatini (or pasta of choice)
1/2 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
-Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
-Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and add the guanciale or pancetta, cooking until crisp. Remove from pan and set aside.
-Add the olive oil to the rendered pork fat and once heated, add the onion and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes.
-Add the tomato and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.
-Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for 7-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.
-Add a generous toss of salt to the boiling water, and cook the bucatini until tender but firm, al dente.
-Remove pasta from the water with tongs, or drain in a colander and add it to the pan.
-Return cooked guanciale or pancetta to saucepan.
-Turn pasta to coat, add the pecorino, and turn to mix thoroughly.Add a glug of olive oil if needed. There should be a sheen to the pasta.
-Serve at once.
To donate to the italian red cross, start here: