Italian Sauces VIII: Amatraciana

I hope you all enjoyed our little time-travelling trip back to 1980s Manhattan last week.  This week, we're going back to the Old Country to do the time-warp again, this one without any pelvic thrusts.  We're going to turn to a dish that might be unfamiliar to many of you, dear readers.  It's known as bucatini alla amatraciana.

With this dish, we're back to basics.  But don't worry.  What we give up in cream and pyrotechnics, we're gonna make up for in another luscious substance.  Liquid gold.  Pork fat.  Now forgive me, vegetarian readers out there.  This week just isn't for you.  But even the veggiest of the vegetarians know that there are few more primitive enjoyments than the smell of rendering pork.  High in calories, resistant to spoilage, especially when cured with salt and spices, fatty sections of pork have been making human mouths water for centuries. 

Medieval Italy was no exception. Imagine you're a shepherd in central Italy who needs to take your goods to a major urban center to sell your wares.  Odds are, you're headed to Rome to feed the city's massive meat and wool habit.  Given you don't have a truck to make that trip within a day, you're gonna have to schlep across some hill country.  That's hungry work.  When you all have to stop for the night, you have to slap together something that is easy to make and made from ingredients that do not spoil (I imagine the only thing worse than shepherding is shepherding with a stomach bug).  Well, like an Italian cowboy, you make a nice little pot of gravy on your campfire.  You have a big chunk of fatty cured pork.  You have a big hunk of dry hard cheese, like pecorino.  And you have some pasta.  So you cook the pork until its bubbling in its own fat.  Drop your pasta in there.  And add a bunch of cheese and some pasta water until it's all happy-happy.  Yeah, I'd eat that.

And apparently, so would those cosmopolitan Romans.  They ate it up.  And probably asked their shepherds where the hell they were from to make such a delicious dish.  And our heroic pasta-peddlers said "Amatrice," from the rural town in Lazio, about 60 miles from Rome, which was the ancestral home of this dish.  And so to the Romans, spaghetti alla amatriciana it was--although sometimes it was referred to as "alla gricia" for a neighboring town in mountainous Lazio.  Y'know, it's all eating good in the neighborhood.

The attentive reader will note that the pasta pictured above is pretty red.  What gives?  Remember, our shepherds were trading centuries before Columbus failed geography class.  No tomatoes yet.  But clearly those Romans knew a good thing when they saw this alien pod fruit, and eagerly incorporated it into this already-classic dish at the first opportunity.  And sure, chilis go really well with pork (recall: because capsaicin is fat-soluble), so throw some of those spicy alien pods in there, too.  And swap spaghetti for bucatini (keep reading) for good measure.  So "amatraciana bianca" transformed into "amatraciana rossa," after the Romans had their say. 

Like many recipes in Italy, the stakes are high for getting this stuff right.  A couple years ago, one Italian chef argued that garlic was appropriate additive to the classic amatraciana.  This led to quite the cause celebre, and the mayor of Amatrice felt the need to denounce Cracco and claim that the "TRUE" recipe consisted only of guanciale (more on that in a sec), San Marzano tomatoes, white wine, black pepper, pecorino, and chili flakes.  Full stop.  In other words, get that weak sauce out of here.

So where did onions that are so common to renditions in both Rome and the US come from?  I have no idea.  Can't find any record of onions being added to the dish.  Probably one of those liberties taken by Romans at some point over the last 500 years.  But I like them.  Pork and onion is a dynamite combination--savory and sweet--especially with the salty-tang of pecorino.  And notwithstanding what the venerable mayor of Amatrice says, there is at least some precedent for inclusion of onion into the dish.  I will agree, however, that garlic does get a tad dominant.

If any of you are eager to do further research, please be my guest.   It seems like it would be a full-time job.  There are dozens of different timelines and renditions.  But hey, as long as we got a steaming bowl of pork-fat coated noodles, dusted with a bunch of cheese, things will be fine by me. 

Bucatini alla amatraciana

  • 6 oz. of pancetta (or 4 oz. guanciale)
  • One yellow (not sweet) onion (if using)
  • At least 1/4 teaspoon chili flake
  • Bottle of pasatta (or 28 oz can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)
  • Splash of white wine
  • 1/4 cup of grated pecorino romano, plus more to top.
  • One pound bucatini

Alright, so clearly, if we need to do some porcine alchemy, we need some pork.  Now, while in the US, we're most familiar with bacon, which has the special aroma of smoke, back in the Old Country, fatty pork products are much more purely-porky.  No smoke at all.  As I mentioned above, most chefs in Lazio use guanciale (gwan-CHI-a-lay) to get that pork fat.  Guanciale comes from the pork jowl, under the cheek, meaning it's got a thick amount of fat around it.  Unfortunately, for us mere mortals in the US, we don't really have access to guanciale.  So let's call an audible with pancetta:

As you can see, it's got a good deal of fat, but still affords some muscle-tissue because it comes from the pork belly.  So it's much closer to American bacon as an ingredient.  And it gets really crunchy, which is great by me.  So to start, get a pot on for your bucatini (more on that in a minute), and lay your pancetta into a pan on medium to crisp up.  If you happen to be well-heeled enough to get access to guanciale, then chop it into rough cubes and proceed thusly.

See all that good-good popping in the pan?  That's what we want.  Don't burn the pancetta.  Pull them out and lay them on a paper-towel to dry off.  Leave the fat behind, but discard about 2 tablespoons; we don't want it to be swimming in grease.  In that porky-goodness, drop your chilis in to toast for a few seconds. 

In the meantime, if you're a heretic, finely chop one yellow onion.  Be sure to not use a Vidalia or other sweet onion.  I did it once, and it got so sweet that it was just a distraction.  I was :( . So just be aware.  When you're satisfied that the chili flake is good and toasty, drop the onion in and cook until soft and golden, about seven minutes, til they look like this:

Add a little white wine, about an ounce to get off any brown bits of porky sucs.  At this point, we can apply our tomatoes.  If you like a smoother sauce, use passata.  If you're a fan of a robuster mouth-feel, use a 28-oz can of whole, peeled San Marzano tomatoes.  After the tomatoes get in the pan, crumble about 80% of the pancetta into the sauce.  You'll get this majestic scene.

Let the whole thing meld together, until it looks a little jammy, probably about 10 minutes on medium-low heat.  By now, your bucatini should be almost ready to drain.  So what is this bucatini of which I speak?  It's really cool, actually.  Imagine you have a very thin, long metal rod that you wrap a sheet of pasta around, then pull the rod out.  That's bucatini.  Like a Roman drinking straw.  Through capillary action, this tube gets filled with oils and liquids of the sauce, and that's a beautiful thing. 

Drop those beautiful tubules into your porky jam and stir like mad.  Now's the time to apply the pièce de la resistance: pecorino. 

Pecorino romano is a sheep's milk cheese that comes from Lazio (hence the "romano" appelation).  Locatelli is a good brand, with a brownish rind that says "Locatelli" in cursive, but get whichever you'd like.  Pay attention to the texture as you're handling it.  It's a little courser than parmesan, probably due to a slightly different protein structure in the process of cheese making.  I'll figure that part out one day, don't you worry.

If it smells like feet, it's really good.

If it smells like feet, it's really good.

Put your 1/4 cup on the noodles as you stir through.  Now's the best part.  Serve up yourself a wad of the noodles, top with a couple crumbles of that reserved pancetta, and top with more pecorino.

Porcine Paradise

Porcine Paradise

You know how to do the rest.  One last piece of advice: due to the bucatini's girth, it can sometimes be a little unwieldy to twirl, so protect your shit.

But hey, if you end up wearing some of this stuff, be proud!  You're taking part in a centuries' old tradition.  You can be sure some shepherds in the hills around Rome about three hundred years ago were going to town on a platter of this stuff.  One of them slopped a generous blob on his coarse tunic.  With a muttered "Mèrda," he tried to scrub it away.  Was he unsuccessful?  Definitely.  But who cares?  He got to enjoy that lingering aroma of pork all evening.  He was the lucky one. 

Try the sauce with onion, once without, figure out what you like.  Are you a loyal Amatrician?  Or more of a meretricious Roman?  Experiment!  Whenever you may be eating this, in a cozy, pork-infused home, just recall our sauce-splattered shepherd, Chef Cracco getting hate mail, and all the people who care so much about what goes into amatriciana that they post angry recriminations back and forth on the web.  You're part of that now.  Welcome to the community! 

Just no bloody garlic, capisce?