In honor of Amatrice

Perhaps you have (as I have) been thinking of central Italy more often the last couple of weeks, following news of the devastating earthquake which destroyed several towns in the mountains between Perugia and L’Aquila on August 24.


A street in Amatrice, 2012. Photo by Silvio Sorcini, Wikimedia Commons.

Amatrice, a town of about 2,600 residents, was about 75% destroyed. The death toll is nearing 300 in the region, including several other villages with major destruction. In addition to the tragic loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods, nearly every historic church in Amatrice was destroyed. The city’s bell tower survived the quake, and now stands over piles of rubble.

For about sixty years, from Italian unification up to 1927, Amatrice was part of L’Aquila, before being annexed to Lazio. L’Aquila, about 75 km to the south in Abruzzo, suffered its own devastating earthquake seven years ago. Last month L’Aquila’s annual religious festival, the Perdonanza Celestiniana, cancelled all social and cultural activities, all but the religious rites, in solidarity with  Amatrice and surroundings for this year’s disaster .


Bucatini all’Amatriciana–and don’t forget the wine! May I recommend Montepulciano d’Abruzzo?  Photo by Rkolarsky/Wikimedia Commons

Italian foodies might honor and remember the town with a dinner of Pasta all’Amatriciana, and I’ve been scouring recipe books and the internet reading about this traditional dish of Amatrice.

The traditional pasta, bucatini, is a long hollow tubular shape, which, frankly, I find a challenge to eat because it isn’t as flexible as typical long spaghetti or linguine. It tends to sproing off the fork and fling bits of sauce, however Marcella Hazen, in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, says, “It’s impossible to say ‘all’amatriciana’ without thinking of ‘bucatini.’ The two are as indivisible as Romeo and Juliet.” If you’ve never used bucatini, give it a try, but another long pasta would be an acceptable substitute.

Now, the traditional meat is called guanciale, a bacon made from the jowls of pigs that feast on acorns, according to Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy cookbook. Good luck finding guanciale if you aren’t in Italy. Pancetta is a good substitute and more widely available in the USA, and bacon is an acceptable substitute.

The traditional cheese is pecorino Romano, a very sharp sheep milk cheese which Hazen considers indispensible to amatriciana sauce, though it is too sharp for her taste as a table cheese. It’s readily available, so no need to fall back on the parmesan.

With all that in mind, here’s my proposed recipe, adapted from several sources:

2 tablespoons olive oil, or half oil, half butter

1/2 lb. pancetta, cut in thin strips

1 dried red chili pepper or flakes (amount to taste)

1 medium onion, sliced thin or diced fine

1 lb. tomatoes, chopped (peel them for a smoother sauce)


1 lb.  bucatini or other long pasta

plenty of grated pecorino Romano cheese

Heat olive oil (and butter, if using) over medium heat, and saute the pancetta for about five minutes. Add chili or flakes to taste, and continue cooking until pancetta browns a little. Add onion and cook until golden. Stir in the tomatoes and cook about fifteen to twenty minutes, until the sauce thickens.

While the sauce cooks, heat a large pot of salted water to boiling, and cook the pasta until it is al dente. Drain the pasta. Remove the chili pepper from the sauce if you have used a whole one. Then add the pasta to the sauce  in its pan, and toss well.

Serve with plenty of pecorino Romano




Italian news this week: Two high-profile court decisions

Italian court decisions have been in the news this week, the first generating mostly disbelief, and the second perhaps more “What took you so long?” comments.

Scientists were convicted of manslaughter for not predicting more certainly a deadly earthquake.

The former prime minister received a prison term of four years for tax fraud.

Readers, what do you think of these decisions? Do they change or confirm your view of Italy?

Pompeii: Just do it!

Frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii

Ancient history doesn’t turn my crank like medieval history does, but Pompeii is not to be missed regardless of your historical interests. Buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, Pompeii disappeared until its rediscovery in 1748.

Large sections of the city have since been unearthed–and I do mean large! The size of the city shocked me. Public buildings, retail shops, bakeries, a large theatre, public baths, even a brothel, and many homes now give mute testimony to the vibrant city that once was.

Bird mosaic at PompeiiA first-hand account of the eruption was written by Pliny the Younger, twenty-five years after the eruption in which his beloved uncle, Pliny the Elder perished attempting to rescue survivors. In two brief letters, he describes the earthquakes and ash, shooting flames and raining cinders, which brought terror to the entire Bay of Naples.

While Pompeii provides a fascinating view of life in a Roman era city, I was intrigued by the unexcavated areas. Ten or twelve feet above the level of the Roman streets, grassy fields bloom with daffodils in the spring, intrusions into the outline of the greater city. When I asked the staff about these areas, I was assured that they were excavating all the “important” areas, implying that nothing of significance lay in those intrusions.

How could they know?

Earthquakes in L’Aquila


Earthquake damage at Santa Maria Paganica Church in L'Aquila, 2009.

When I first visited L’Aquila in 2004, I wandered through the city looking at churches. Though many of them had medieval origins, almost all were now decorated in Baroque style, heavy on the cherubs and gilded trims. Some thoughtful person or committee (and I thank you, whoever you are) had undertaken a signage project in L’Aquila, and almost every church had a sign—sometimes even in English—outlining the history of the church.

The reason for the almost universal Baroque décor became clear as we read, for the third, then fourth, and fifth time, that “after the terrible earthquake of 1703, the church was rebuilt…” during the following ten or twenty years.

 Naturally enough, those churches were rebuilt in the style current in 1703, and not their original style. Aggravating as it was to my medieval mind, nearly every church in town had been remade Baroque.

 The city of L’Aquila was founded by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, and completed in 1254 by his son. I knew many of those churches had medieval origins, and my main reason for visiting was to see the monastery church of Santa Maria di Collemaggio. (You can see its beautiful pink and white façade in the banner photo above.)

 Fortunately, Collemaggio was not destroyed in 1703, and its Romanesque layered arches and portals welcomed me as I explored it. I paid my respects to Pope Celestine V, one of the subjects of my research for several years, whose body lies in a glass case there. He is also known as Saint Peter Celestine, or Peter of Morrone, and he founded the church in the 1270s and was crowned pope there in 1294. I did notice that part of the interior of Collemaggio had a Baroque style, and wondered if that was a result of earthquake damage. 

 The 1703 “terremoto” is reputed to have killed 5,000 to 10,000 people and destroyed nearly every building in L’Aquila. In a terrible case of déjà vu, in April of 2009 the mountains under L’Aquila shook the city to rubble again. More than 300 people died, around 1,500 were injured, and 65,000 became homeless due to the destruction.

 Once again, most of Santa Maria di Collemaggio survived. If you search on Google Earth for “Santa Maria di Collemaggio” you’ll see a village of blue emergency tents erected on the wide lawn in front of the church’s pink and white façade.  The dome collapsed, but the rest of the church and monastery stood the test. The remarkably clear satellite photos used by Google Earth for L’Aquila were taken just a few weeks after the earthquake, so you can see other collapsed roofs as you scan around the city. The most telling series of photos I have seen (warning: some graphic content) of the 2009 earthquake damage is at this website:  The photo above comes from this collection.

 In a December 2010 article in The Free Press (Rockland, Maine) columnist Chuck Marecic describes the downtown area of L’Aquila:  “On a recent walk through the city, I saw temporary wooden braces reinforcing the windows, doors, and walls of nearly every building. The town’s Duomo (cathedral) looks fine from the outside, but the inside has collapsed. Chain- link fences separate much of the city from its inhabitants. Here and there reconstruction projects are evident. However, for the most part the city stands mute and abandoned except for the teams of firefighters who continue to inspect the “red zone” to ensure public safety and the scores of visitors who have come to bear witness to the devastation.”

 I cried when I read about L’Aquila, and I’m not sure I’d want to join the ‘disaster tourism’ there, though it may provide some financial stimulus to the community. The city’s past fascinates me, but the future is very cloudy.