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.
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 .
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