This is the first in a series of recipes I'm going to be doing for you that are inspired from our recent trip to Italy. This has long been an absolute favorite dish of mine to make, but having it in Italy again was just beyond great. This dish, like Cacio e Pepe, is a very common pasta dish that you will find on so many menus in Rome. It's the best of Italian cooking, in my opinon - it has just a handful of great ingredients, is easy to make but totally gutsy in its flavor.
The Roman cooking purists will point out that you must use guanciale (cured pork jowl) in this dish and yes, that's true - in Rome, that is what will be used to make this dish there. But guanciale is not easy to find here and so I make this dish with pancetta. Guanciale is fattier and richer than pancetta but pancetta makes a fine substitute.
Bucatini is also the traditional pasta shape that you will see this dish made with in Rome, although spaghetti is the pasta that it is made with in Amatrice, the town that this dish originates from. Bucatini is like a very fat spaghetti, but hollow in the center. If you can't find bucatini, feel free to make this with spaghetti or even rigatoni. I do it all the time. If you've never eaten bucatini before, be aware that it takes a little skill and I would recommend tucking a napkin into your shirt when you first try it! It can be a little springy and slurpy.
This a great "pantry dish" because you can make it last minute with just the ingredients you have already on hand. I always have canned tomatoes and cheese and I always have pancetta in my freezer. I will buy it a pound at a time and bring it home and cut it up into 3-ounce portions and freeze them. Three ounces seems to be the size I most often use in recipes. The pancetta defrosts so quickly after you cube it that it's never a problem to make something last minute with it. I don't buy it in slices - I always buy it whole because I like to cube it up when I cook with it most of the time and slices are just way too thin to produce the right "bite".
I had this dish several times in Rome, but I must say my favorite version was at da Gigetto, an excellent trattoria located in the Jewish Ghetto neighborhood in Rome. They cooked it just the way I like it - not too saucy with the sauce almost being a bit dry. It was an intense, incredible dish:
The reason we were at da Gigetto was to sample a special way that they prepare artichokes there - whole and deep fried. I had seen this in a video a long time ago that Gourmet produced on Italian Home Cooking, featuring a woman interviewing great cooks around Italy. I thought, "the next time I go to Rome, I'm going to eat there and have those fried artichokes". After we sat down in the outdoor cafe and ordered our food, I look up and who walks over and sits down just a couple of tables from us but the woman in the video! I turned to my husband and told him who she was. I thought that was so funny. So I went over and introduced myself and told her that she was the reason we were sitting at that restaurant. Anyway, she is Elizabeth Minchilli - a food writer/publisher/architectural expert/food guide - who lives in Rome. She even has an iPhone App - "Eat Rome", which I immediately downloaded. What can't this woman do? And if you're into beautiful design, check out her books. She even has a house in Umbria you can rent that's gorgeous. Anyway, if you ever need dining help when you're in Rome, she's the person to consult. It was fun to bump into her.
artichokes at da Gigetto
Even though Amatriciana sauce has just a few ingredients, everyone seems to have their own version. Some call for onions, some don't. Some recipes add wine, other do not. Some mix Pecorino and Parmigiano cheeses. Some say absolutely never add black pepper. This is just my version the way I like it. I hope you do, too.
chili pepper from Amalfi
for a printable recipe click here
the secret to this dish is to not have it be too "saucy" - you want to simmer off a lot of the moisture from the tomatoes and leave just a thick sauce. The little bit of pasta water that will cling to the pasta when you transfer it to the sauce in the fry pan will be enough to thin out the sauce a little.
Bring a large pot of well salted water to a boil.
In a large fry pan, cook the pancetta over medium heat for several minutes until crisp but not brown. Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon and reserve, but leave the fat in the pan. Add the olive oil, onions and chili pepper and cook for several minutes until the onions are just soft but not browning.
Add the white wine and cook for one minute. Add the tomatoes (I just use my hand to crush them) and the juice and reserved cooked pancetta and cook over medium low heat, uncovered, for 15 minutes. You want most of the liquid to cook off.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta until still a little firm. With tongs, remove the pasta from the boiling water and place right into the tomato mixture. Thoroughly coat the pasta with the tomato mixture. Turn off heat and add the cheese, tossing well. Taste for salt and add if needed. Serve immediately and pass extra Pecorino around. Be sure to serve a big red wine with this dish.
* tip - If you cannot find or do not want to buy San Marzano tomatoes, I have found that Muir Glen canned whole tomatoes are pretty good. There are many canned tomatoes that are not. San Marzanos are going to have a richness of flavor you won't get with other tomatoes. They usually are found in 28 ounce size cans. In a recipe like this, where you just use 1 cup of them, I just freeze the remainder for another use. They freeze just fine.