In August 2016, a deadly earthquake shook central Italy. Devastation was widespread, and several small towns were reduced to rubble.
One of these was Amatrice, which is located in a region of Italy called Lazio. Today, many of Amatrice’s historic structures, including beautiful churches and basilicas, as well as homes and even the town square, have not yet been rebuilt. As is often the case with natural disasters, those who remain struggle with a lack of resources to restore their town.
At the time, when news outlets reported the earthquake, they were quick to provide viewers with a map of Italy pinpointing where the tiny village of Amatrice is located. But, almost as quickly, they emphasized that this was the home of the famous pasta dish known as bucatini all’ Amatriciana.
Despite the fury of nature, bucatini all’ Amatriciana endures in Amatrice, in the city of Rome and in America. A recent article in the New York Times by Stephen S. Hall recounted a visit to Amatrice. While saddened by the earthquake destruction that remained, Hall wrote that he enjoyed several variations of this famous pasta and that each chef he encountered insisted their recipe was the best.
The key ingredients of bucatini all’ Amatriciana typically are:
- Guanciale—unsmoked pork cheek (really!) that is cured with salt, sugar and sometimes pepper. Guanciale is very hard to find, so cooks usually substitute pancetta, which is also an uncured pork product but taken from the belly of the pig.
- Tomatoes, garlic and red chili or chili pepper flakes.
- Pecorino cheese—a sharp sheep’s milk cheese from southern Italy.
- Bucatini pasta—a long pasta that is thicker than spaghetti and has a hole in the center.
Some recipe variations call for butter instead of olive oil, some chopped onion and a bit of Parmesan Reggiano cheese added to the pecorino. What follows is how I make it. The source is “Savoring Italy,” a favorite cookbook of mine from Williams and Sonoma. It is the classic version from Lazio, Italy.
Bucatini all’ Amatriciana
- ¼ pound pancetta or unsmoked bacon, chopped (let me know if you can find guanciale)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- A pinch of dried red chili flakes
- 2½ cups crushed or chopped tomatoes (good imported canned tomatoes work very well and are actually better than fresh tomatoes that aren’t beautifully red and ripe)
- Pinch of salt with extra added to taste
- 1 pound bucatini pasta
- 1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for passing at the table
- In a saucepan or deep sauté pan that is large enough to hold the cooked pasta and sauce, cook the pancetta or unsmoked bacon in the olive oil over medium heat until golden and soft (about 10 minutes).
- Add the chopped onion and sauté about 5 minutes more.
- Add the garlic and red chili flakes and cook for just 1 minute. (Be careful not to overcook or use too high heat. Burnt garlic will ruin the dish.)
- Add the tomatoes and salt, bring to a simmer, and cook about 15 minutes or until the sauce thickens. (Best to lower the heat here and be very careful with the salt if the tomatoes you are using already are salted.)
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until it is al dente. When the pasta is cooked, remove and save about a cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Drain the pasta, pour it into the deep pan with the sauce, and toss well. Add a little of the cooking water to thin the sauce if needed.
- Sprinkle the pasta with the grated cheese and toss again. Transfer to a warm serving bowl and serve. (A little sprig of fresh basil on top adds a lovely touch.)
This dish is robust enough to stand up to a good Italian red wine, although it is noted that the Lazian natives prefer to serve it with a full-bodied white like frascati.
I love this dish. If the only bacon I have in the fridge is ordinary smoked bacon, I’ll even make it with that. (I know this is culinary heresy.)
However you might prepare bucatini all’ Amatriciana, toast the little town of Amatrice with the hope that it may thrive again.