The almost eerie perfection of the Baroque reconstruction in Sicily’s Val di Noto. The twelfth century church three metres below street level in the same island’s port city of Messina. The ghost town of Romagnano al Monte in Campania. The largely unrebuilt centro storico of L’Aquila in Abruzzo. And, this week, the destruction of Accumoli, Amatrice, Arquata and Pescara del Tronto in the central Italian Appenines. These are all reminders that the eye-achingly beautiful land I’ve chosen to live in, is trembling. Most of the time, those tremors are too weak to be felt. Sadly though, once in a while, the crust beneath will emit energy powerful enough to take lives and reduce those precious, tangible pieces of the country’s heritage to rubble.
This month, my family and I went on holiday not far from the towns affected. Four days after our return home, disaster struck. Even though we didn’t visit the towns affected by this week’s earthquake, in our travels in Italy, we’ve seen many stunning paesi, with seemingly well-preserved historical centres, perched atop peaks just like them. On Wednesday morning, TP roused me from my sleep with the news of the destruction of these towns. My initial reaction was disbelief. Once I felt ready to get out of bed, I made a beeline for my computer and turned it on. Sure enough, there was the mayor of Amatrice, on the website of Corriere della Sera‘s website quoted as saying, ‘il paese non c’é piu’.
In an unfortunate coincidence, I had actually revisited the recipe for pasta all’amatriciana, Amatrice’s signature dish, while we were holidaying in Lazio earlier this month. One day, while we were food shopping in Bolsena, TP remarked how much guanciale (cured pork jowl) there was available compared to the shops in Turin. A key ingredient in the amatriciana he loved so much, I suggested making it for dinner. And, after the earthquake occurred, I made it again as part of this weekend’s #virtualsagra to commemorate the fiftieth edition of the annual Sagra dell’Amatriciana (Amatriciana Festival), which was supposed to be held yesterday and today.
Although you may come across the odd variant using shorter rigatoni, pasta all’amatriciana is generally made with a long variety of pasta. In Rome, where the dish has also become part of the culinary canon, they prefer bucatini, a thick, spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running through it. Spaghetti, however, are more commonly used in Amatrice. The pasta is then coated in sauce made with, ummm… well that depends on who you ask or which recipe book you consult! Just to give you idea of how contested the issue can get at times, Michelin-starred chef and Italian Masterchef judge Carlo Cracco was inundated with criticism for suggesting on more than one occasion the use of an alium in the dish – namely garlic or onion.
At any rate, the three ingredients that everyone agrees on are diced guanciale, tomatoes and a generous grating of pecorino cheese. These are then spiced up with either pepper (in Rome) or chilli (in Amatrice). The presence of onion, garlic, white wine and even olive oil, however, is sometimes seen as superfluous at best and inauthentic at worst, despite many recipes, past and present, which include these. Remember Giuseppe Chioni’s prison camp-penned recipe compendium? Well, the recipe he transcribed for ‘spaghetti alla madrigiana‘ included lard, onion, parsley (!), tomatoes, guanciale, pepper and pecorino. Ada Boni, the Roman author of the 1927 cookbook, Il talismano della felicità, also prepared a soffritto of the offending onion in lard. For the record, I don’t put onion in mine, mostly because I’d rather keep things simple. I won’t hold it against you or anyone, even Carlo Cracco, if you do though! As with any recipe, don’t be afraid to make it your own.
I would, however, encourage you not to use olive oil when making this dish, for two reasons. Firstly, you’ll find that the guanciale has more than enough fat to render on its own. Try it, it really works! Secondly, forgive me for using this loaded word, there’s the ‘authenticity’ side of things. Somehow, I just can’t see the Appenine shepherds who are often credited with ‘inventing’ this preparation (along with its ancestor dish, the delicious, tomato-less gricia) traversing the mountains in the hot sun with a bottle of premium extra virgin olive oil on hand. They would have most likely used fatback and rendered it into the lard Lieutenant Chioni and Ada Boni cooked it in. Then again, I do contradict myself on this point by adding white wine, another easily perishable item that the pastori may have struggled to lug around while attending to their flocks…
In the recipe below, I’ve used passata di pomodoro (tomato puree) so you can make this dish all year round. To make a passata at the height of tomato season, cut some very ripe (usually the San Marzano or cuor di bue variety) tomatoes in half, put them in a saucepan with some coarse sea salt and cook them covered over low heat until they’ve softened and have released a large amount of their juices. In batches, pass the softened tomatoes along with their juices through a food mill until obtaining the consistency of a puree. In the colder months, I recommend buying canned tomatoes, removing them and their juices from their containers and passing them through the food mill as detailed previously.
Pasta all’amatriciana (serves 4)
150 g guanciale (use pancetta if not available)
100 mL white wine
550 mL passata di pomodoro (tomato puree)
1 red fresh or dried chilli, finely chopped
450 g bucatini or spaghetti
80 g pecorino cheese, freshly grated
Trim guanciale of its rind and slice into fine strips about 3 cm in length. Cook strips in a large frying pan on medium heat. Once they have rendered some fat and have crisp edges, pour over the wine. When the wine has almost evaporated, add the tomato puree and the chilli, stir and season with salt (I would err on the side of less due to the saltiness of some of the dish’s other ingredients, such as the pecorino). Cook over low heat, with the occasional stir, uncovered for 15-20 minutes or until the sauce has thickened noticeably.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt, stir and add spaghetti or bucatini to the pot. Cook the pasta until it is al dente (as a general rule, if your pasta has an indicated cooking time of 12 minutes, take one, or, if you prefer it with even more bite, 2 minutes off). Turn off heat, remove pot from stovetop and drain pasta in a colander. Pour drained pasta into the frying pan, and stir energetically until all the pasta strands are evenly coated in the sauce. Allow to cook for 1 minute on low-medium heat. Turn off heat, sprinkle 40 grams of the freshly-grated pecorino on top and give the pasta another energetic stir until the cheese is evenly distributed. Serve directly from the frying pan or from a warm serving dish, ideally with a fragrant white wine and extra pecorino to sprinkle on top of everyone’s plates.
Finally, don’t forget to make a contribution to disaster relief in Amatrice, Accumoli, Arquata and Pescara del Tronto. Here is an English-language form to make a Pay-Pal donation to the Italian Red Cross. Italian speakers can use this form instead. You may also wish to visit the websites of my fellow bloggers – Domenica Marchetti, Judy Witts-Francini, Katie Parla and Mike Madaio – who have provided links to other organisations collecting donations.