THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
The Via Salaria — the Salt Road — was one of the earliest roads built by ancient Rome to lash together its far-flung empire. The actual path of the road predated the Romans — the Sabine people of central Italy would trek down from their mountain redoubts to the mouth of the Tiber river, where they would collect sea salt which at the time was a prized commodity. Today the Via Salaria is labeled the SS4, or Strada Statale 4 (State Highway 4). It’s an otherwise mundane two-lane blacktop that overlays the track of the original Roman road, exceptional only in the path of history which it follows both literally and figuratively.
Why am I telling you all of this, you may ask?
In September I was driving north on the SS4 from Rome to the small town of Amatrice. It’s generally agreed that Amatrice is the birthplace of the classic pasta dish spaghetti all’amatriciana. I’d eaten and cooked amatriciana for years, but like many dishes and cuisines in this part of Italy, the provenance, recipe and ingredients of amatriciana were all in dispute. Visiting the birthplace of the dish was the only way to find out what an authentic version of amatriciana really tasted like.
First, a few notes about the many-layered history of the dish. The basis for the recipe begins in the 15th or 16th century when migrant shepherds living in a nearby town used readily available ingredients to make the classic dish pasta alla gricia. The ingredients were pecorino (a readily available sheep’s milk cheese), guanciale (salt-cured pork cheek), black pepper and dried pasta (the final three ingredients being resistant to spoilage). Pasta alla gricia became known as amatriciana bianca or the “white amatriciana,” referring to the color of the sauce made from the pecorino cheese.
Then, sometime in the 17th century, the tomato was introduced to Italy from the New World. It was only then that the Italian love affair with tomatoes began. Tomato sauces became a staple of Italian cooking, and eventually came to define Italian cuisine as it traveled with waves of Italian immigrants all over the world. The classic amatriciana bianca recipe was no match of this pomodoro invasion, and a generous portion of tomato sauce was layered on top of the original shepherd’s concoction. Somewhere along the way, red pepper flakes were added to the recipe to give it some spicy heat. Amatriciana bianca had transformed into amatriciana rosso and a canonical recipe was established.
As I drove into town, a sign announced our arrival into Amatrice. It is always interesting when city signs in my country denote the birthplace of an emperor, or perhaps more importantly, the birthplace of a dish like spaghetti all’amatriciana. Such was the case in Amatrice.
And then it happened.
Sitting at the historic La Conca restaurant, I had the best amatriciana I’ve ever had: pecorino, guanciale, tomato sauce, black pepper, red pepper flakes and fresh spaghetti.
However, as you move to Rome you will find the dish to be quite different. In fact the ancient Romans, of course, were known for assimilating the culture and traditions of its conquered peoples. Similarly, and perhaps even more controversially, contemporary Romans have assimilated amatriciana as a classic dish of cucina romana — the cuisine of Rome.
This next layer in the flavor and history of amatriciana originated when migrations from the countryside (Amatrice) to the city (Rome) brought an influx of regional cooking into the capital city. There, the dish got its own slightly different version of the name: pasta alla matriciana. Ingredients were added in various combinations: onions, garlic, white wine, basil, sage. The pasta is usually bucatini, a thicker, hollow version of spaghetti. Indeed the dish I’d been eating in Rome all those years was bucatini alla matriciana. A delicious dish no doubt, but lacking in the focused simplicity of the classic and original spaghetti all’amatriciana.
Regardless, this dish is one of the most celebrated in Italian cuisine and a personal favorite. Ever since Abbruzzese shepherds begin the tradition of eating this spicy pasta after a day in the chilly mountain air, the cooking process has always begun with the rich smell of a fatty piece of pork bubbling in the pan which to me it is the equivalent of ‘heaven’.
From my kitchen, to yours. Buon Appetito!
BUCATINI ALLA AMATRICIANA
Originated in the town of Amatrice (in the mountains of the Lazio region) the Amatriciana is one of the most famous pasta sauces in the Italian cuisine.
Story goes that this dish was initially called ‘gricia’ because of the people who invented it, the “grici,” sellers of bread and comestibles from the village of Grisciano.
Originally, the recipe was prepared only with guanciale (cured pork cheek) and grated pecorino cheese reflecting the local products easily available. However, during the 18th century tomato sauce was added to the preparation creating what we now know as Amatriciana.
The recipe became more and more famous in the Rome region in the early 19th century because of the strong ties between Rome and Amatrice and quickly became a ‘classic’ of the Roman cuisine even if it originated somewhere else.
The tomato-less gricia is still prepared in central-italy, however it is the tomato-enriched amatriciana that is more well-known all over the country and the world. And while the dish is sometimes prepared with spaghetti, the use of bucatini (long, hollow tubular pasta) is a traditional habit.
¾ pound guanciale, or pancetta, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves
1 red onion, halved and sliced ½-inch thick
1 ½ teaspoons hot red pepper flakes
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 ½ cups basic tomato sauce
1 pound bucatini
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only
Pecorino Romano, for grating
1. Being 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt.
2. Place the guanciale slices in a 12- to 14-inch sauté pan in a single layer and cook over medium-low heat until most of the fat has been rendered from the meat, turning occasionally. Remove the meat to a plate lined with paper towels and discard half the fat, leaving enough to coat the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes. Return the guanciale to the pan with the vegetables, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, or until the onions, garlic and guanciale are light golden brown. Season with salt and pepper, add the tomato sauce, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Cook the bucatini in the boiling water according to the package directions, until al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the simmering sauce. Add the parsley leaves, increase the heat to high and toss to coat. Divide the pasta among four warmed pasta bowls. Top with freshly grated Pecorino cheese and serve immediately.
BASIC TOMATO SAUCE
Makes 4 cups
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt, to taste
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot, and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes until as thick as hot cereal. Season with salt and serve. This sauce holds 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer.