American writer and journalist Daniel Handler had it right when he summed up fate as being ‘like a strange, unpopular restaurant filled with odd little waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like.”
Folks in central Italy must have been at that strange, unpopular restaurant just last week. Otherwise they certainly would have never ordered an earthquake registering 6.2 on the Richter scale to devastate the charming Italian town of Amatrice, among other neighboring towns. Just last year Italians had voted Amatrice, which in Italian means ‘lover,’ one of the loveliest towns in Italy. Now half of it lies in ruins.
No. They would have never ordered that.
And this particular run of fate gets worse. The earthquake didn’t just claim beautiful and historically significant churches and buildings. It also claimed too many lives from among the 2,000 plus residents of Amatrice as well as from the countless tourists who had arrived to help celebrate the town’s upcoming Spaghetti all’Amatriciana festival.
Known in Italian as ‘La Sagra degli Spaghetti all’Amatriciana,’ the annual festival celebrates the renowned pasta dish, whose origins lie in the town by the same name. Made from cured pork jowls, Pecorino Romano cheese and tomatoes, peppery Amatriciana sauce is considered one of THE traditional Italian pasta sauces, along with arrabiata, bolognese, classic tomato, pesto, and puttanesca.
While people throughout Italy and the world treat themselves regularly to this savory-sweet pasta dish, gourmands know that the best rendition can only be tasted in the town of Amatrice. You could say that eating the dish is akin to experiencing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper painting. While it’s pleasing to look at good-quality reproductions, it’s only hypnotically spellbinding when you are standing before the real painting in the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy.
This experiential difference certainly explains the pilgrimage many undertook last week, often crossing Italian regions, other countries and even oceans, to savor this classic dish at the height of its perfection. They traveled because the difference, as one might expect, lies in the quality and freshness of the locally-sourced ingredients that go into it.
For starters, the smoked pork jowls, or guanciale in Italian, lend the most defining flavor to the sauce. This is attributed to the local pigs’ lifestyle and diet, as they are allowed to roam freely in nearby woods to forage on acorns and chestnuts. Also, once cured with herbs and spices, the jowls are hung to air dry for weeks, where they take on the aroma of surrounding indigenous plants and trees such as rosemary, juniper and oak. This natural approach to raising pigs and then curing the jowls translates well in the pan. As it cooks, its firm texture softens without becoming too crunchy or too chewy. It melts in your mouth instead, like a decadent piece of chocolate.
The Pecorino Romano, a hard and savory Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, is also important. For maximum effect, it needs to be aged just the right amount. It also needs to have the perfect balance of piquant and sweetness, without being excessively salty. The folks in Amatrice taste the Pecorino before adding it to the sauce. Only then, based on the qualities of the cheese, can they decide how much to add to compliment the savoriness of the pork jowls.
Finally, we get to the tomatoes, which in Italy are organically-grown and sun-kissed by the Mediterranean sun. Cultivated in the area’s rich soil, they lend their sweet, rich acidity and firm red pulp to the sauce in a way no other tomato can do. I know. It’s unfair that a country the size of a flea monopolizes so much of the earth’s culinary bounty.
I can only hope to someday experience a steaming bowl of authentic spaghetti all’Amatriciana, once the town recovers, rebuilds and somehow repairs its broken heart. In the meantime, I made a batch of my own Amatriciana as a moment of silence, to honor the loss and the suffering of this afflicted area in Italy. I used the ingredients I could find: packaged pancetta, unbranded Pecorino and Mexican-grown organic plum tomatoes. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the traditional dish that inspired an annual festival, it is still quite delicious. And its sentiment is as pure as the ingredients that come out of the once beautiful and now suffering town of Amatrice.
FYI: Anyone wishing to donate funds to help the victims of this horrible tragedy can visit this site (set up by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies).
making pici all’amatriciana
Wash, remove seeds and chop 2 1/2 lbs. of ripe plum tomatoes. This will be about 13 tomatoes.
Optional step: Plunge tomatoes into a pot of boiling water and let cook for 1 minute. Drain immediately. Once cooled enough to handle, remove skin and seeds. Roughly chop them.
Cut 4 oz. of pancetta or bacon ((ideally you can use cured pork jowls, or guanciale, whenever possible) into strips that are 1/3-inch wide and an inch in length. If using guanciale, cut into ¼ – ½- inch thick strips before then cutting the strips into 1 inch lengths.
Grate 1/2 cup of Pecorino Romano.
Bring a large pot of water to boil for the pasta.
In a skillet large enough to eventually hold all the ingredients add 1 TBSP of olive oil and the sliced pancetta.
We add oil in this case to prevent the bacon from sticking to the pan until it begins to render its fat. Add an optional 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes. I don’t add it because I’ve got little ones at home and they need to eat too, but Lordy Lord do I miss the heat. Cook over a medium heat until the pancetta just begins to turn golden. In this recipe, you do not want to cook the pancetta until it is crisp.
Quickly remove the pancetta. Raise the heat and add 1/2 cup of dry white wine to deglaze the pan. Scrape off any of those browned bits (fond) stuck to the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook for 5 minutes, which will allow the alcohol to evaporate.
Add the prepped tomatoes, a couple pinches of sugar, and salt & pepper to taste.
Cook on medium-high for 10 minutes. The bubbling of the sauce should be lively. Every so often add a few spoonfuls of the pasta water.
It’s important to add the cooking water because it now contains some of the starch from the pasta and that’s what’s going to help bind the sauce. Taste and add salt or pepper if necessary.
Once the water for the pasta is boiling, add Kosher salt (the general guide is 1 TBSP for every 4 cups of water). Add 3/4 lb. of bucatini, thick spaghetti and pici pasta and follow the cooking directions on its packaging. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, transfer it to the sauce and add another ½ cup or so of the pasta cooking water.
When the pasta is al dente, turn the heat off and add the reserved pancetta pieces and mix well.
Add the Pecorino Romano.
Mix well until the sauce starts to look slightly creamy due to the Pecorino.
Plate the pasta and drizzle of some additional extra virgin olive oil on top (if desired). Makes 4 generous servings.