It could be said that bucatini all’amatricana and spaghetti alla carbonara are the ‘Romulus and Remus‘ of Roman cooking. No two dishes typify the local cuisine better than these two yet, like the two founding brothers of the Eternal City, neither actually comes from the city of Rome itself. L’amatriciana, as the name suggests, comes from a little town called Amatrice, in the province of Rieti, in what is now north-eastern Lazio. If you look on a map, you’ll see that Amatrice is located in a little ‘tongue’ of Lazio territory that sticks into a mountainous area in the center of the country known as the Gran Sasso (the ‘Big Rock’). And, in the old days—before Mussolini changed the borders and most definitely before this dish was invented—it was part of the region of Abruzzo. So, in fact, despite its renown as a Roman dish par excellence, the abruzzesi have a strong claim to this dish.
Bucatini, a kind of thick, hollow spaghetti also known in Naples and environs as perciatelli, are the classic pasta to use with this dish in Rome, although, truth be told, the sauce lends itself well to all sorts of dried pastas. In fact, the original dish was apparently spaghetti all’amatriciana, and this is the pasta recommended by the Amatrice tourist board. Rigatoni all’amatriciana are also quite popular. Fresh egg pastas, on the other hand, don’t go particularly well with this rustic sauce.
In any event, the dish is simplicity itself:
- 500g (1 lb) bucatini
- 150-300g (5-10 oz) guanciale or pancetta, cut into strips or cubes
- 1/2 onion, peeled and chopped, or 1 garlic clove, peeled and slightly crushed (optional)
- 1 peperoncino (dried red pepper) (optional)
- 250-500g (8-16 oz) fresh or canned tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
- Olive oil (or lard)
- Salt, q.b.
- 100g (4 oz) grated pecorino romano cheese
Throw the bucatini into abundant, well salted, vigorously boiling water and cook until still very al dente.
While the bucatini are cooking, sauté the guanciale or pancetta, in a bit of olive oil (or lard) until the fat is translucent and just beginning to brown slightly. (You are not looking to crisp the pancetta, just to draw the flavor and fat from it and add just a bit of caramelization for added flavor.) If you like, you can add the onion or garlic along with the pancetta; if using garlic, remove it as soon as it begins to color. I also like to add a peperoncino for a little heat, but don’t overdo it—this is not meant to be a spicy dish.
Then add very ripe, peeled, seeded and chopped tomatoes, or if you don’t good ripe tomatoes on hand, just add good quality canned tomatoes or passata. Simmer the tomatoes until they have reduced and separated from the fat. Then add a tablespoon or two of grated pecorino cheese, and let it melt into the sauce.
When the bucatini are done, drain them (but not too well) and add them to tomato sauce along with another good sprinkling of pecorino cheese and mix well over low heat, allowing the bucatini to absorb the flavors of the cheese and sauce. If the sauce is too thick—the bucatini should slither around the pan easily—add a bit more pasta water.
Serve the bucatini with yet a third sprinkling of pecorino.
Like many traditional dishes, l’amatriciana has with many variations. The original bucatini all’amatriciana was made entirely in bianco, which is to say it did not contain tomatoes, which became a standard part of the dish only in the 18th century, as tomatoes were becoming a more common part of the central and southern Italian diet. These days it is so common to include tomatoes in the dish that another name is given to the tomato-less version: bucatini alla gricia, after the village of Griscia, not too far from Amatrice. The amount of tomato varies from recipe to recipe; in some versions, amatriciana is a veritable pork-flavored tomato sauce; in other versions, only a bit of tomato—perhaps just a few pomodorini (cherry tomatoes)—are added. So, in short, try adding different amounts of tomato (or none at all) and let your own taste be your guide.
Guanciale, cured pig’s cheek, is the original and most authentic ingredient to use. But, of course, guanciale is not so easily found, especially outside Italy. If you can find, by all means use it. Since guanciale is rather fatty, you may not need as much (or any) olive oil. Lard lends more porky flavor to the sauce, of course.
Another variable is whether or not to add garlic or onion to sauté along with the pork. Although not original to the dish, many versions, including the one you’ll find in the authoritative Talismano della felicità by the romanissima Ada Boni, call for thinly sliced or chopped onion. Some will have you add a half onion to sauté and simmer, only to be removed before you mix the sauce with the pasta. To my mind at least, the sweetness of the onion does not marry all that well with the rest of the flavors in the dish, so I prefer to add just a hint of garlic by sautéing a clove along with the pancetta and removing it as soon as it begins to color. Once again, let your own taste be your guide.
As mentioned, if you use peperoncino, go easy. This is not meant to be a spicy dish. You can substitute a pinch of dried pepper flakes if you don’t have a whole dried red pepper, but make sure to add the flakes just before the tomato, as they easily turn bitter if burned. Some people like ground black pepper instead, or in addition to, the red pepper.
The type and amount of pecorino cheese is also a matter of some variation. They say that for a truly authentic amatriciana, one should use the local pecorino from the Sabine hills, but that is obviously not an option for anyone outside of Italy (or many in Italy) so pecorino romano is much more commonly used. The technique of adding pecorino three times—first to melt into the sauce, a second time while mixing the pasta with the sauce and a third time on top of the finished dish—comes from the advice in the excellent La cucina romana e del Lazio (Newton & Compton, 1998). Personally, I’d never make amatriciana any other way, but other recipes only call for mixing the pecorino with the pasta, others only using it as a ‘topping’.
Some recipes, including the recipe promoted by the ‘pro loco’ (tourist board) of the town of Amatrice, which can also be found in La cucina romana e del Lazio, call for pouring a bit of white wine to the guanciale or pancetta after they have browned, allowing the wine to evaporate completely. And some recipes also call for removing the pork from the sauce after it has brown, to keep it a bit crispy, and adding back in along the pasta. I’ve tried these options and personally don’t care much for them. I found the former added too much acidity, the latter was just too fussy. But don’t let that stop you from giving them a try!
One last tip: resist the temptation to salt the sauce too much or at all, especially if you go with the ‘thrice-sprinkled’ with pecorino method. The salt in the pork, and in the pasta water and in the pecorino should suffice to make the dish quite savory.
By the way, you will sometimes find this dish misspelled as bucatini alla matriciana. This misspelling is said to have been due to the tendency to clip initial vowels in Roman dialect.