Monday, March 5, 2012

all’ Amatriciana

Italians love talking about food. It’s a national preoccupation. If they’re not talking about football or politics, more likely than not the subject is food. Last night I went to the bar to eat a plate of pasta with Gigi, the owner, and a few of the regulars. It’s a ritual we take to over the winter months when the weather’s too cold and the night’s too short for doing much else. We take turns cooking in the back kitchen, nothing too strenuous, usually just a simple plate of pasta with salad and cheese or mixed cured meats to follow. It’s informal but yet I’ve had some great meals there.

Last night it was Gigi’s turn to cook and he made bucatini all’ Amatriciana. It’s a dish I make often myself at home, a personal favourite. My family’s originally from Lazio where it’s considered something of a regional specialty. In fact, such is its popularity in Rome that many people (our host last night included) mistakenly assume it originated in the city or region. However, all’ Amatriciana is in fact a sauce for pasta that took its name from the town of Amatrice, in the province of Rieti in Abruzzo. Gigi, of course, disagreed and the argument was only resolved (an hour later) after sending his son upstairs to his apartment for a copy of his Cucina Nazionale encyclopedia. Like politics and football, food talk always degenerates into heated argument in Italy. It’s part of the main course!

The misconception around the dish in large part no doubt stems from its popularity. It’s a sauce served over pasta that you can find in pretty much every restaurant in Rome. The Romans, cheekily, even have their own name for it – alla matriciana – as if by calling it so they can claim it as their own. Like most of the Italian classics, it’s fairly straightforward, resting its status not so much on technique as in the favourable combination and quality of the ingredients used. There are variants on the dish but normally it is made with diced guanciale (cured pigs cheek), cooked with chopped onion in oil, with a colouring of pelati (peeled plum tomatoes), pecorino cheese and red hot chilli. The tomatoes should not be used to such an extent that they overwhelm the dish. The sauce is more often than not served over either bucatini or perciatelli (both hollow spaghetti-like pasta), although some restaurants use rigatoni or spaghetti.

The predecessor to Amatriciana was the Gricia (or Griscia), a sauce which predated the arrival and use of tomatoes in the kitchen.  Acceptable variants on the dish include the use of pancetta instead of guanciale, lard instead of olive oil or adding a couple of cloves of garlic before frying off the guanciale. However, using parmesan as an alternative to pecorino cheese is generally disdained as it changes the character of the dish.   

Serves 4
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 10-12 minutes

320g bucatini pasta
150g diced guanciale (or pancetta)
1 medium onion finely sliced
6 ripe plum tomatoes (if in season) or a tin of roughly chopped tinned tomatoes
4 heaped tablespoons of freshly grated pecorino cheese
1 small fresh or dried chili finely chopped with seeds
A few tablespoons of olive oil

Begin by bringing a large saucepan of salted water to the boil.  While you are waiting, gently fry the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil.  The water should be boiling at this point, so throw in your pasta.  Whilst the pasta is cooking add the pancetta to the onions and cook until browned.  Next, add the tomatoes. If they are in season, use fresh tomatoes that have been roughly chopped - alternatively use tinned. Add the chili and check for seasoning.  Allow the sauce to simmer until the pasta is cooked.  Once the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the pan, stirring well to combine all the ingredients.  Top with plenty of freshly grated pecorino cheese and serve immediately.


  1. Very interesting Mario. This has become one of my favourites - particularly in a certain trattoria near us.

  2. Mario, I love reading these posts - it is like a memory book for me. My best plate of All' Amatriciana was in Catanzaro Lido eaten while we watched the Nutcracker televised from Rome. In the US restaurants never use enough chili so it tends to be bland. In my kitchen no one ever complains that I have cheated them on the chilis.