Amatriciana sauce has five ingredients, not including salt and pepper. To make a good sauce, it’s all about the quality of these 5 ingredients. However, now I find myself back in the States trying to recreate my favorite Roman pasta with un-Roman ingredients. Even before I leave to buy the ingredients, I start my rant about the quality of products in the US vs. Italy. This happens every time I return from Italy. I start on the stores and their "sub par" products. The farmers' markets have good tomatoes, not quite as sweet as San Marzano, but I can manage. I live in a small suburb outside of San Francisco, so I have to drive a good 40 minutes to Berkeley, San Francisco, or the Napa Valley to find a good cheese shop and butcher, for the guanciale (cured pork jowl). After a long morning shopping, I return grumbling about how in every small town in Italy there is a butcher, salumeria, cheese shop, market etc. and here, “One has to drive over half an hour and sometimes to more than one town to get a measly five quasi-quality ingredients!” My tirade ends with, “I can’t live in this country, Ufff!” (Friends and family have come to ignore my "I miss Italy" rants.)
This is exactly what happened the day I decided to make amatriciana sauce. I returned in a huff after my 4-hour shopping spree. I snagged ingredients out of the bags. I sliced, chopped, grated, prepped and grumbled the entire time. Twenty minutes later, the dish was ready. After one, maybe two, bites I was no longer in the US. I was dining al fresco, on a white-clothed table with its legs wobbling on the ancient cobble-stoned street. I forgot all about my previous grumblings and devoured my pasta.
Like I said, it’s all about the ingredients, and with a little effort, I guess (grumble grumble) you can find them here in the US. What really makes this dish is the guanciale. Guanciale is cured pork jowl. You cannot substitute it, and it can’t be smoked—only cured. Some people, not Romans, use pancetta as a substitute, but the guanciale is sweeter, fatter, and has a more delicate and less salty taste than pancetta (cured pork belly). It melts as you heat it in the pan, and the rendered fat transports the jowl's unique flavor throughout the dish. Touching each piece of pasta and spoonful of sauce with it's sweet and salty magic. Substituting it, changes the dish altogether, and should be considered a mortal sin.
The sweetness of the tomatoes is also important. Because we are at the peak of tomato season, the tomatoes were sweet and flavorful. I would use canned, peeled tomatoes out of season. San Marzano are the best, and outrageously priced here. (Oh, am I still grumbling?) Purists would never add onion, but many places in Rome do. I like the flavor it adds to the dish, so I've added it here in this recipe.
A note on finding guanciale: I found mine at the Fatted Calf Charcuterie in Napa, James from Wandering Italy also recommends Dave the Butcher at Avedano’s in San Francisco. Michael Ruhlman recently posted, Artisan Butchers, on his blog and added a list of "artisan" butchers to the post from readers' comments (for those of you outside the Northern California area).
I hope you try making it at home, and take yourself straight to Rome. It also might make your return from Rome easier to tolerate.
Pasta all’ Amatriciana
(Makes 4 servings)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces (225 g) Guanciale (cured pork jowl – do not use smoked)
1/2 medium-sized onion, diced
About 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Half of a chili pepper, finely diced or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/2 cup white wine
24 ounces peeled tomatoes, chopped or hand-crushed
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 pound dried pasta (bucatini, spaghetti, penne, rigatoni)
Bring about 6 cups of well-salted water to a boil.
Add the olive oil and guanciale. Cook on medium heat about 5 minutes, until the fat starts to melt and the meat becomes translucent. Remove the guanciale and drain all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat. Add the onions and salt. Sweat the onions until they are translucent, about 3 minutes, adding the chili pepper and freshly ground black pepper one minute before they are done. Add the white wine, and deglaze on high heat until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bring to a boil, then simmer on low until you have a pretty thick sauce, about 10 minutes. (If the sauce gets too thick, add a few tablespoons of the pasta water to loosen it.) Add the guanciale and heat through. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper, if needed.
While the sauce is cooking, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, about 8-10 minutes for dry pasta. Drain the pasta (saving the pasta water in case you need it to loosen the sauce) and add the pasta to the sauce. Toss the sauce and the pasta together for 1 to 2 minutes over the heat. Remove from the heat and add the cheese. Add more cheese to garnish. Buon Appetito!