This is not how I wanted you to learn of Amatrice. No. Not this way. Not this footage of distraught relatives, of broken families. Of rubble. Of desperation. Of so many lost lives.
I want you to learn of the Amatrice I first discovered as a recent college graduate in 1992, the Amatrice that greeted a young, curious foodie exploring the culinary treasures nestled in the smallest Italian towns.
“Where to next?” my traveling partner had asked, and I had replied, “Amatrice,” with my finger set on the tiny spot half-way down our weathered Italian map.
The earthquake that hit Italy on August 24, 2016 destroyed most of the town I visited almost twenty-five years ago. “Amatrice is not here anymore,” the mayor was quoted as saying in response to the earthquake that registered a 6.2 magnitude. I, like the rest of the world, stopped at the gravity of those words, wondering, how can an entire town be gone, just like that?
My partner did not know of this town, I could tell by the confused look he gave me as my finger froze over a web of lines and names. But he could tell from my smile that I did. Because even back then, in an era before Tripadvisor or Yelp or Google, I did my research of where to eat what, when. I did this recognizance old school- namely scouring through a dog-eared copy of The Lonely Planet and by asking as many locals as I could in broken Italian (courtesy of my 9th grade language teacher, Signora DiLeo) :
“Dove è il posto migliore per mangiare?” Where is the best place to eat?
The failproof source to ask were old men sitting at the piazza, chatting and chain smoking. Every town had them. They’d glow at the opportunity to dazzle a pretty young Americana and would always steer me well.
“Amatrice! Amatrice!”, these chosen men had answered in unison, their face falling a bit when they noticed The Boyfriend staring protectively by the fontana over there. But they had all been young once and surely in love, and of course, still knew how to eat well, so they nodded in approval at him and continued, “Prove la pasta!”
They were right. Spaghetti all’amatriciana is a delight and, as it turns out, quite simple to make.
Guanciale (pork jowl), is one of the local ingredients used in this dish. It is hard to come by here in the States, but pancetta serves as a worthy replacement. Bucatini, also known as perciatelli, is a thicker spaghetti with a hole running through it, and is the pasta traditionally used. The long strand is perfect for absorbing the rich, smoky flavors of sun and meat.
This is what I remember of Amatrice. This splendid meal I had on a bright sunny day, amongst friendly, kind people with the man I most loved and still most love today. It is simple, pure comfort food, what one is craving in sadness and happiness as well.
¼ cup cilantro, chopped plus some extra for serving
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 large white onion, sliced crosswise into ¾"-thick rings, plus 1/2 cup roughly chopped, for serving
Juice of 2 limes, plus lime wedges for serving
1 lbs. skirt steak, cut crosswise into 4 steaks
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 jalapeño, stemmed
Warm tortillas, for serving
Combine the first three ingredients in a bowl. Add steak and let marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes, flipping over after 15 minutes. If you are not in a rush, you can allow steak to marinate (turning over a few times) for up to 3 hours.
Heat a grill pan over high heat and grill, 5 minutes on each side (for medium/rare.)
Remove meat from pan, add salt and pepper, and let rest for 5 more minutes.
Meanwhile, place remaining onion and jalapeño on grill, and cook, turning as needed, until charred and softened, about 10 minutes.
Slice steaks into 1” strips and serve with grilled vegetables and warm tortillas.
Add fresh lime juice, chopped onion and cilantro. If you like, you can serve pico de gallo or salsa verde on the side.
What I want to do is surprise Husband with an elaborate dinner, one that involved hours of wrapping homemade puff pastry around fancy cuts of meats stuffed with equally extravagant aphrodisiac delicacies like oysters or asparagus or shaved truffles.
Of course, I’d wear the strappy stilettos.
“What strappy stilettos? You only wear those nasty slip-on sneaker things. You always say your feet weren’t designed for heels.”
Ignore that. That is my child in the background.
I do have strappy stilettos. They are midnight black and come equipped with thin sparkly straps that secure themselves around my slender (yes, slender) feet with the same expertise Christian Grey would secure Anastasia in his Red Room. There is no safe word with these shoes.
That’s how I’d start the evening.
“What about us? What are we having for dinner?”
That’s the other kid. Excuse me while I kick a box of cereal in that direction.
The house would be aglow in romantic scented candles.
“Fire hazard, Mom. Gosh. Don’t you know ANYTHING???”
That’s the sixteen year-old. Of course, that’s the sixteen year-old.
“And you can’t do scented anything, remember? Cause YOU…GET… HEADACHES!!!”
Okay. That was really, really loud. Where was I? The house aglow in romantic, scented candles. Me in sexy shoes.
I’d be wearing a silk something or other, something to show off that amazing flat stomach.
…One second please.
“STOP THAT LAUGHING! It was flat before YOU PEOPLE RUINED IT!!!!!!!”
Anyhow, there’d be smooth jazz playing, maybe some Miles Davis Autumn Leaves…
“Hey, isn’t that the song you wanted papi to learn to play on the saxophone you bought him? The sax that’s been sitting there gathering dust for a hundred years?”
Ignore them. As I said, Autumn Leaves would be playing in the background. I’d serve dinner. I’d look amazing. Husband would gaze into my eyes and…
“Ewwwww…get a room!”
“BTW papi isn’t here, remember?”
So they are in stereo now?
Okay fine. I’ll make this quick:
I look hot. I’ve made this fancy dinner. There’s dim lighting and sexy music.
There’s no children. There’s no children. There’s no children.
There’s just Husband and I. Maybe he’s gotten me roses or a gift or both (I don’t need it, I don’t need any of it, just him, but, hey, it’s not like I am going to say no) and we gaze into each other’s eyes and smile and say, “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
But here is how it really goes guys:
Husband is off in some other country for work, as usual. These kids, good God, these kids that I sometimes wanna kill (in the most loving way) are here. And they’re hungry. And dinner isn’t ready yet. So I’ve gotta do something quick. Something simple. I’ll throw a steak on the grill, make some mashed potatoes, offer up a nice green salad.
“We hate salad, Mother…”
Okay, whatever. Hopefully one day they’ll eat salad. One day after meals and meals and meals of watching their mother eat salad, something will click and they’ll eat a salad.
And then dessert, because after all, it’s still Valentine’s Day.
I need something to commemorate my love to my man, albeit apart and long distance. Something that would follow that amazing entrée I’ve made up in my head.
I’m thinking crepes.
Don’t be afraid!
Crepes are easy, really.
You can super cheat and buy them premade. (I’ve super cheated, yes I have.)
Or you can whip up a batch and keep them in the fridge- just pull them out whenever you want. They’ll last up to two weeks like that.
Raspberries go great with crepes and feel fancy. And you’re gonna love this: all you do is spread your favorite raspberry jam inside the crepe, roll it up, and sprinkle the outside with raspberries, confectioner’s sugar, and fresh whipped cream. Seriously! That’s it!
“Wait, did you say crepes?”
“Yes, yes! We want crepes! Can we have crepes?”
Oh no. They’re still here?
“Can we just have dessert for dinner, Mom?”
“Ooooh, yeah, dessert for dinner! Dessert for dinner! Dessert for dinner!”
Throw everything into the blender (start with the wet ingredients first.)
Blend until smooth, about 1 minute.
Let batter sit for at least 30 minutes. If you are organized and plan ahead, letting it sit overnight in an airtight container is the die-hard way to go (just mix it up when ready to use)! But don’t worry. I am unorganized and impulsive when it comes to food cravings which leads me to wanting crepes RIGHT NOW, i.e., letting the batter rest a half an hour works just fine.
Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat.
Lightly coat with butter or Pam.
Add 1/3 cup of the batter and swirl it around so it coats the whole skillet.
Cook for 2 minutes..
Use a spatula to carefully flip. Cook 1 minute.
Slide crepe off and repeat, coating pan each time.
You can keep crepes warm in a preheated oven or just store them in the refrigerator in a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, taking out what you need as you go. To heat, just microwave on high for 10 seconds.
Use 4 crepes (2 per person.)
Pick your favorite raspberry jam. Add 2 teaspoons in center of warm crepe and spread all around. Roll up crepe.
Sprinkle with fresh raspberries and confectioner’s sugar and add a dollop of whipped cream.
If you want it super fancy, include a sprig of mint for extra color. Repeat.
Today is National S’mores Day, so, even though she is away at camp, I’ve got celebrating with my daughter on my mind.
If there is such a thing as a S’mores Addict, she’s definitely one. I, on the other hand…not so much.
She is unsettled by this difference of opinion. I tell her it must be a cultural thing, that this quintessential American treat must not tickle my fancy because I grew up in Venezuela, where the closest thing to melted marshmallows was the leche condensada I’d have drizzled on the coconut raspados, or snow cones, for an extra 25 cents. Hershey’s never made it into my mother’s pantry – that pantry was bursting with local Venezuelan chocolate favorites with names that sung: Samba, Suzy, Cri-Cri, Ping-Pong!
It’s a tough sell. Ever since my daughter, a native South Floridian, has been old enough to chew, she’s been consuming anything S’mores-related and trying her darnest to win me over to the S’mores crowd.
Obviously, there is a constant supply of Hershey’s chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows in our pantry at all times.
And then, whatever S’mores-esque products The Marketing Gods come out with, we must buy:
S’mores Pop tarts.
S’mores ice cream.
S’mores Rice Krispies Treats
Even S’mores Goldfish!
My daughter promises me, with each new product purchased, that I will like S’mores this time around. I taste, hear Marketing Gods’ evil laughter and, well, tell her to go ahead and enjoy it, and leave it at that.
But my daughter is persistent, hopeful and never one to give up on whatever it is she sets her mind to. I do love her for that. So, when we found ourselves trying out a local restaurant, The Red Cow and I saw her face light up as she read the menu, I knew something was up.
“Mom, they have a S’mores brownie,” she announced. “You gotta, we’ve gotta…”
I knew the drill.
We’d get it.
I must try.
I will love S’mores this time around.
“Okay,” I told her, and the pact was done.
After devouring our Smoking Gun sandwiches the waitress placed the coveted dessert in front of my daughter, whose eyes looked like they were about to fall out.
Something strange happened.
Did I tell you that part?
The part where I heard music.
Not the country music crooning in the background (that stuff always makes 12-hour smoked brisket and cowboy potatoes taste better, you should know.)
It was more like church-choir music.
For a second.
As she placed the plate down.
The plate, which, OMG…glowed.
Not in a creepy, chemically way, no! In a golden-spiritual-live-in-the-present-Buddhist kind of way.
This all happened in seconds, see. While my daughter’s eyes popped out. I heard music. I saw a glow.
Then I rubbed my own eyes.
Because I was a jaded anti-s’mores Venezuelan, remember?
So something must be wrong with my eyes.
This dessert looked…
“Mom, this is beautiful,” my daughter stated.
Yes! Beautiful! Took the words right out of my mouth!
What can I tell you?
I want to tell you the truth: as cheesy as it sounds when I’ll type it out.
I want to tell you what happened, exactly as it did.
I want to tell you that I saw the light. I saw the S’mores light!
There was this enormous cloud of perfectly melted marshmallow hugging chocolate and some sort of graham cracker crust underneath and perched beside it an utterly unpretentious scoop of vanilla bean ice cream and good God I wanted to snatch that plate away from my child, my flesh and blood, and devour it all myself.
But I didn’t.
I still have an ounce of composure and an itty-bit of restraint.
I pride myself in believing I am a pretty-decently-okay parent.
So, I grabbed the sides of the wobbly table and said, as calmly as I could:
“No darling, go ahead.”
“What?” My daughter asked, confused. “Oh? You want some, Mom?” She offered, watching me closely, witnessing change.
“Oh, sweetie, thanks, but, you, uh, you can, um, just…”
There’s a very important part of this story I’ve left out.
It’s about my daughter.
I told you she’s sixteen.
I told you she’s a S’mores Addict.
I haven’t told you how incredibly giving and perceptive she is.
You see, at that moment, while an imaginary S’mores choir sang and our tiny table for two lit up with delicious joy, my daughter, the S’mores Addict, pushed the untouched plate under my chin.
“Here Mom, go for it. I’m sure you’re gonna love it this time.”
I’m not sure if it was that soft, sweet blanket of surrendered marshmallow or the rich chocolate brownie dancing with buttery graham crust underneath. It all tasted magnificent in the company of my girl, smiling and savoring the moment with me, without even taking her first bite.
“Con todo,” rolled off my tongue automatically whenever I approached those beloved metallic carts parked precariously on congested street corners in my hometown of Caracas.
It didn’t matter that it was steaming hot outside, that a distressing amount of flies were on a holding pattern awaiting tasty scraps or that I was standing in a puddle of questionable grey water at the time. All senses were zeroed in on the incomparable meal I was about to have.
The man in the white cap would give me a slight nod, an acknowledgment that I had requested my order “with everything,” and begin creating the best hot dog known to mankind in seven seconds flat.
He’d pluck the link out of murky waters and plop it onto a steamed bun, and then, the expert assembling began.
Diced onion. More diced onion.
A hefty grating of fresh white cheese.
And a huge mountain of shoestring potato chips to top it all off.
If he was a jovial guy, and they all were, he’d drizzle some more pink sauce on top. Because in Venezuela, you can never have too much salsa rosada.
The expertise used sprinkling, drizzling, squeezing, grating, and piling all items with such bravado and fanfare could have easily served as inspiration for Tom Cruise’s character, Brian Flanagan, in Cocktail. Not only were you being given the best hot dog in the world, but you were being given the best hot dog in the world with a show.
It was heaven in a bun. The type of experience you just had to close your eyes for, because your other senses would simply be short-circuited if they dared function at the same time.
I’d block out the horns and the people and, yes, even the flies, and I’d take a big bite filled with crunch and soft and heat and smoky meat and it was the most delightful, delicious six seconds of my life. And then I’d do it again and again and again until I’d be left with crumbs on my lips, a dirty napkin and a small mound of fallen potato sticks on the ground.
I’ll give you the recipe, but, unless you’re on a street corner in Sabana Grande or Las Mercedes, hearing the crazy car horns and the shouts of “epa mi pana!” or “como esta la vaina?” it’s really not the same.
1 hot dog, 1 bun
diced white onion
spicy sauce (use your favorite kind)
Salsa Rosada (Pink Sauce: a mixture of mayo, ketchup and a dab of spicy sauce)
Queso blanco, rayado (in Gringospeak this translates to any of those hard, white Latin cheeses they sell in most supermarkets. Take a chunk and grate it, plop that on top.)