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.
When it comes to Italian cooking, the irreplaceable expertise of Marcella Hazan is an indisputable win. This recipe is inspired from her incredible book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 medium onion, chopped fine
- 4 oz. diced pancetta
- 1 ½ cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, drained and cut up
- ¼ - ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (depending on how spicy you like it)
- salt, to taste
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 2 tablespoons freshly grated Romano cheese
- 1 pound pasta
- Place the oil, butter, and onion in a saucepan and turn the heat on to medium. Sauté until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes, then add the pancetta. Cook for 1 minute, stirring.
- Add the tomatoes, red pepper flakes, and salt and cook in the uncovered pan at a low simmer for 25 minutes.
- Taste and correct for salt and pepper flakes.
- In a large pot, cook pasta, as directed on package.
- When pasta is done, toss with the sauce, then add both cheeses and toss thoroughly again.
- Serves 4