You’ve probably noticed I’m limping along here! Or maybe you haven’t. Either way, a rather belated but heartfelt Happy New Year to you all. In the words of John Lennon ‘Lets hope it’s a good one without any fear‘. Or as I as sang incorrectly for years, ‘Lets hope it’s a good one without any tears‘ Or my friend Andy’s alternative pub lyrics ‘Lets hope it’s a good one with plenty of beers. Personally I’m hoping for all three; no fear, less tears and more beers. Oh and plenty of parmesan. Talking of parmesan, there isn’t any in today’s recipe. There is pecorino though – in this case pecorino romano; the hard, sharp, pungent, sheep’s milk cheese - and plenty of it, added to the hot sauce just before you add it to the pasta. The sauce is question is a particularly good one, a classic and one of my favourites, sugo all’ amatriciana or alla matriciana in Roman dialect.
Sugo all’ amatriciana is a traditional Italian pasta sauce made with guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl or cheeks) tomato and pecorino cheese. The sauce originates from Amatrice, a town in the mountainous Province of Rieti, about 75 kilometres from Rome. There ‘s much heated debate about the precise origins of sugo all’ amatriciana and even more heated debate about the truly authentic recipe – of course there is we cry, this is Italy – particularly the inclusion of onion (gasp), peperoncino and black pepper. There are also rather strong opinions about the shape of pasta best suited to this excellent sauce: spaghetti (the traditional pasta in Amatrice), unruly bucatini – a thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running through the center, or my favourite, the mighty ridged tubes; rigatoni.
I’d been making a kind of sugo all’ amatriciana long before I came to Italy, long before I could say alla matriciana like a true Roman! I didn’t know it was sugo all’ amatriciana though, it was simply my take on a kind-of-Italian-spicy-tomato-sauce-with-bacon, best served with spaghetti and crowned with a vast heap of parmesan. I’m joking of course, about the pronunciation that is not the sauce, even after 6 years I still have deeply average and often embarrassing grasp of the Italian language and sound about as Roman as the Queen quoting Jane Austen.
My kind-of-Italian-spicy-tomato-sauce-with-bacon, well that was standard fare, perfectly acceptable, but generally very average and often a bit on the crude side! Actually it was often crude because it was one of my post pub repertoire and generally executed while I was under the influence of a large quantity of alcohol and hardly at my most lucid and precise. But since being in Rome, visiting Amatrice, eating my own body weight in sugo all’ amatriciana (I live above the trattoria Il Bucatino whose signature dish is, hardly surprisingly, Bucatini all’amatriciana) and a fair bit of kitchen experimentation, I think my sauce has improved, tightened up. In keeping with todays Beatles theme I could say my sauce, my sugo, has ‘Come together’ and I’d go as far as saying I make a pretty good alla matriciana.
I’m sure purists will gasp, but I like onion – preferably white and mild flavoured, chopped really finely and sautéed gently in a little oil – at the base of my sugo all’ amatriciana.
I generally use guanciale, I adore its glistening, deeply flavoured fat, but I’m happy with pancetta. I’m partial to a deep kick of peperoncino and lashings of black pepper. I use plenty of tomatoes – a whole tin of pelati (peeled whole san marzano tomatoes – like the tin under the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band phase in the first picture). I chop the pelati coarsely with a pair of scissors while they are still in the tin. I cook my sauce for a modest 15 minutes, but in a shallow pan so it reduces and thickens willingly (today the blip blip boil splattered the white cover of my friend Betta’s cooker so dramatically it ended up loooking like a tomato sauce massacre). I mix the pecorino with the pasta at the same time as the sauce in the pan and stir energetically so the cheese becomes part of the sauce. Oh, and talking of cheese, I know this is stating the obvious, but pecorino is king here, parmesan just doesn’t hit the spot, too refined, you need the rough, coarse, piquant nature of pecorino Romano. As for the pasta, I often use spaghetti or bucatini but Rigatoni is my prefered pasta for sugo all’ amatriciana, I love the way the thick, richly flavoured tomato and cheese enriched sauce clings to the ridged tubes, the way a little sauce hides inside each tube, if you’re lucky alongside a matchstick of guanciale.
I know it would have looked so much nicer on my table, you know the one. I miss my table. I will be eating at it again soon. Great lunch though, captured on camera by my friend – and supplier of extremely potent Calabrese peperoncino – Pietro.
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small mild onion very finely chopped
- 100g guanciale or pancetta cut into thick match sticks
- 1 small peperoncino (red-hot chilli pepper) crushed or finely chopped
- 350g tinned plum tomatoes (chopped)/tomato passata
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 75g freshly grated pecorino plus more for serving
- 450g pasta (spaghetti, bucatini, rigatoni)
Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil for the pasta.
Warm the olive oil in a heavy based frying or saute pan over a medium flame, add the onion and saute it gently until it becomes coloured pale gold. Add the pancetta and fry gently until the fat is translucent and the edges are just starting to turn golden.
Add the peperoncino and tomato to the pan, stir, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and then cook uncovered over a modest flame for 15 minutes.
When the sauce has about 10 minutes of cooking time left, add the pasta to the fast boiling water and cook (according to the instructions on the packet) until al dente.
Darin the pasta (reserving a little cooking water in case you need to loosen the sauce) and toss with the sauce in the frying pan, add the cheese and more freshly ground black pepper and toss again. Serve immediately with more cheese and a glass of wine.
When I started this blog I didn’t imagine it would evolve into something quite so personal, so revealing and involve so many of the people in my life. I know this and my style of writing has both lost and found me readers (and friends). I wouldn’t have it any other way! But at a time in which my life has changed quite dramatically, I find myself flailing and quite unable to find the right words to share things in a way that feels appropriate. I do know I need time, otherwise I’m in danger of coming across as a dreadful and doomed character in a chickerflicker of novel. Ok, ok, not doomed – see I told you I love the drama and smattering of careless exaggeration – I am most definitely not doomed, just at a very particular moment in my life. Yes, I most defiantly need time and a large gin and tonic in hand when the time is right. Meanwhile, for the second time, Happy New year to you all and ‘Lets hope it’s a good one without any fear and tears, more beers, lashings of parmesan and large portions of pasta all’amatriciana for us all’.