When I lived in Rome in the late 90s, I carpooled to work with a Roman woman, who was like a cab driver extraordinaire in her ability to wind through back roads to avoid traffic, thus providing the most breathtakingly scenic routes every day (not that this is hard to do in Rome), and also in her connections with the Vatican, where we lined up to buy cheap gas from time to time. The commute was a daily adventure, and more than once I reminded her to stop and appreciate the beauty and history around her—not that I had to. A lifelong Roman with roots in the tiny nearby mountain town of Amatrice, there was no place in the world she thought as wonderful as Rome.
Actually, this tended to ruin her vacations around the world. Journeys elsewhere appeared to only serve the function of affirming her belief that Rome was the best place on earth. While I worked with her she took a trip to Thailand with her husband, only to return and complain about every aspect of the visit—the humidity, the shady underbelly of Bangkok, the sights—she found it all terrible.
“Why did you even leave Italy?” asked one of the engineers, clearly exasperated with this litany.
“And the food,” she went on, ignoring him, “it was gross! The spices—they had the most awful smell.”
“What’s the matter,” he replied dryly, “They didn’t have bucatini all’amatriciana?”
On the one hand, I had to laugh—though I love all things Thai I knew how literally foreign Thai food was to many Italians at the time. But on the other hand—have you tasted bucatini all’amatriciana? This perhaps most iconic dish of Rome (also with roots in Amatrice) is the most astonishing, glorious bowl of pasta I have ever eaten, and the best part is, it’s not one of those dishes that you then search your whole life trying to find again, wondering which restaurant it was, was it that one around the corner? or in a different part of the city? Just about every restaurant in Rome serves it and it always tastes almost exactly the same: Heavenly. It is deep and rich and tangy-porky and it slicks the noodles with a tomatoey grease that kind of ruins you for other sauces, I’m sorry to report. It would be easy to imagine that much other food would be a disappointment when you grow up on this.
I’m even sorrier to report that I can’t ruin you just yet. That’s because the base of real amatriciana is guanciale, a cured pork jowl that is next to impossible to find in this country. I have tried using jowl from a little boutique butcher in NYC, and it still wasn’t quite right*. So, stateside, we have to settle for using pancetta, which renders the sauce a sort of next-best-thing to the real deal that you have to get a passport for. My husband, who has also lived in Rome, and I, find this version to be just satisfying enough, although it makes us dream of the real amatricianas of Rome, which are so utterly rich with sweet pork that we used to imagine that the sauce pots never got washed, that there must be some chunks of guanciale hanging around at the bottom that had been there for generations.
Saute 1 finely-chopped yellow onion in 3 tablespoons of butter for a minute or two, then add some chile flakes and two 1/4-inch-thick slices of pancetta, cut into strips about 1/2 inch thick and 1 1/2 inch long. Cook over medium-low heat until the onions become soft (you are not trying to brown the pancetta—it should remain pretty flabby). Add 2 cups of dry white wine and bring to a simmer, then cook at a low simmer for about 2 minutes. Add 1 large can plum tomatoes with their juice, and use a potato masher or scissors to cut the tomatoes into smaller chunks. Simmer the sauce on low heat, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and add 2 big handfuls of grated Pecorino-Romano cheese. Add some sauce to the bottom of a big serving bowl and add 1 pound bucatini (or perciatelli—same thing) cooked to al dente. Toss with the sauce, then serve each bowl with a little extra sauce on top and some grated cheese for the table. (Note: Bucatini was deliberately engineered to be the messiest shape there is.** No matter how skilled you are at twirling your fork, the noodles will fling sauce all over the place as you try to eat it. Do yourself a favor and hold your napkin up to your chest.)
*I just found out that La Quercia, a fantastic, fantastic salumi company based in Iowa, makes guanciale, and you can buy it here. If it’s anything as good as their prosciuttos, we are in for a treat. It’s spendy, but that’s what holiday wish lists are for, y’all.
**Not a confirmed historical fact.