I have always passed on Bucatini all’Amatriciana when faced with a choice of pasta. I don’t know why. Maybe it seems too simple. After all it is just a tomato sauce flavored with bacon, pancetta or maybe that pork jowl bacon. What is it called?
This changed on a visit to the venerable Tosca in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Tosca recently reopened after a top down refit and a major upgrade of its food and beverage programs.
The Bucatini all’Amatriciana at Tosca forever changed my opinion of this dish. It is a simple, straightforward preparation relying upon a few high quality ingredients that include; 1) a good quality bucatini pasta, 2) a great sheep’s milk cheese and 3) the star of the dish – guanciale.
Many recipes call for alternatives to guanciale. Even my beloved Marcella Hazan asks for pancetta in her version of Amatriciana. I suppose this is because guanciale may have once been a scarce product in the U.S. But unsmoked, cured Italian bacon made with the pork jowl — guanciale — is the essential flavor ingredient of this sauce.
Without guanciale, Amatriciana is uninteresting. Florence Fabricant wrote of her conversion to a fan of guanciale in the New York Times article “The Meat of the Matter in a Pasta Debate”. Like Florence, I am a convert.
Having seen the light after reading Fabricant’s article I set out to source guanciale for my attempt at a version that approaches the greatness of the plate I had at Tosca. In the Bay Area this was easy. I picked up guanciale at the Boccalone outpost in the Ferry Building. With this new found treasure in hand, I was ready to renew my relationship with Amatriciana.
Not so fast. It turns out there are great debates about this dish. On one hand there is the simple version that originated in the town of Amatrice. One the other, a dish that has evolved in Rome where it is revered as a classic preparation.
I decided on a version similar to what I enjoyed at Tosca and typical to what is found in Rome. That is, bucatini pasta with a sauce of guanciale enriched tomato sauce, a bit of olive oil, a pinch of red pepper and Pecorino cheese. It does not include oft-suggested ingredients such as garlic, onion nor a splash of wine.
With all ingredients on hand, Bucatini all’Amatriciana comes together quickly. It’s a great choice for an easy weeknight meal. The pasta is cooked per the package directions drained and set aside. In the meantime, guanciale is rendered in a saute pan with olive oil.
To serve, cooked pasta is tossed with the guanciale in the pan, just enough tomato sauce is ladled on to coat the bucatini and pecorino is grated on top. Salt and pepper are added before tossing again. The dish is the plated and a little more cheese grated over the top. No other garnishes are used.
A quick word on the cheese used for this dish. Pecorino describes a broad range of Italian cheeses made with sheep’s milk. Pecorino Romano is by far the most commonly available cheese of this type in the U.S., but there are many other pecorinos including a milder cheese from Amatrice where this dish originated.
I have not found a source of Pecorino di Amatrice, but have tried other sheep’s milk cheese including versions from outside of Italy. I am still looking for the perfect sheep’s milk cheese for this dish. But for now readily available Pecorino Romano is my choice.
The recipe as presented, serves two.
- ¾ pound of Bucatini pasta
- 1 tablespoon of everyday olive oil
- 1 pinch of red pepper flakes
- 4 slices of guanciale cut into ½” wide by 1” long pieces.
- 2 cups of canned Italian strained or pureed tomatoes
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 cup of grated Pecorino Romano, or more to taste
- Cook the pasta in a pan with boiling, salted water per the package directions. Drain and set aside while reserving about 2 cups of the pasta cooking water.
- While the pasta is cooking, brown guanciale in a sauté pan over medium high heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and the red pepper flakes. Set aside until the pasta is done.
- When ready to serve, bring the sauté pan back to the heat. Add the drained pasta to the pan with two large spoons of the reserved pasta water. Toss the pasta in the pan adding more reserved pasta water if necessary. Add two ladles of the pureed tomatoes (just enough to coat the pasta) and toss with the pasta. Grate between ½ and 1 cup of Pecorino Romano over the pasta. Toss again and serve in shallow bowls garnishing with a bit more cheese grated over the top.