In Rome today, the primi on any menu are dominated by four oustanding dishes: pasta alla carbonara, pasta cacio e pepe, pasta alla gricia, and pasta all’Amatriciana. At least two of them are relatively modern inventions, especially the carbonara whose origin—even at a relatively short distance in time—no-one can really agree on.The name all’Amatriciana suggests an origin in the city of Amatrice in the far northern reaches of Rome’s region of Lazio. Indeed, the town claims its invention and are fiercely proud of it. When the city was all but destroyed by a terrible earthquake in 2016, restaurants up and down the country served the dish to raise money for a recovery fund.
Pasta all’Amatriciana is clearly a variant of pasta alla gricia. Both of them have guanciale—cured pigs cheek, similar in taste to pancetta or bacon—as their basis. All’Amatriciana is the same dish as alla gricia with the addition of tomatoes. This gives the dish an oldest possible origin date of the late 18th century when tomatoes became widely used in Italian cuisine. The fact that some of the best guanciale is produced in Amatrice has been floated as the origin of the name rather than a direct connection to the city itself. The origin of alla gricia is also unknown but a theory is that it refers to the town of Grisiciano, very close to Amatrice. However other theories exist including that it derives from the name given to greek bakers in Rome. Some claim an ancient origin to the dish, others a not so ancient.
Whatever the origins of these dishes (and let’s allow Amatrice to claim their namesake), as I said at the beginning, both of them today are thoroughly embedded in the cuisine of the city of Rome. The city of Amatrice has also registered an official recipe.
The ingredients of salsa all’Amatriciana are guanciale, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, pecorino Romano cheese, extra virgin olive oil (if necesssary), chili pepper, and salt. Some people add onion or garlic but the people of Amatrice go mad if you do. A few years ago one of the judges on Italian Masterchef attracted the ire of the city when he suggested that garlic was part of the dish. I know a restaurant in Tuscany that adds a dash of balsamic vinegar to their sauce which, combined with the chili pepper, adds a wonderful hot and sour aspect to the dish. I think the Mayor of Amatrice would faint if he knew.
Guanciale comes in chunks and also ready cut into strips. It’s better to find a chunk. You’ll notice that there is an outer layer of black pepper, and then pink meat sandwiched between two layers of fat. To prepare the guanciale, first cut lengthways into slices about half a centimetre (1/4inch) thick. Then remove the outer layer of black pepper and cut the slices vertically into strips.
There are a few choices for the kind of pasta you should eat with salsa all’Amatriciana. The most famous are bucatini (if you can find them) although in Amatrice it is served with spaghetti. In Rome you also find it served with rigatoni or tonarelli (spaghetti alla chitarra). I like to use these mezzi rigatoni as I think they interact better with the sauce.
The recipe below is how I prepare pasta all’Amatriciana at home. It’s based on the traditional recipe, the advice of my Roman friends, and a few adjustments I’ve made over time based on trying to recreate some of the amazing dishes I’ve had in restaurants in Rome. My Roman friends have also approved it!