As with many Italian dishes, there is some heated argument amongst Italians about the "right" way to make this rich, zesty and slightly spicy dish. It originates from the town of Amatrice, in the northern Lazio region, but has since come to be strongly associated with Rome and is one of the most popular dishes served in Roman trattorias.
Allegedly the "original" Amatrice version is made with guanciale (salt-cured pork jowl) and spaghetti. Roman versions tend to use bucatini (also known as perciatelli), which are a long, tube-shaped pasta with a hole down the middle. If you can't find guanciale, you can substitute it with pancetta (sweet or smoked, though unsmoked would be closer to the taste of guanciale), pork jowl, salt pork, or bacon. Since bacon is smoked, it changes the flavor of the dish quite a bit from the original guanciale, but we must say that this is a case where we find that the different flavor profile is just as good. (We don't see the point in being a purist just for the sake of purism.)
Whether or not onions or wine should be added is hotly debated. This version does not use wine but does include onions, as we find that their sweetness balances the richness of the pork and spiciness of the red chile pepper.
The original version of this dish, known as pasta alla gricia, was made with just guanciale, pasta, black pepper and Pecorino Romano―no tomatoes, as those were too expensive for the peasants who first ate this dish. So, some could argue that even tomatoes are verboten in this recipe, but since most of us can find and afford tomatoes these days and they make the dish taste even better, why not use them?
Pecorino Romano is the cheese traditionally grated on top of the final dish, and it pairs much better with this spicy sauce than Parmigiano.
The version presented here does include onions and adds the browned guanciale or pancetta to the sauce at the end so that it stays crisp.
[Edited and expanded by Danette St. Onge]
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 pound (4 ounces/100 grams) pancetta (or guanciale, pork jowl, salt pork or thick-cut bacon, diced) Try to find thick-cut pancetta or bacon, about 1/4-inch thick, rather than the thin, rolled pancetta.
- 1 small onion (or 1/2 a large onion, peeled and finely diced)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried red chili pepper flakes or 1 dried red peperoncino (crushed or 1 fresh red chile pepper, seeded and thinly sliced)
- 1 pound bucatini (perciatelli) or spaghetti
- Fine sea salt (to taste)
- 1 pound/400 grams ripe tomatoes (4 to 5 plum tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and chopped. You can substitute with one 14.5-ounce can of drained diced tomatoes outside of tomato season.)
- Garnish: freshly grated Pecorino Romano (for serving)
Set a large covered pot of water to boil over high heat for the pasta. (When it reaches a rolling boil, salt it and add the pasta. Note, however, that this sauce is particularly salty and so is Pecorino, so you can use less salt in the pasta water than you might normally. When the pasta reaches al dente consistency, drain it, retaining about 1/4 cup of the pasta cooking water.)
Meanwhile, start the sauce:
Heat the oil in a large pot and add the diced pork (whichever type you are using). Cook over medium heat until brown and crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes, then remove from the pot with a slotted spoon or mesh skimmer and transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain. Set aside.
Add the diced onion to the pot and saute until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add the chile pepper (dried or fresh) and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, until fragrant.
Add the tomatoes, cover, and lower heat to low.
Simmer the sauce over low heat for about 10 to 15 minutes. When the pasta and sauce are ready, stir the browned meat back into the sauce. Season to taste with fine sea salt (though keep in mind that Pecorino is pretty salty), toss with the pasta (and a bit of the pasta cooking water to thin the sauce, as needed) and serve with plenty of freshly grated Pecorino Romano sprinkled on top.