When my husband and I arrived in Italy last winter, the first meal we had was at a small restaurant a couple of blocks from our hotel. One of his favorite Italian meals is cacio e pepe so it was only right that we went somewhere that offered it. I decided to be adventurous and ordered a pasta that I never had before, amatriciana. Little did I know that this is a classic Italian dish available widely throughout Italy. I could barely pronounce the name but by the end of the meal, I was singing Amatriciana! This pasta ended up being one of my favorite meals in Italy. Made from only four ingredients, the sauce is simple but full of incredible flavor. This recipe is an ode to the dish I had in Rome, adding a special twist to make it my own.
**Helpful tips and common mistakes
Traditionally, amatriciana pasta is made from only four ingredients: guanciale, tomatoes, chili, and pecorino. Since there are so few ingredients, it is imperative that each item is of the best quality, even the pasta. I was able to bring back guanciale and pecorino from Italy, but I purchased the remaining back at home. Go through the trouble of finding the best ingredient, you will not regret it.Start by sauteing the guanciale. You may be reading this post and be thinking, “What the heck is guanciale?”. Guanciale is an Italian cured meat made from pork cheeks. It can be difficult to find but there really isn’t anything else like it. The closest substitution will be pancetta, but pancetta lacks the depth of flavor that guanciale has. No matter what, do not use bacon. It will not do this meal justice.
Once the guanciale is browned, drain all but 1 tbsp of the fat. You will be incorporating the rendered fat back into the sauce for extra flavor so set it aside! Add the canned tomatoes, seasoning with salt and pepper. If tomatoes are in season, you can always use the fresh ingredient. However, for ease and simplicity, I used canned. This did not mean I skimped on the quality, no sir. The best-canned tomatoes are San Marzano, the perfect item for this amatriciana pasta.
While the sauce is simmering, bring back the reserved rendered fat back to heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes, cooking just until the garlic turns golden brown. You don’t want the garlic to get too dark since it will continue to cook in the hot oil even off heat. Now add this infused oil back to the sauce and season the sauce once more.Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta. I highly recommend bronze die spaghetti which is made from 100% durum wheat semolina. This gives it a rougher surface, giving it a better surface for the sauce to cling to vs Teflon pasta which is shiny and slippery. It also makes the water in which it cooks in much starchier. Why is this important? The starchy water is used to bind together the sauce with the pasta. The starchier the water, the better it emulsifies, and the silkier and richer the sauce becomes. And that’s how you turn a good pasta sauce great!
Finish the pasta with grated pecorino (or parmesan) and serve immediately.
When you initially read the list of ingredients to make amatriciana pasta, you can’t help but think, but won’t that just taste like tomato sauce with bacon? This, my friends, cannot be further from the truth. The guanciale is a flavor bomb that turns canned tomatoes into something spectacular. With my first bite, I couldn’t help but grin the biggest smile. This was exactly like the pasta I had at that very first restaurant in Rome. Rich, flavorful, and just so amazingly good. Without a doubt, one of my favorite kinds of pasta and now my husband’s too.
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