When an earthquake hit central Italy two weeks ago, preparations were underway in picturesque Amatrice for the annual festival dedicated to the mountain hamlet’s famous export: pasta all’amatriciana.
The medieval town, population of about 2,000, lost more than 200 people. The ground shook while they slept, unsettling new and old buildings that came crashing down. Some of the buildings had stood since the 1400s.
“The town is no more,” Amatrice’s Mayor Sergio Pirozzi told news media.
My husband, on hearing the news, suggested we make pasta all’amatriciana for dinner, to honor the town. I suggested we invite Italophile friends. By the Sunday after the quake, he had looked up a recipe and I had done the shopping. The kids had colored black-and-white printouts of Amatrice’s coat of arms for decorations when our guests arrived.
Food enthusiasts argue — as they do on many subjects — about the details of the all’amatriciana sauce. The fresco-worthy origin story says it was invented by shepherds in the mountains of this region who carried with them its essential ingredients. Most recipes today agree that the dish must contain pasta, tomatoes, guanciale, olive oil and pecorino cheese.
In Amatrice, the sauce is often eaten over spaghetti; in some places rigatoni is preferred. When you make it with bucatini, the hollow noodle that’s long like spaghetti and a little wider, you can’t slurp your pasta, one of our guests noted with distinct dismay. As for tomatoes, we used canned, as we find we get a richer flavor for sauces that way. Guanciale is thin-sliced cured meat from a pig’s jowl, which can be hard to find. Pancetta subs in worldwide, as it did in our kitchen. You could even use bacon.
There wasn’t a lot to say about Amatrice over dinner, the destruction there beyond words. It’s a tiny place; no one we know has ever visited. But together we dined, celebrating life as you do when you feast.
We weren’t the first to think of eating all’amatriciana to honor Amatrice. A movement that started in Italy in the hours after the earthquake encourages restaurants to add the dish to their menus, then send two euros, one from the restaurant and one from the patron, to the Italian Red Cross. Restaurants around Italy and through Europe have taken up the cause, and word has spread through the hashtag #AMAtriciana on social media.
I worried it could seem trite, eating pasta when so many have lost their loved ones, their homes, their lives. No, my friend Amy assured me: “Italians believe in expressing fellowship with those who have experienced tragedy. Celebrating Amatrice’s food is fellowship with its people.” They would appreciate this.
She lived in Bologna for four years, and has returned to Italy every summer with her Italian husband and daughters, so I will trust her judgment.
3 cups canned plum tomatoes and their juices
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, bruised
2 oz. pancetta, sliced into julienne
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 lb. bucatini (or spaghetti)
Parmesan, freshly grated, to serve
Drain tomatoes, reserving the juice, and chop.
In a large saute pan or Dutch oven, heat butter and oil over medium heat. When warm, add the onion and garlic and sauté until golden. Add pancetta and sauté for five minutes or so, until aromatic.
Stir in pepper flakes, tomatoes and juice, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Simmer until thickened, about a half hour, stirring occasionally. Discard the garlic.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Drain.
Toss pasta into sauce. Serve hot, passing cheese at the table. Serves four to six.
— Adapted from “The Classic Italian Cookbook” by Julia Della Croce (DK Publishing, London, 1996)