The Anatomy of a Pasta

One of the most interesting parts of cooking, to me, is discovering the roots of particular types of cuisine and dishes. The etymology of food, if you will. For example, you may claim to love tacos. But in Mexico, regional variations range from the familiar fish and shrimp tacos of Baja to the grilled sandwiched mulitas of Oaxaca to the fried tacos de cazo of Mexico City — often filled with pig’s esophagus. The people of central Mexico eat wriggling live larvae in their tacos. Do you love that?

The coat of arms of Amatrice

A favorite pasta of mine is called bucatini all’ Amatriciana. It has long been part of my Italian repertoire. But making it one evening, and videotaping it for this blog, I realized I didn’t know much about it’s origins. So I decided to investigate. Turns out it’s a specialty of the region around Rome, and originates in fact from a town called Amatrice. Traveling in the past, I have made pilgrimages to particular places based solely on regional specialties. I spent several days in Valencia, Spain, for example, sample the broad spectrum of paellas that sprung up from the rice fields surrounding the town. I traveled to Genoa, Italy, to sample salami and tortelloni al pesto di noci at their source, and have hunted the best fish tacos across the outlaw deserts of Baja. When a vacation is impossible, I’ve got the Internet.

Bucatini all’ Amatriciana is one of those perfect dishes where four or five simple ingredients combine to create alchemy. The story goes something like this. The first mention of someone using a tomato sauce on pasta is from the late 18th century — 1790, to be exact… when a Roman guy named Francisco Leonardi wrote a book called L’Apicio Moderno. We must assume this coincided with the arrival of the tomato in Italy from the New World. A traditional rustic pasta from the region called gricia combined the once inexpensive cut of guanciale with the local sheep’s milk pecorino. Someone down the road in Amatrice got inspired, I guess — and the rest, as they say, is history.


The bucatini noodle, by the way for those not in the know, is like a thick spaghetti with a hole running through the middle (or a skinny, long macaroni). Could you do this recipe with regular spaghetti or fettucini or penne? Sure, but it doesn’t sound as cool as bucatini, does it? And there’s a reason the Italians make bucatini all’ Amatriciana and not spaghetti all’ Amatriciana… something about the toothsome quality of the bucatini, the way it holds the tomato sauce and interacts with the guanciale… The Romans make the dish with onions and garlic. But I’m gonna defer to the ones who created the dish, the Amatriciani — let the tomato, guanciale and olive oil speak for themselves! (I do add a liberal pinch of pepperoncini for kicks.)

Anyway, here you go. Enjoy!

*   *   *

Bucatini all’ Amatriciana
serves 4

1 lb dried bucatini
3 large, ripe tomatoes
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil (plus extra for drizzling)
1/4 lb guanciale (or pancetta, if guanciale is unavailable to you)
1 tbsp. crushed red pepper (optional)
grated pecorino romano (optional)
flaky sea salt

Heat salted water in a large pot for cooking the pasta. Once the water boils, add bucatini and cook according to instructions on package. (Usually 10-ish minutes.)

Place tomatoes in a blender and puree until smooth.

Slice the guanciale like bacon, and place in a large pan over medium heat with the olive oil. Cook until fat is rendered and guanciale is crisp and golden (not brown). Remove from oil, and drain on a paper towel. Pour tomato puree into olive oil and cook over medium heat until a deep red. Adjust seasoning with salt. (Sauce should be fairly salty, since it will be dispersed over a pound of pasta.)

When bucatini is cooked to al dente, remove by tongs (do not drain) into the pan with the tomato sauce. Add guanciale, toss, and turn heat to medium-high. Add crushed red pepper, if you’d like. Cook for two minutes, tossing often, until pasta is well coated and glossy with tomato sauce.

Serve to plates and drizzle with additional olive oil. You can also sprinkle some pecorino romano over the top if you’d like, although I prefer the purity of the trinity of pasta, tomato and guanciale. (That sounded almost Roman Catholic, didn’t it…)

Wine suggestion: a fruity Italian sangiovese or Dry Creek Valley zinfandel.

* For a great source for epic guanciale by mail, visit the Salumi website — a famous Seattle store owned by Italian celeb chef, Mario Batali’s father.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ben
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 00:20:56

    Man. I had a bucatini the other day with feta, brown butter, and cinnamon. It was awesome. & I’m eating guanciale tonight in an awesome baked bean dish with sriracha & fresh ginger. I’ll try your above recipe soon.


    • scolgin
      Nov 08, 2011 @ 00:23:26

      Hey buddy! Man, that feta bucatini sounds great. Feel free to go a little heavier on the guanciale if you desire. ; ) Next time you run out, order some from Salumi. It’s scary good.


  2. Benjamin Thompson
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 00:59:47

    Make the feta dish soon! It was really good. Use French Feta.


  3. paul
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 14:09:56

    Bucatini–my favorite pasta . . .


  4. Mathew Tekulsky
    Nov 08, 2011 @ 17:58:35

    Great video, Sean. Looks very tasty.


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