The Rules of Pasta all'Amatriciana—& Why You Should Be Cooking It Now

August 30, 2016

Last week the world woke up to the news that part of central Italy, deep in mountainous northern Lazio, had, in an instant, been razed to dust and rubble by a devastating earthquake. Amatrice (pronounced ama-tree-chey), near the earthquake's epicenter, “no longer exists,” said its mayor, Sergio Pirozzi.

The historic mountain village that Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini describes as “the centerpiece of picture-postcard Italy, for those who find Tuscany too obvious, Rome too noisy and Venice too crowded” is being remembered as the birthplace of one of Italy's most famous pasta sauces, amatriciana. Restaurants around the world are participating in “Amatriciana for Amatrice,” cooking and serving the dish to raise funds for the Italian Red Cross and, on social media, initiatives such as the #VirtualSagra are raising awareness and paying homage to the town and its iconic dish in food-inspired solidarity. Amatrice's 50th annual sagra, or food festival or celebrating spaghetti all'amatriciana, was supposed to take place this past weekend, on August 27 and 28.

Amatriciana found its way to Rome, a two-hour drive south, by way of many inhabitants of Amatrice who found themselves moving there over the past century in search of work. It now sits up there with carbonara as one of the Eternal City's essential dishes.

Guanciale. Photo by Emiko Davies

It is a deceptively simple and delicious sauce of tomato, guanciale (cured and ever-so-slightly-smoked pork jowl), a hint of chile, and pecorino (sheep's milk cheese), which is used both in the sauce and as a garnish. It traditionally is paired with bucatini pasta, long, thick noodles similar to spaghetti but with a hole right through the middle (bucati means “with a hole”), but spaghetti or even rigatoni, the least traditional but arguably less messy pasta with which to coat this bright red sauce, are used.

Bucatini pasta. Photo by Emiko Davies

A centuries-old dish, pasta all'amatriciana was once a humble shepherd's lunch, made on mountain slopes with locally-made pecorino and guanciale—peppered, slightly smoked cured pork cheek heavily rippled with fat. This is now considered a version known as amatriciana bianca or white amatriciana, also charmingly named unto e cacio or “grease and cheese," which you can still find on Roman menus. After tomatoes began appearing in dishes all over central-southern Italy, they too (along with hot chile peppers), crept into amatriciana sauce sometime in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Seeing as the tomato sauce is an excellent carrier of flavors and adds some welcome acidity to the dish, it became a mainstay in the recipe. A tiny splash of white wine sometimes makes an appearance, as does a drop of olive oil (although many will point out that sizzling guanciale produces enough of its own fat and flavor of its own that it is an unnecessary addition).

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Like other historical dishes with thousands of years of proud history and culture behind them, making amatriciana involves respecting rules. One of those most frequently broken is the addition of onion or garlic in the sauce—and it's not to be taken lightly. Last year, Italian celebrity and Michelin-starred chef Carlo Cracco was openly criticized by the council of Amatrice for including garlic in his amatriciana. Piergiuseppe Monteforte, deputy mayor of the town, defended the traditional dish in an interview with The Guardian:

Use one ingredient for another, it changes not only the flavour of a dish but also the history of it. If you use ingredients like garlic or onion in an amatriciana, it means you are ignoring a pastoral tradition that is almost 1,000 years old, passed down from generation to generation.

Amatriciana ingredients. Photo by Emiko Davies

Needless to say, with a sauce of such few ingredients, the most important part is to get some wonderful guanciale. It is what gives the sauce its characteristic flavor; it just wouldn't be the same if you used bacon or pancetta as a substitute. Guanciale is full-flavoured, balanced between being well-seasoned (there's no need to add salt or pepper to this sauce) and sweet. It's meltingly tender with the most delicious layer of fat—it is this layer of fat, actually, that is the best part. Don't be afraid of it. Embrace it.

Cook it, as Valentina Santanicchio, chef of Capitano del Popolo in nearby Umbria, has said, “to help those who have nothing left. To let these people know that they will never be alone. To celebrate the name of a world famous city, a city that needs to resurrect for all of us, because one cannot live without amatriciana.”

Emiko, a.k.a. Emiko Davies, is a food writer and cookbook author living in Tuscany, where she writes about (and eats!) regional Italian foods. You can read more of her writing on her blog.

Once you have a pot of amatriciana bubbling away, head here and here to find out more about how you can help those who have been affected by the earthquake.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • pierino
  • stefan
  • amysarah
  • christie
  • ChefJune
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


pierino August 30, 2016
It's worth noting that Italian "passata" is significantly looser than American tomato puree. In season I simply use fresh, peeled tomatoes. Okay, I admit to adding shallots on occasion but not garlic.
stefan August 30, 2016
Amatrice's residents sowed the seeds of their own destruction by not seismically retrofitting their houses. Hopefully the funds raised will be used to build seismically resistant houses
pierino August 30, 2016
Unfortunately they didn't have rebar back in the 14th century. Even so, places in Umbria that were supposedly retrofit suffered damage and consequently are now under investigation.
Laura August 30, 2016
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am sure you are as sympathetic to every other person who has suffered a natural disaster. Thanks! So helpful. Fa schivo.
stefan September 1, 2016
Laura, I symathise with those persons who did all that is possible for their houses to be earthquake "proof", if they still suffered damage, and for the children whose parents did not do so. otherwise, if you live in zone classified as zone 1/2 for earthquake risk and do not take precautions, I do not think you deserve any sympathy. Notwithstanding, I hope that these people learn the lesson - hopefully without having lost lives of loved ones - and rebuild more safely.
stefan September 1, 2016
true, but we do not, and it is possible to retrofit medieval houses to strengthen them. it seems that Norcia, for example, suffered little damage. retrofitting will not necessarily mean that no damage is caused to the house, but that it will not be so bad that walls and ceilings fall and kill the people inside.
amysarah August 30, 2016
This has been a standby in my kitchen for many years - big favorite around here, such a comfort food. I think if you ask 10 Romans, you'll get 10 slightly different variations. (I admit I add a little garlic with the guinciale or - horrors! - bacon if that's what's convenient.) Will definitely try your version soon, looks good.
christie August 30, 2016
I first had Pasta All'Amatriciana not long after I moved to Rome a little over a decade ago. It was and continues to be one of my favorite dishes. The recipe I use is different and uses onions and garlic. I love it. So, so sad about the devastation in Italy.
ChefJune August 30, 2016
We are having it for dinner tonight #virtualsagra. According to friends from the area, the bucatini is used in Rome, but in Amatrice spaghetti is traditional. Actually, her recipa is quite a bit different from yours. But I'm sure they're both delicious.