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When a pasta craving hits—which, for me, is almost daily—I’m not desperately seeking cacio e pepe or trolling Bumble for my most compatible carbonara. Nope, my main squeeze was, is, and will always be a tomato-based sauce, perhaps because it reminds me of the big bowls of spaghetti and meatballs and checkered-tablecloth restaurants of my big, fat, red-sauce, Italian-American, East Coast youth.
But above all others, I’m usually on the prowl for Amatriciana. I’ve eaten a lot of pasta in my day (trust me, or look at my Instagram). It is my perfect match: less obviously “slutty” (that's the Italian term!) than Puttanesca’s anchovies and olives, but more interesting than your typical marinara. Amatriciana winks at you with the promise of heat, then seduces you further with the promise of crisp pork bits. Although sauce itself originates from the town of Amatrice in Italy’s Lazio region, its signature additions of chile flakes and pork have become more commonly associated with Rome. Onions occasionally make an appearance, but it depends on whose recipe you’re following.
I’d never really met a version of Amatriciana that I didn’t like, but I wasn’t truly ready to commit until I tried Evan Funke’s version, served with big handmade rigatoni, at Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles last spring. Much like the other assertive flavors at his Venice restaurant that specializes in fresh pasta, his sauce was beyond bold, the pork flavor so intense in every bite that I had to ask him about it at the end of my meal—and try making it myself at home, which I did, first for a dinner party, then again to enjoy on my own with a glass (or three) of Nebbiolo red wine and some quality television (okay, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills—don’t judge me).
After my first semi-successful attempt that didn’t quite taste like his, despite using the ingredients he recommended, I sat down with Evan to learn more about the sauce I loved.
It turns out that Evan’s Amatriciana is so, well, porky because it uses a whole lot of pork fat: Fifty percent of the sauce is comprised of the shimmering fat that renders out of guanciale, the other half, a simple pomodoro ragu. So that smoky, salty fat rounds out and intensifies as it coats every noodle. The guanciale, mind you, isn’t for the timid: Evan prefers La Quercia’s intensely fatty version, which can be slick to the touch and has an almost gamey aroma, especially once it hits the pan. The first time I tried to make it, I found it to be difficult to slice through, so a good, sharp knife is a must.
And in his version, there’s nary an onion in sight.
“In Amatriciana, there are two schools—with onions or without, then there are variations. What kind of onions? What seasoning to add to onions? Then, there are also the schools of peperoncino versus black pepper,” Evan tells me. “Authenticity is very personal, and tradition is created through a culmination of experience. To me, what is authentic is guanciale, a very simple pomodoro, a hint of peperoncino, and Pecorino Romano.”
Of course, it being a restaurant sauce, there are a handful of cheffy touches that elevate (and some might say complicate) it: Instead of using whole chile flakes, Evan grinds them into a fine powder in a coffee grinder so that the flavor distribute more evenly into the sauce, avoiding anyone biting into a whole flake of too-intense chile. “To me, Amatriciana is about warmth, not heat,” he says.
The pomodoro, meanwhile, starts with a little garlic, then is quickly reduced with fresh marjoram and run through a food mill to ensure an even texture, which helps incorporate it into the pork fat, too. And a note about that: You’ll be dealing with a lot of bubbling, hot fat, so be careful when you’re adding the tomato, because oil plus liquid can equal a lot of splattering. Evan recommends taking the pan off the heat to let the fat cool a tiny bit, and tilting it away from you helps too. But still, be careful.
Otherwise, the sauce is pretty straightforward, albeit not necessarily “easy”: You render out the guanciale; add some pomodoro, a little bit of Pecorino Romano, and a touch of pasta water; really agitate the pan or stir the sauce to get it to incorporate (like you would, say, a beurre blanc; Evan says to “beat the shit out of it”); then drop in the pasta to coat. A final flurry of Pecorino Romano once it’s on the plate, and the pasta is done. But each step is important. “Simple is not always so simple,” Evan jokes.
It’s worth noting that what follows isn’t Evan’s recipe per se. It’s my interpretation of his recipe, following the bits of advice he gave me along the way. It’s definitely not for the faint of heart. But then, neither are most things we love.
Chile Powder + Pomodoro Sauce
- 1 jar red chile flakes
- Olive oil
- 2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- 2 tablespoons fresh marjoram leaves
- 1 pound large rigatoni
- 1/2 pound guanciale (preferably La Quercia), thinly sliced and cut into panels
- Olive oil
- Large pinch chile powder
- Pomodoro sauce, to taste
- Freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
How do you Amatriciana? Let us know in the comments!