The origins of Amatriciana pasta sauce are drenched in debate. Most people claim the sauce originated in the town of Amatrice, located 60 miles northeast of Rome. In Rome, many chefs and home cooks claim the sauce is typical to the city’s cuisine and has nothing to do with the town of Amatrice. There are people who say the sauce should be called matriciana, suggesting a theory that it refers to a wild herb called matricale, which is questionable because most Italians agree that herbs have no place in the sauce. And that’s just the beginning of the controversy surrounding this sauce. The debate heats up even more when it comes to the ingredients for an authentic Amatriciana pasta sauce. The one ingredient everyone agrees on is the use of guanciale: cured, unsmoked pig jowl; a name derived from the word guancia, meaning “cheek”. Guanciale is common all over Italy, but it’s harder to find in the US, although it is becoming a more well-known ingredient. Despite being a purist when it comes to making traditional Italian recipes, I break the guanciale-only rule when making Amatriciana sauce and use pancetta instead, but only because I’ve never been able to find good-quality guanciale. The only debate surrounding this ingredient is how to cook it: crisp it or cook it just until softened? The answer will vary among cooks. I like it somewhere in between the two textures.
The other ingredients that are wildly debated are the vegetables and spices. In Rome, most recipes for Amatriciana sauce include onions; it’s how I grew up eating this sauce and how I make it today. If you eat the sauce in Amatrice, the onions are generally omitted. Depending on who you talk to and where they are from, both of these preparations will be considered the “right” way to make Amatriciana sauce. Tomatoes are generally agreed on as an ingredient, but several food historians claim that originally, Amatriciana sauce never included tomatoes. The tomato-less version of this sauce is now widely known as gricia or Amatriciana bianca (“white Amatriciana”), which some people claim is the “real” Amatriciana sauce (that’s another debate entirely). There are recipes that will spice the sauce with black pepper, and others that will use dried peperoncino flakes. I like the latter for it’s punchier flavor.
Despite the ingredient variations, Amatriciana pasta sauce is easy to make and another “basics” recipe I keep in frequent rotation. I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe since it closely resembles the flavor of the Amatriciana sauce I grew up eating. I have always enjoyed how the onions become tender and sweet and almost melt into the sauce. I add just enough dried peperoncino flakes for some spice but never too much as the sauce should not be spicy. An hour of cooking over a low flame reduces the sauce and concentrates the flavors. Like Romans, I toss this sauce with bucatini, the thick, hollow spaghetti-like pasta most often paired with this sauce. You could also use rigatoni or penne without fear of fanning the flames of debate.
As maddening as it is to nail down an “authentic” regional Italian recipe, I find it also one of the most endearing and fascinating aspects of Italian food culture. The one thing that remains constant is that there are as many variations for recipes as there are cooks, and, Italians being Italians, everyone claims to posses the true recipe to many of Italy’s regional dishes.Print
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
- 1 Tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion thinly sliced
- ¼ pound guanciale or pancetta, small dice
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 28 ounce cans crushed tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste, if necessary
- In a sauce pot over medium heat, melt the butter into the olive oil.
- Add in the onion slices and sauté them until they are tender and pale golden, but not browned.
- Add in the guanciale (or pancetta) and cook it until pale golden, stirring frequently.
- Add in the crushed red pepper flakes and stir the mixture to incorporate them evenly.
- Add in the tomatoes and the salt and stir well to combine.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pot partially with the lid. Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer, stirring often to keep the sauce from scorching.
- Cook the sauce, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
- Towards the end of cooking, taste the sauce and adjust for salt if necessary.
- Amatriciana pasta sauce freezes well, so you can make a large batch and divide it into freezer-safe containers to enjoy later.
- Storage: Cool the sauce to room temperature before transferring to freezer-safe containers. Freeze for up to 3 months.