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Bucatini all'Amatriciana
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Bucatini all'Amatriciana

Some days I like to head for the kitchen in a creative mood and try to invent a new dish that's never been seen or tasted before, even if - as most inventions are - it's really just a minor variation on the tried and true.

But just as often, the idea of replicating a classic recipe rings my culinary chimes. From the loftiness of French haute cuisine to the comfort of hearty peasant fare, "classic" preparations earn that adjective because they have stood the test of time, satisfying generations of hungry enthusiasts.

So it is with today's featured recipe, bucatini all'Amatriciana ("boo-cah-TEE-nee ahl-AH-mah-TREE-chee-ah-nah"). Rooted in the rural village of Amatrice in Abruzzi, high in Central Italy's Apennines up a long and winding road east of Rome, this simple but comforting pasta dish is a tradition of the late-summer Italian holiday Fer Agosto. It didn't take long for traveling holiday revelers to bring this tasty dinner back to the big cities where, with local variations, it turned up as a restaurant favorite in both Rome and Naples. Eventually it crossed the oceans in immigrant recipe boxes to become a staple of Italian family fare around the world.

The fundamentals are simple: Fatty pork bits are browned with onions (and, at least in the Neapolitan version, a piquant chile pepper or two or a shake of red-pepper flakes), then simmered with ripe tomatoes and served over pasta with cheese.

The Amatrice original uses guanciale ("gwan-CHA-lee"), a cured meat made from hog cheeks and jowls; but pancetta ("pahn-CHET-ta," unsmoked Italian bacon) is more common in restaurant versions, and even prosciutto is OK. The key is simply to get the succulent flavor and the crunchy texture of browned pork bits in the sauce. (If you prefer a vegetarian version, you can substitute pine nuts or even chopped walnuts.)

There's room for flexibility with the pasta as well. I like bucatini (a fairly thick long pasta with a hole down the center, sort of like a narrow drinking straw). But regular spaghetti is fine, and you won't lose authenticity points if you prefer short pasta such as penne or ziti.

Here's how I put together a straightforward rendition the other day:

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

4 ounces bucatini (or other pasta as noted above)
1 small onion, enough to make about 1/2 cup when chopped
1/4 teaspoon dried red-pepper flakes or to taste
1 ounce pancetta (or alternatives as noted above)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup chopped tomatoes, fresh if available or quality canned
Black pepper
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano or similar cheese


1. Chop the onion fine and cut the pancetta into small dice. Melt the butter in a saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and red-pepper flakes and cook until the onions are translucent; then add the pancetta (or substitute, as noted) and cook until the onions and the meat start to brown. Put in the tomatoes, add salt and pepper to taste, and reduce heat to very low. Leave it at a gentle simmer while you cook the pasta. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn't stick or scorch.

2. Following the standard procedure for pasta, fill a large pot with plenty of water, add a tablespoon or so of salt, "enough to make it taste like sea water," and bring to the boil. Add the pasta, stir once or twice to keep it from sticking together, and cook until al dente. If you use bucatini, note that it cooks surprisingly fast - probably because of the hole down the center - requiring only 7 or 8 minutes. Spaghetti or short pasta may take a bit longer.

3. When the pasta is done, drain it well, then pour it into the sauce; add the grated cheese and serve in warm bowls.

WINE MATCH: I usually like serve a fruity but acidic Italian red with this kind of pasta; a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo would be an appropriate (and affordable) regional match. I switched to French for this meal, though, and found a good match in a hearty and rustic Southern French red, the Thierry and Guy 2001 "Fat Bastard" Shiraz from the Languedoc.

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Last Week's FoodLetter and Archives

Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Oven-baked frittata (Jan. 2)

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Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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