There is something that seems so utterly right about eating Italian food which proudly and unapologetically reflects the colours of the Italian flag. When I do so, there’s a part of me that wonders just how patriotic Queen Margherita of Savoy must have felt when presented with a pizza made especially for her upon her visit to Napoli shortly after the unification of Italy; the combination of basil, mozzarella and tomato on a pizza base is famously thought to be named after her following this particular dining out experience.
Italian dishes are often named after the person who made it, where they made it or for whom it was made. Amatriciana receives its name from the town of Amatrice in the Lazio region, a mountainous area in central Italy, and from whence this sauce originates. My recipe for making this sauce, however, gets its name from my husband, Matt, who requests this pasta sauce more than any other – this is the Amatriciana that Matt loves to eat! Typical of the sugo all’Amatriciana are ingredients reflecting the national flag. Fiery dried chilli, blushing ripe tomatoes and rose-coloured guanciale (cured pig cheek, or alternatively pancetta or bacon) make up the brilliant red of the colour palette, while onions, garlic and pecorino provide the white. While not traditional of Amatriciana, I insist on the stalks and leaves from fragrant fresh basil, equal parts for the extra burst of flavour and for making up the full tricolore – why should Queen Margherita have all the fun?
I must insist that you only ever make Amatriciana with ripe fresh tomatoes – no tinned tomatoes or passata – and you will understand why when you make it. This is not a thick ragu-style sauce like it’s distant cousin from Bologna. Rather, the softened tomatoes and their juices coat the pasta thickened by the starchy water in which is was cooked, snagging flecks of tomato flesh and cured meat in the tangled web of the spaghetti. I must also insist that you do not drain your pasta in a colander or rinse it under water. The starchy water is a necessary ingredient to ensure an even thick coating of sauce over your pasta.
Bacon is perfectly suitable for this dish, though guanciale or pancetta are the ultimate indulgence if you can find it. I turn to this recipe so regularly for emergency dinners because there is usually always bacon in the freezer than can be quickly defrosted, tomatoes in the fridge, and onions, garlic and chilli on hand. If using bacon, you must use middle rashers, rind removed, with still some bacon fat evident that will render and infuse your sauce. You can use whatever pasta you want, but to make an authentic A’Matt’riciana, spaghetti or pappardelle should be favoured. However, my university food obsession was Tortellini Amatriciana – my Italian classes were usually later in the evening and a few classmates and I could often be found at Piatto on Rundle Street for a pre-class dinner: so began my 20+ year relationship with this sauce, preferably coating stuffed pasta belly-buttons (true story, this is what inspired the design of tortellini.)
Finally, invest in a good drinking dry white wine – you want about a cup for the pan and you will appreciate a glass or two while eating. Tonight’s choice, an Adelaide Hills Seabrook Pinot Grigio, was on point. There’s something about the way the dry wine counterbalances the acidic tomato and punchy chilli that is most satisfying.
I hope you will love to eat this as much as Matt does.
SPAGHETTI A’MATT’RICIANA (or the AMATRICIANA THAT MATT LOVES TO EAT!)
Serves 4 – 6
- 500g good quality dried spaghetti
- 4 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped into chunks
- 400g bacon (middle rashers, rind removed), roughly cut into 1cm pieces; or guanciale or pancetta finely diced
- 1/2 bunch fresh basil; stalks finely chopped and leaves roughly shredded
- 1 large red onion
- 2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes, plus extra for sprinking
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 200ml dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup of water in which the pasta is cooked
- grated pecorino cheese, to taste
- A few tablespoons of fresh ricotta (optional)
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil.
Meanwhile, in a large non-stick pan (one that can be covered securely with a lid), heat the oil over medium high heat. Add onion, garlic, chilli flakes and basil stalks with a pinch of salt to prevent burning and sautee until softened but not browned.
Add the bacon (or guanciale or pancetta if using) to the pan and sautee until the meat softens and just takes on the slightest hint of colour. You do not want dry or crispy bacon pieces.
Add the tomatoes and combine with the sauteed onions then add the wine. Stir well then reduce the heat to medium, clamp on the lid and allow to simmer for 5 – 10 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened and starting to form a pulpy sauce. Check occasionally during simmering and help the tomatoes along by pressing them down with your spoon.
While the sauce is simmering, cook your spaghetti in the pot of salted water until al dente.
Once the pasta is cooked and the sauce has come together, add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the pasta water to the tomatoes and stir for about a minute or until the starchy water has thickened the sauce.
Use tongs to lift the spaghetti from the water and add it straight to the sauce. Sprinkle over a small handful of grated pecorino and the torn basil leaves and toss the pasta through the sauce to coat evenly. Add a little extra pasta water if needed, and taste to see if you want a little extra cheese.
Serve topped with fresh ricotta and more basil, dried chilli flakes and pecorino.