Mastering Amatriciana: A Guide to Authentic Italian Pasta

Pasta all’Amatriciana is a typical food from Amatrice, a small town in the province of Rieti, Lazio. It is also known as amatriciana pasta or, simply, amatriciana – and if you ask me, it’s one of the best pasta dishes in the world.

It has everything I ask for in a pasta recipe, and is also a must-know for any food history nerd like me.

In fact, it is so important for so important to Amatrice’s history that the city’s municipality has posted the original recipe, approved by chefs and locals alike, on its website.

That recipe is the product of centuries-old traditions, and is probably the most reliable source for making authentic homemade amatriciana sauce.

Therefore, I thought I would transpose it into English for you.

Table of Contents

The history of amatriciana

If you ask anyone “what is amatriciana?“, most people will just answer that it’s a typical Roman dish. But although it is widely used in Roman cuisine, its origins are different.

Until 1927, in fact, the town of Amatrice was part of the Abruzzo region, and recipes such as amatriciana pasta, gricia, cacio e pepe, and many others were actually the foods commonly used by local shepherds.

Because of the extensive animal husbandry techniques traditionally used in those areas, these shepherds had to move miles and miles away from home for four or five months each year, in a period called “transhumance.”

Those seasonal migrations are why these recipes have spread throughout the regions of Central Italy, and also why they all share 3 key ingredients.

Having to be away from home for long periods of time, the shepherds brought with them long-life ingredients, such as pecorino cheese, guanciale, and dried pasta.

Initially, the shepherds of Amatrice used these ingredients to make mostly cacio e pepe and the dressing we know today as “Gricia” (although some locals call it “white amatriciana“).

Then in the late 18th century, the use of tomato sauce spread throughout the Kingdom of Naples (of which Amatrice was a part) and locals added it to their recipe, thus creating the red amatriciana sauce we all know today.

some of the ingredients for amatriciana pasta on a wooden surface
some of the ingredients for amatriciana pasta

What you need

Now, let’s make an authentic, Italian-style amatriciana pasta.

Here are the ingredients that a local from Amatrice would use. Some of them are very difficult or expensive to find outside of Italy, so I’ll list some alternatives. You might not get a 100% geographically accurate amatriciana, but it will taste as good!

Spaghetti pasta: amatriciana sauce is commonly used to dress spaghetti, bucatini, rigatoni or even ridged penne. However, the recipe shared by the Comune of Amatrice calls specifically for spaghetti, so we’re going to stick to that.

Guanciale Amatriciano PGI: guanciale is a type of cured pork meat made from the pig’s jowl. It’s often mistaken with pancetta or bacon, but it has a different texture and a more intense, spicier taste. The specific type of guanciale listed in the original recipe is very difficult to find outside of Italy, but I hear that Fortuna guanciale is quite a good alternative in the US.

Note: you should always use a 1:4 ratio when buying guanciale and spaghetti. So, for 8 oz of pasta, you’re going to need 2 oz of guanciale.

One red chili pepper: possibly a Calabrian one. If you don’t have any, choose one with a similar moderate spiciness (20.000 – 30.000 SHU).

Extra-virgin olive oil: you’ll need just a tablespoon to sautee the chili pepper.

Dry white wine: you’ll add it to to a saucepan with the guanciale meat to make it even tastier.

San Marzano Tomatoes: you’ll have to boil and peel them. If you can’t find them, the recipe allows for any type of peeled tomatoes, as long as they’re good.

Pecorino Amatriciano cheese: it’s like pecorino romano, just with a different geographical provenience and a slightly less intense taste.

How to find the right cheese and guanciale?

Now, finding the specific types of guanciale and pecorino cheese listed by the Comune of Amatrice might be hard in the USA.

I’ve tried to look them up on websites that ship to the Boston area, and I could find only a very expensive form of pecorino amatriciano, and no PGI guanciale.

I’ve actually read that it couldn’t even be imported until a few years ago. And to be fair, the alternatives from Italy that I found were not very good looking.

So, I’d say it’s fair to go with alternatives like Fortuna guanciale, or with more common types of pecorino cheese. You might not get a 100% geographically accurate amatriciana sauce, but it will taste as good, without costing you a fortune.


Method

Now, first we’re going to make the amatriciana sauce, then we’ll add it to the pasta.

How to make amatriciana sauce

Step 1: cut the guanciale into small dices or strips, and add it to an iron saucepan with the chili pepper and the extra-virgin olive oil.

pieces of guanciale sauteeing in an iron pan

As I was saying, you don’t need a lot of olive oil. Most recipes with guanciale don’t require it at all, as the meat’s melted fat is enough to grease any saucepan. Use just a tablespoon to sautee the chili pepper.

This is also a good moment to grate the pecorino cheese and set it aside for later.

Step 2: Brown the guanciale over high heat. Add the wine and wait for it to evaporate completely.

Step 3: When the guanciale is well cooked, remove it from the pan and set aside on top of a plate covered with paper towels. Keep it warm to prevent it from drying out too much.

Step 4: Wash the San Marzano tomatoes, blanch them, peel them, cut them into strips and clean them of their seeds. After that, put them in the same pan where you cooked the guanciale, add a little salt, and cook for a few minutes until you have a nice sauce.

Step 5: Remove the chili, and put the guanciale pieces back into the saucepan, and mix well.

amatriciana sauce in iron saucepan

Adding the pasta

Step 6: The first thing to do is to boil the pasta al dente in salted water, and then drain it.

Step 7: Take a large bowl, and add the pasta together with the pecorino cheese. Stir well.

Step 8: Add the sauce, and give it one last stir.

Your authentic amatriciana pasta is ready. Enjoy!

italian style amatriciana pasta on a plate

What to serve it with?

First of all, serve your amatriciana with a little extra pecorino aside. That way, your guests can choose to add some to their plate.

Second course: try serving meatballs with tomato sauce, or a meatball parmigiana. Mortadella Head’s recipe contains pecorino cheese, so it will pair nicely with your amatriciana pasta.

Side dishes: roasted potatoes will do. Alternatively, you could serve zucchini rolls stuffed with prosciutto.

Dessert:

  • Tiramisu: have you tried our tiramisu cup recipe yet?
  • Lemon Sorbet: For a lighter end to the dinner, a tangy lemon sorbet cleanses the palate.

Salads:

  • Arugula Salad with Shaved Parmesan: The peppery flavor of arugula balanced with lemon and Parmesan complements the robustness of Amatriciana.
  • Caprese Salad: The freshness of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil provides a light contrast to the hearty pasta.

Vegetables:

  • Garlic Sautéed Spinach: A simple dish that offers a nutritious and flavorful side.
  • Roasted Mediterranean Vegetables: Think zucchini, bell peppers, and eggplant roasted with olive oil and herbs for a touch of the Mediterranean.

Breads:

  • Garlic Bread: Crispy and infused with garlic, this bread is a classic partner for Italian pasta dishes.
  • Focaccia with Rosemary and Sea Salt: Soft, flavorful focaccia can be a delightful addition to the meal.

Cheese Board (Optional):

  • Consider serving a selection of Italian cheeses, olives, and cured meats as an appetizer. This can set the stage for the rich flavors to come.

Traditional Italian Coffee:

  • Ending the meal with a well-brewed espresso or cappuccino can offer a quintessential Italian dining experience.

Which type of wine goes best with amatriciana pasta?

Many people would recommend a full-bodied red wine. A dry red like Sangiovese or Montepulciano helps accentuate the flavors without overpowering the dish. But its intense flavor may cover too much of that of the guanciale and tomato sauce.

It would be better to choose a full bodied rosee wine with good aromatic notes, such as Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, or one made in Sicily from Nero D’Avola grapes. For a lighter touch, white wine, a crisp Verdicchio or Pinot Grigio can be a refreshing choice too.

Tips and Variations:

Looking to tweak the Authentic Amatriciana Pasta Recipe a bit? This Tips and Variations section has you covered. From vegetarian options to wine pairings, we’ve got ideas to make the dish just right for you and your guests.

Substitutes and Their Effects on Flavor:

 

Guanciale: Authentic Amatriciana requires guanciale, but pancetta or bacon can be a pinch-hitter. Be mindful, though; swapping can make the flavor less rich and robust.

San Marzano Tomatoes: Loved for their sweetness and low acidity, these tomatoes are ideal. Can’t find them? Other plum tomatoes will do, but the sauce might not be as sweet.

Pecorino Romano Cheese: Parmigiano Reggiano can step in but expect a milder, less salty kick.

Adjusting for Dietary Preferences or Restrictions:

 

Vegetarian Option: Skip the guanciale for a veggie version. Experiment with smoky or savory vegetarian options to keep some of those traditional flavors alive.

Gluten-Free Option: Go gluten-free with the right pasta, and don’t worry, the core flavor won’t change.

Low-Salt Variation: Watching your salt? Choose low-sodium cheese and keep an eye on added salt.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making The Authentic Amatriciana Pasta Recipe:

 

Using the Wrong Meat: Substituting guanciale with something other than pancetta or bacon can result in a significant flavor change. Stick to the recommended substitutes.

Overcooking the Pasta: It’s crucial to cook the pasta al dente, as overcooking can lead to a mushy texture. Follow the package instructions and always taste-test a minute before the suggested cooking time ends.

Ignoring Tomato Quality: Opting for canned or low-quality tomatoes instead of fresh San Marzano can lead to a lackluster sauce. If you can’t find San Marzano, look for ripe and flavorful plum tomatoes.

Overloading on Cheese: While cheese adds richness, using too much can overpower the other flavors. Stick to the recommended quantity or adjust cautiously.

Skimping on Simmering Time: Rushing the sauce’s simmering process can leave it lacking depth. Allow the sauce to simmer gently, letting the flavors meld beautifully.

Not Seasoning Properly: A pinch of salt can make or break the sauce. Season gradually, taste often, and adjust as necessary.

Choosing the Wrong Pasta Shape: Traditional Amatriciana is best with Bucatini or Spaghetti. Using a very different pasta shape can alter the way the sauce clings to the pasta.

Forgetting to Reserve Pasta Water: Saving a cup of pasta cooking water before draining can be a lifesaver. It’s rich in starch and can be used to adjust the sauce’s consistency if needed.

Not Preheating the Serving Dishes: Amatriciana should be served hot. Preheating your serving dishes ensures that the pasta stays warm when served.

Ignoring Authenticity in Substitutions: While adjustments can be made, straying too far from the authentic ingredients or methods will lead to a dish that’s tasty but not true Amatriciana.

 

Amatriciana Pasta Recipe FAQs

Q: What is Amatriciana Pasta?

A: Amatriciana pasta is a traditional Italian dish from the town of Amatrice. It’s made with guanciale, San Marzano tomatoes, Pecorino Romano cheese, and usually served with Bucatini or Spaghetti.

Q: Can I Substitute Guanciale with Something Else?

A: Yes, pancetta or bacon can be used as a substitute, but guanciale provides a unique flavor that’s key to the authentic dish.

Q: What Makes San Marzano Tomatoes Special?

A: San Marzano tomatoes are known for their sweet flavor and low acidity. They are considered essential for a traditional Amatriciana sauce, but other plum tomatoes can be used if necessary.

Q: Can I Use a Different Type of Cheese Besides Pecorino Romano?

A: While Pecorino Romano is traditional, you could substitute with Parmigiano Reggiano. However, the flavor profile will change.

Q: Is There a Vegetarian Version of Amatriciana Pasta?

A: You can omit the guanciale for a vegetarian version, but keep in mind that the taste will differ from the original recipe.

Q: What Kind of Pasta Should I Use?

A: Bucatini is the most traditional, but Spaghetti is also commonly used.

Q: How Spicy is This Dish?

A: Authentic Amatriciana is not particularly spicy, but you can add chili pepper to suit your taste.

Q: Can I Freeze the Sauce for Later Use?

A: Yes, the sauce can be frozen and reheated. It’s best to freeze without the pasta and then combine with freshly cooked pasta when serving.

Q: What’s the Ideal Wine Pairing with Amatriciana Pasta?

A: A dry red wine, such as a Sangiovese or a Montepulciano, often complements the dish well.

Q: Why Is Authenticity Important for This Recipe?

A: Authenticity in the Amatriciana pasta recipe preserves the unique flavors and tradition of this beloved Italian dish. Substituting key ingredients or altering the method may result in a tasty dish but will deviate from the traditional taste and cultural significance.

Q: Can I Make It Gluten-Free?

A: You can use gluten-free pasta to make the dish suitable for those with gluten sensitivities.

Q: What Are Some Common Mistakes to Avoid?

Overcooking the pasta, using subpar ingredients, or not allowing the sauce to simmer long enough can all affect the final taste.

Q: Where Can I Find Guanciale and San Marzano Tomatoes?

A: Specialty Italian grocery stores or online retailers may carry these ingredients. In some regions, local farmers’ markets may also have them.

 

 

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Authentic Amatriciana Pasta


  • Author: Mortadella Head
  • Total Time: 35 minutes
  • Yield: 4 1x

Ingredients

Scale

16 oz spaghetti pasta

4 oz guanciale

7 peeled San Marzano tomatoes (or, alternatively, 14 oz peeled tomatoes)

1 hot chili pepper

3 oz grated pecorino cheese

1/4 cup of wine

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil


Instructions

  1. Cut the guanciale into small dices or strips, and add it to an iron saucepan with the chili pepper and the extra-virgin olive oil. Grate the pecorino cheese and set it aside for later.
  2. Brown the guanciale over high heat. Add the wine and wait for it to evaporate completely.
  3. When the guanciale is well cooked, remove it from the pan and set aside on top of a plate covered with paper towels. Keep it warm to prevent it from drying out too much. ù
  4. Wash the San Marzano tomatoes, blanch them, peel them, cut them into strips and clean them of their seeds. After that, put them in the same pan where you cooked the guanciale, add a little salt, and cook for a few minutes until you have a nice sauce.
  5. Remove the chili, and put the guanciale pieces back into the saucepan, and mix well.
  6. Boil the pasta al dente in salted water, and then drain it.
  7. Take a large bowl, and add the pasta together with the pecorino cheese. Stir well.
  8. Add the sauce, and give it one last stir.
  9. Enjoy!
  • Prep Time: 5
  • Cook Time: 30
  • Category: Pasta
  • Cuisine: Italian

Keywords: amatriciana pasta, amatriciana sauce, pasta all'amatriciana

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