Friends in Rome had warned me: No one should eat pasta all’amatriciana nonstop for a week. The sauce — a glutton’s glorious punishment of pork, pecorino and tomatoes — produces one of the most satisfying dishes on the Roman table. But what’s the best way to make it? I planned to eat my way all the way to the source waters, in the mountain village of Amatrice, about two hours north of Rome, to find out.
My amatriciana journey began, in a sense, several years earlier. On the evening of Aug. 23, 2016, I prepared bucatini all’amatriciana, for my son, Sandro, and myself. I remember this not because I’m one of those obsessive foodies who documents every meal. I remember it because my wife, Mindy, who doesn’t eat pork, was not around for dinner that night, and the dish is a guilty pleasure. I remember the date even more acutely because when we woke up the next morning, we learned that a magnitude 6.2 earthquake had struck Amatrice overnight, killing nearly 300 people and causing widespread devastation.
So this is the oddest of travel articles: urging a trip to a place that, according to a former mayor, Sergio Pirozzi, mostly doesn’t exist anymore. But it is still worth going. Not just for the food, which is the ultimate farm-to-table version of amatriciana, but for a moving reminder of human resilience in the face of a devastating tragedy.
There is muscle-memory, and there is taste-bud memory. I first encountered amatriciana in 1976, shortly after I had come to live in Rome, at a now-extinct restaurant near Parliament called La Pentola. Known as a classic “piatto popolare” (everyday proletarian fare), the sauce was simplicity personified: a savory ooze of guanciale (pig jowl), tomatoes and grated pecorino cheese, with a hint of hot pepper to deliver a subtle afterthought of heat, piled upon the thick, hollow and slithery noodle known as bucatini. A Roman-born chef I know in New York put it this way: “It’s a very strong dish. You either love it or hate it.” I loved it.
Ever since, I have been preparing the dish at home according to the recipe in Marcella Hazan’s “The Classic Italian Cook Book,” because that version — with onions, butter and pancetta — most closely approximated what I ate in Rome. I had to travel all the way to Amatrice to find out I’ve been doing it wrong for 40 years.
A pilgrimage begins
So we set off for Amatrice, which is in the northernmost part of Lazio, poking its tongue, as it were, into the adjoining regions of Umbria, the Marche and the Abruzzo. After an hour or so on the old Roman salt road, the Via Salaria, hills become mountains, and fields become sloping pasturelands. A clue to amatriciana’s simplicity — and indeed to its nativity — lies in those upland pastures.
In her wonderful history of food in Lazio (“Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds”), historian Oretta Zanini De Vita celebrates the central role of pastori, or shepherds, as protagonists in the evolution of food in this part of Italy. For at least a millennium, sheep have been a dominant feature of this landscape. That explains why lamb remains one of the signature dishes in this region; it also is why many food historians believe shepherds probably “invented” the first, primordial version of amatriciana, before tomatoes ever made their way into the Italian kitchen. As one chef in Amatrice told me, “All the shepherds needed was a little pork, a little cheese and a little fire.”
Earthquakes have riddled this region for centuries, too, and nothing can prepare visitors for the sight of what remains of Amatrice’s historic center. Every building on the main street, the corso, was leveled by the 2016 earthquake, save a single forlorn, orphaned bell tower from the church of Sant’Emidio.
In July 2017, thanks to a crowdsourcing campaign by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and the television network La7, a new food emporium opened in a beautifully landscaped complex just east of town. Eight restaurants that were either damaged or destroyed by the earthquake have relocated to these stylishly designed quarters.
Red or snowcapped?
I knew I wasn’t in Kansas — or Rome, for that matter — when I ordered amatriciana for the first time at Ristorante Roma, and our waiter, Alessio Bucci, asked a question you typically hear about wine: “Red or white?” In Amatrice, the town’s signature dish can come either with tomato sauce (the traditional amatriciana) or without (a more ancient version of the dish known as pasta alla gricia). What you won’t get is bucatini; the local version usually comes with spaghetti.
I opted for the traditional version, and the dish arrived as its own modest mountain of spaghetti topped, just like the 7,988-foot Monte Gorzano out the window, with a snow-like pile of pecorino. The sauce was less sweet and less fiery than in Rome, but it had that essential amatriciana quality: elemental, feral, hearty without being heavy, delivering a mouthful of umami contentment.
I got an education, and some remonstration, in every restaurant. Gabriele Perilli, the 81-year-old head chef of La Conca, raised his hands as if fending off a vampire when I confessed to using pancetta when I cooked the dish back home (about the only way you found guanciale in the United States in those days was the way my Abruzzese grandfather obtained it — by butchering his own pigs). “Guanciale comes from here,” Perilli said, tugging his cheek in admonishment. “Pancetta comes from here,” he continued, patting his flank. “It’s a completely different taste.”
The amatriciana at La Conca, which was excellent, was presented not as bright red, but rather an off-red. This reminded me of the color of the Hazan dish when I made it at home, and when I mentioned that his sauce was not a full-bodied red, Perilli nodded his head in a conspiratorial manner, leaned forward and exclaimed, “Rosato!” Pinkish.
When did tomatoes enter the scene? Marco Crisari, proprietor of Da Giovannino, in Amatrice, said half-jokingly, “The tomatoes came into it, they say, when Columbus discovered America.” So gricia, the precursor of amatriciana, was around before 1492? “Before Columbus, for sure,” he said.
On March 21, government officials declared an end to the restricted “zona rossa” of Amatrice, although town officials still restrict public access to the center of town; the annual “Sagra dell’amatriciana,” a festival celebrating the local pasta, was held again on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. But people in town privately fear that it will be another 20 years before things return to normal, if ever. Filippo Palombini, who was Amatrice’s mayor at the time of my visit, told me that reconstruction to date had been slowed by “mistaken” government policies.
When I first wrote about an earthquake zone, in 1977 in Friuli, I was struck by the generosity of the survivors, who had lost everything but insisted on offering coffee or grappa to people who had everything. Sometimes travel should be about giving back, and a splendid way to give back to Amatrice would be to venture into this most beautiful, ferociously remote part of Italy. You can savor the wonder of amatriciana at its fountainhead. You can explore the nearby Gran Sasso or Monti Sibillini, in spectacular national parks. And you can still hear the tinkle of sheep bells in town, which will remind you that you’ve arrived in the birthplace of one of Italy’s greatest gifts to the world of food.