Hunting for the Real Pasta all’Amatriciana

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.

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