This classic and delectable pasta dish originated in the region of Abruzzi, in the little town of Amatrice, northeast of Rome, where it was traditionally prepared without tomatoes. But it is the Roman version of pasta all’amatriciana, with tomatoes, that I share with you here—the version that is best known and deservedly popular.
Lots of onions; chips of guanciale (cured pork cheek, now available in the United States), pancetta, or bacon; and San Marzano tomatoes are the essential elements of the sauce, Roma style. Note that the onions are first softened in water, before olive oil is added to the pan—a traditional but unusual step that is said to make the onions sweeter.
The standard pasta used is bucatini or perciatelli (spaghetti are only tolerated). The long, dry strands of perciatelli resemble very thick spaghetti but are hollow like a drinking straw. When cooked, they are wild and wiggly, so you might be tempted to cut them. Do not—once you’ve got them on your fork, they’re delicious and fun to eat. It is quite all right to slurp them. Indeed, as kids we would suck them in so fast that the end of the noodle would whip us in the nose, splattering sauce all over our faces. What a wonderful memory!
- One 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- ½ teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt, or to taste, plus 1 tablespoon for the pasta pot
- 4 cups 1/3-inch-thick onion slices (about ¾ pound)
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
- 4 plump garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 6 ounces guanciale, pancetta, or bacon, cut in ½-inch pieces
- ½ teaspoon peperoncino flakes
- 1 pound bucatini or perciatelli
- 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for passing
- A heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan, 13- or 14-inch diameter
Drain the canned tomatoes; save all the juices. Cut each tomato in quarters lengthwise; slice the quarters in strips, ½ inch wide.
Start heating 6 quarts of water with 1 tablespoon of salt in a large pot, to cook the bucatini.
Put ½ cup water in the wide skillet, and set it over medium-high heat. Dump in the sliced onions; spread them out and turn them over in the pan as the water starts to boil. Cook the onions, turning occasionally, for several minutes, until they’re softened and the water is nearly evaporated.
Pour the olive oil over the onions, toss in the crushed garlic cloves, and sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt. Stir well to coat all the onion slices with oil; cook for a couple of minutes or more, until onions and garlic are sizzling.
Clear a space on one side of the skillet and scatter in the cured pork (guanciale, pancetta, or bacon). Heat and stir in the hot spot until they’re rendering fat and sizzling, then stir in with the onions. Sprinkle the peperoncino in the pan, stir, and let everything cook for 4 or 5 minutes, until the onions and pork are caramelized and golden—adjust the heat so nothing burns.
Now spill all the sliced tomatoes and their juices into the skillet, and stir well. Rinse the tomato containers with a couple cups of “slosh” water, and stir that in too; season with salt lightly. Bring the sauce to a boil, stirring frequently, and then lower the heat to keep it simmering actively. Let the sauce cook and thicken for about 20 minutes, or until it has the consistency you like for pasta. (If you’re pressed for time, concentrate the sauce at a boil, stirring frequently.)
When the tomatoes have been added and the sauce is simmering, you can start cooking the bucatini. (If you prefer, prepare the sauce ahead of time. Stop cooking when nearly thickened and let it cool. Return it to the simmer as your pasta cooks.)
With the water at a rolling boil, slide the bucatini into the pasta pot, letting the strands soften so they don’t break, and fanning them out so they don’t stick together. Stir well, cover the pot to bring the water back to the boil over high heat, then cook partially covered.
Stir the bucatini occasionally, and check doneness frequently. When the sauce has thickened, taste it and adjust seasoning—keep in mind that the Pecorino Romano will add salt.
When the bucatini are cooked through but still al dente, lift them from the cooking pot with tongs, drain for just a moment, then drop them right onto the simmering sauce. Toss together continuously, over moderate heat, for a couple of minutes, until the pasta is perfectly cooked and evenly coated with sauce. If the dish is dry, ladle in a bit of hot pasta water from the cooking pot. If the sauce is soupy, toss over higher heat to concentrate.
Turn off the heat, and toss in the grated cheese. Drizzle over it a final flourish of olive oil, and serve, either directly from the skillet or in a warm serving bowl, passing additional cheese at the table.