If it isn’t broken, why fix it? This is a question I’ve asked myself often as I’ve traveled the road of understanding traditional Italian cuisine. I understand adjusting a recipe to fit society’s current palate but in many cases I find it unwarranted. I can’t count how many times I’ve set out to experiment with a traditional recipe, thinking it may not appeal to the taster, only to find that they love it. In Italy, a sense of place is important, and if you take away certain components of a dish, you take away that which makes it special; you take away its sense of place.
I found this to be extremely apparent with the dish, Bucatini all'Amatriciana. I thought back to culinary school and looked at the old recipe I was given and then began to search for other recipes, some of which came from esteemed chefs. One ingredient that almost all of these recipes substituted with pancetta is guanciale, which also happens to be the most important ingredient and the one that truly gives this dish a sense of place. I ask again; if it isn’t broken, why fix it?
Guanciale is an unsmoked, salt cured meat prepared from the pig’s jowl or cheek. What does it taste like? It tastes like the best slice of bacon you’ve ever had. That flavor is imparted into the sauce of Bucatini all'Amatriciana and truly makes this dish special. It provides a rich pork flavor that is accentuated by a spicy tomato sauce and tempered with a sprinkle of pecorino Romano cheese. This is the stuff that stops conversations around the table, as your guests are enthralled by it’s depth of flavors. Best of all, it’s a simple preparation that only depends on sourcing the best ingredients and can be prepared, start to finish, in under a half hour.
As for pairing wine, well that’s where it can get tricky. Remember that this is a spicy dish by nature and with heat, you always risk the possibility of overwhelming certain wines. I wouldn’t pair a feminine or elegant red with this dish because the heat will dull the wine on the palate. I would, however, start by looking at the place (sense of place) that this dish originated, in the Lazio region of Southern Italy. However, just to throw another interesting pairing at you, I paired this with a second wine, a Zinfandel from Sonoma County, and one of the most dependable producers I know: Ridge.
2004 Salvatore Molettieri Taurasi Cinque Querce -- The nose on the Molettieri taurasi was explosive and layered with ripe strawberry, musk, olive and cherry liquor. Upon tasting, flavors of blackberry, tar and minerals showed with a dark cherry mid-palate and a mouth-filling texture. This bottle had a good tannic structure with balanced acidity and enough fruit to keep this going for years to come. It stood tall against the Bucatini all'Amatriciana, but its structure begged me to wait a few more years before opening another bottle. This would probably be a perfect pairing in three to four years time.
2006 Ridge Zinfandel, East Bench -- This Ridge zin showed like a big basket of ultra ripe berries with rock dust and a cranberry whiff that lead into a slight heat on the nose. The palate showed velvety cherry jam, light vanilla and peppery spice, which accentuated the pasta. The finish is long, clean, and mouthwatering with briary fruit and very fresh against the heat of the sauce.
In the end, I think the Ridge won the day as a versatile, affordable red, which gives a lot of bang for the buck and screams to be paired against a spicy dish like this. I think the only disappointing point during this meal was when the East bench was declared finished.
Bucatini all'AmatricianaI beg you to look for guanciale. Could you substitute it with pancetta and still enjoy this dish? Sure, but I assure you that it is pale in comparison to guanciale. I was able to find guanciale after only stopping at two Italian butchers. It’s certainly not something that you’ll find at the local supermarket but, with just a little digging, it’s very possible to source.
Also, I found that using a combination of both fresh and canned tomatoes gave this dish a gorgeous contrast on the palate and my tasting panel agreed wholeheartedly. You could just use the canned tomatoes but it would take away from the recipe, in my opinion.
Makes 4 – 5 servings
½ pound slice guanciale
1 pound Bucatini (pasta)
4 –5 cloves of Garlic (rough chop)
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (you can double this if you prefer a good amount of heat)
28oz of canned San Marzano tomatoes
¾ cup of plum or grape tomatoes cut into large dice (must be fresh and ripe)
¾ cup of grated pecorino Romano cheese
½ cup red wine (preferably the same wine you plan to pair with the dish)
Olive oil (as needed)
Bunch of fresh basil (for garnish)
Place a large pot of salted water on a burner on high to bring to a boil.
Strain the juice from the canned tomatoes and, over a strainer, try to remove as many seeds as possible. When you’re done, you should have a bowl of strained and deseeded tomatoes and a bowl of tomato juice.
Place a medium to large sauté pan (or sauce pan) over a medium flame. Add olive oil to just barley coat the pan. Before the oil gets too hot, add the guanciale. Think about making Sunday bacon, but with the intention of pulling the meat before it gets crispy.
Add the pasta to the water and set the timer for one minute short of its recommended cooking time.
Remove the guanciale from the pan onto a paper towel to drain, and pour the rendered fat from the pan through a fine mesh strainer. (This is not 100% necessary, but those small bits you can’t scoop out with a spoon may burn if you leave them in the pan.) Wipe any burnt bits from the pan and pour two tbls of the rendered pork fat back into the pan.
Add the rep pepper flakes, the garlic and the fresh tomatoes. Allow to cook over medium-low flame for two minutes. Then (with the pan removed from the burner) add the red wine.
Once the wine has begun to reduce, add the strained San Marzano tomatoes and a cup of the strained tomato juice that came from the can. Bring this entire mixture to a simmer and allow to reduce for 3 – 5 minutes.
Around this time, the pasta should be done. Strain the pasta and pour back into the pot. Now pour the sauce over the pasta and stir until combined. Sprinkle half of the cheese into the pot as well as half of the cooked guanciale. Over a low flame, stir until completely combined. Allow this mixture to cook for one minute on low flame.
Check for seasoning, but remember that the guanciale can add a good amount of seasoning on its own.
Chiffonade the basil.
To plate, place a mound of pasta on a heated plate and sprinkle with pecorino Romano, then guanciale, and finally the basil chiffonade. Clean the rim of you plate and serve.