This is the fifth time I write about this dish … and I am pretty much convinced (never say never, I know!) that it is going to be the definitive approach for me. I have been making it this way for well over a year now, ever since I was entered into a Amatriciana Competition at the Cacciani Restaurant in Frascati in June 2012. The idea was to have three ‘proper’ chefs playfully compete against each other, with each one bringing an amateur in tow, for a total of … yes! … 6 amatriciana tastings. The professional contenders were Arcangelo Dandini from “L’Arcangelo” in Rome, Massimo Pulicato or rather his wife Maria Luisa from L’Oste della Buon’Ora in Grottaferrata and, last but not least, co-owner of the restaurant Paolo Cacciani who presented me as his amateur help.
I was very chuffed to be asked and looking forward to the experience. I knew what kind of competition I was going to be up against and so practised quite a lot at home before the actual night. Thank goodness my family like amatriciana is all I can say!
Here I am, brandishing some guanciale and a pan over my head — it’s my amatrician halo!
I did my homework well … I went looking for good quality pasta (I chose Verrigni) and Rome’s best Pecorino (Brunelli) and the guanciale that came from Abbruzzo, via my purveyor who hails from Campotosto in the Region of Abbruzzo (which region is where some say THE amatriciana originally hails from) and gets it delivered once a month. For the tomato passata, I went for Campisi. Watching the professionals prepare their amatriciana sauces was great fun and I was just so thrilled to be even part of the event that it didn’t matter to me that ‘my’ matriciana was the last entry, when people would have been well and truly fed up with it by then, and looking to what else was on the menu.
Here then is a very similar version for the purposes of this blog post … good quality spaghetti, either plum tomatoes or tomato sauce (passata), pecorino romano Brunelli, guanciale (pork jowl) and some chilli. The amatriciana, or matriciana as it is fondly called in Rome, is not a fiddly pasta to make.
Trim the guanciale … In my mind’s eye, I wanted to cook for 4 people using 500g of pasta. And I used my ‘eye’ to gauge how much guanciale I would need.I proceeded to cut it into matchstick shapes … I weighed it and so the amount I recommend, for 400g of pasta, is roughly 120g of trimmed guanciale. (Pancetta will do if you can’t get hold of guanciale.) Heat the guanciale preferably in a cast-iron pan. Cook the greater part of the guanciale (seen at the back of the photo) to include in the tomato passata. Save some of the guanciale (at the forefront of the photo) to add to the pasta as garnish right at the end, just before serving. Cook the guanciale over a fairly low heat, otherwise it will go smokey and burn. As you can see, I had two saucepans of guanciale going — one for the sauce, and one for the garnish. When the guanciale has released its fat, over a low heat, add some chilli. At this stage, just before adding the passata, I like to add a little bit of olive oil. Some would call this heresy.
Now add the tomato passata to the pan with the cooked guanciale that is going to make up the sauce. Simmer gently for about 10-15 minutes. Instead, turn off the heat of the pan with the rest of the guanciale (on the right) that is going to serve as crispy garnish. I used up nearly the whole bottle … so let us say I used 600g of the passata.
I tasted it … and it was slightly acidic, so I added a pinch of sugar as well as an appropriate amount of salt. The sauce needs to cook for just over ten minutes, basically the time it takes to cook the pasta. In go the spaghetti, into the boiling water to which plenty of salt has been added. While we’re waiting, we can grate the pecorino cheese. And when the spaghetti are almost cooked (say, with only 3 minutes to end of cooking time), add them to the pan containing the sauce. If you are dealing with a small amount of spaghetti, you can toss the pan. Otherwise use a wooden spoon or fork to combine all the ingredients. Add some of the cooking water … taste … and when the spaghetti are cooked to perfection … Switch off the heat. You can add a little pecorino at this stage but I prefer to add it only at the very end, on the actual plate where it is served. The spaghetti under a shower of pecorino cheese, topped with crispy bits of guanciale. Hearty. Satisfying. Nice. Very very Roman even though some insist it originated in Amatrice in the Region of Abbruzzo. And actually quite easy to prepare. Viva la amatriciana, viva la matriciana!
The following are some photos taken at the Cacciani Restaurant on the night of the Matriciana Contest.
I was assigned this handsome sous-chef to help me with the prepping. Wooooo oh là là. Just as well too because there was an enormous amount of guanciale to be trimmed! See what I mean? Massimo Pulicato (shy and bashful as you can imagine), the Oste della Buon’Ora together with Paolo Cacciani on the right. Maria Luisa Pulicato on the right, with her protégée. Arcangelo Dandini with his protégée Benedetta … So envious of Paolo’s pan — just look at the size of it! Many chefs make light work … it was a miracle they didn’t bang into one another … Arcangelo keeps his cool …
And here they are — the three Matrician chefs, only minutes before the contest began in earnest – i.e. when the clientèle got to taste the entries … Happy, not to menion satieted, customers …
Arcangelo Dandini won the contest … but by the time it was announced people didn’t really care who won or who lost. It was all about good food and fun, in the kitchen as well as in the restaurant.
Thank you Paolo Cacciani for a memorable evening!