Every year, we make a 400 km. car trip from our house to Amatrice and back that takes about 5 hours just to have plates of spaghetti all'amatriciana. I know it sounds outrageous, but in Italy, it's not surprising to take long trips just to treat yourself with the food specialty of a town. If the food is exceptional, then it's worth every single kilometer. That is how everyone takes gastronomy seriously.
Arriving in Amatrice, we go directly to the restaurant known to serve the best spaghetti all'amatriciana in town, Hotel Ristorante Roma. The place has two big dining areas that are always completely full of people, really full that for a small, sleepy town, you wonder where all the people come from. Here we discovered that spaghetti all'amatriciana actually comes in two versions. The lesser known white and the popular red. With and without tomatoes. We all prefer the white and we see from the other tables that white is more popular too. It's a surprise because I usually love dishes with tomatoes. This one is an exception. It is one of the most delicious pasta dishes I have ever tried. No kidding.
Now that I perked your attention, I think I have to dive into the boring stuff - the real story behind this simple and delicious pasta. It is not Italy if there is no debate about the origin of a certain food or where it tastes better. It is a very sensitive issue among the towns so there is a tug-o-war between the two neighboring towns, Amatrice and Grisciano, on where the plate was born. I'm following logic so this is what I believe in.
Originally, it was white and called gricia and originated in Grisciano in the 12th centuty. It was what the shepherds of Abruzzo took with them in the fields. Bits of guanciale, pecorino, pasta, olive oil & salt were the basic condiments that they could carry in their bags from their meager food supplies at home. When the tomatoes were introduced to the Italian soil in the early 17th century, they were added to the gricia and amatriciana was born in Amatrice. The first recorded evidence of the amatriciana came out in 1790 in the cookbook of Roman chef Francesco Leonardi. Rome and Amatrice had strong ties during that period and amatriciana became a big success in Rome then to the rest of Italy.
With only 3 key ingredients, gricia or amatriciana bianca, as it is currently known, relies totally on the quality of the ingredients. It only becomes genuinely good if you use the correct and proper ingredients. Guanciale is cured pig's jowl or cheeks. This is not to be confused with pancetta which is the cured pig's fat in the tummy. You can differentiate the two from their shapes. Guanciale is triangular while pancetta is rectangular. The pasta has to be done with durum wheat, like all the other Italian pastas of good quality. Then there is the pecorino cheese. If the pecorino from that area is used, then you can have the perfect white amatriciana or gricia. The locals advise against using pecorino romano because the taste is too strong.
Everytime we are in Amatrice, the shops are all closed, being a Sunday so I never got the chance to take home any guanciale and pecorino from that area. And well, after finishing 2 - 3 servings of spaghetti all'amatriciana, I usually have no desire to think about eating the same pasta dish again. In one of our day trips outside Rome, I chanced upon a market stall selling guanciale. Since my spaghetti all'amatriciana craving is scheduled to wake up soon, I bought one whole.
Truth be told, I did try cooking this at home on one occasion in the past. Since I used the wrong ingredients - pancetta, pecorino romano and even parmigiano reggiano, halved with the pecorino romano, what did I get? A disastrous, poor copy of spaghetti all'amatriciana. Disheartened, I never tried again until this time. Sometimes, the simplest things are the hardest to copy.
So I finally had a good piece of guanciale on my table and I appoached the white amatriciana again. As soon as it touched my mouth, I mentally bid our annual trips to Amatrice goodbye. It was very good that I had to tune out my kids' noises and closed my eyes. It. Was. Delicious.
Amatriciana Bianca or Gricia (White Amatriciana)
- 400 g. spaghetti
- 250 g. guanciale (not pancetta), julienned
- 150 g. grated pecorino cheese of Monte Sibillini
- extra virgin olive oil
- Boil water for the pasta. Add salt when it boils. Cook spaghetti 1 minute less than the cooking time written in the box.
- In the meantime, while waiting for the water to boil, saute' the guanciale in a saucepan with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil. Toast the guanciale until they become crunchy on medium-high flame. Be careful not to burn them.
- Add cooked spaghetti and mix with the guanciale. Add pepper.
- Add the pecorino and mix well. Serve hot.