After that last post on how pecorino cheese is made, it didn't seem fair to leave you without a recipe, and I couldn't think of any recipe more associated with pecorino cheese than this pasta dish. The recipe is frought with controversy - Romans claim it as their own (it's on the menu of nearly all Roman eateries), but it originated in Amatrice, a town that was once in Abruzzo, but that was annexed in 1927 to the region of Lazio, where Rome is located.
Romans prefer to add onions to the sauce, something that's heresy in Amatrice. Some recipes call for pancetta, but purists will use only guanciale (pork jowls). Because the ingredients are so few, each one makes a crucial contribution to the flavor. Pancetta has less fat than guanciale and comes from the midsection of the pig (pancia means belly), while guanciale comes from the cheeks (guancia means cheek). The flavor from the fat that's rendered becomes an integral part of the dish, and while pancetta fat is good, guanciale fat is better. That said, if you live in an area where guanciale is impossible to find, I'll give you a perdonanza for using pancetta.
By the way, you'll also see pasta "alla gricia" on nearly every Roman menu too. It's the same recipe as pasta "all'amatriciana" but without the tomatoes.
The traditional pasta used is bucatini - a thick pasta so named because of the hole (buco) down the center of each strand. But it's also not unusual to see the dish served with rigatoni, paccheri or penne either.
One thing you should not substitute however, is the cheese you grate on top. It HAS to be pecorino cheese, not parmigiano, not grana padano. Years ago, I ordered this dish in one of the hill towns outside of Rome, but asked the waiter to bring me parmigiano instead of the pecorino I later learned was the classic topping. Big mistake. "Parmigiano?" the waiter said incredulously to my request, as if I'd just asked him to dance naked in the Roman Forum. "Sei sicura che vuoi parmigiano?" he asked. "Yes, I'm sure I want parmigiano," I replied. And the service went downhill from there. Something about "When in Rome...." came to mind at that point and from then on, I have always ordered bucatini all'amatriciana with pecorino.
So please, take liberties and use onions if you like, switch up the fat and buy pancetta if you must, go non-traditional and cook up conchiglie pasta if need be, but don't sprinkle anything but real pecorino on top!
printable recipe here
Serves four to six, depending on appetites.
1/4 pound of guanciale, cut into lardons
1 28-ounce can tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/4 tsp. (or more if you like) red pepper flakes
abundant pecorino cheese, grated
1 pound bucatini pasta
Place the lardons of guanciale in a saucepan on medium heat and slowly let the fat render. The lardons should not crisp up, but should remain a little chewy. Remove the lardons with a slotted spoon, and add the tomatoes, breaking up with your hands or with a spoon. Put the lardons back in, add the red pepper flakes and cook together with the tomatoes, on a low simmer, for about 1/2 hour.
Meantime, when the sauce has cooked about 15 minutes, get the water boiling and throw in the pasta. Bucatini takes a while to cook, depending on the brand. Cook until a little firmer than al dente, then drain the pasta with a slotted spoon or fork and place into the pan with the sauce. Don't worry if a little pasta water makes its way into the sauce. Finish cooking the pasta in the sauce for the last couple of minutes. Serve immediately while it's hot, with ample pecorino cheese grated on top.