Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Spice It Up: Bucatini all'Amatriciana

By: Eric Guido

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. However, a good Zinfandel usually has the intensity, ripe fruit and zesty to truly balance out the heat in this dish. Also, a bit of new oak does wonders contrasting the aromas of the Guanciale.

2010 Ridge Zinfandel East Bench - The nose on the 2010 East Bench shows sweet floral notes with crushed blueberry, cinnamon, a hint of vanilla and an airy herbal lift that pulls it from confectionary and allows the bouquet to remain elegant and fresh. On the palate, it shows an intense mix of berries with massive concentration, followed by a note of citrusy acidity that keeps it fresh. The finish is long and shows hints of the structure that is otherwise masked by this wine’s intense fruit. (91 points)

I 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.


  1. Eric,

    This looks delicious, and I look forward to trying it. Cured hog jowl is quite popular around here and can be found in most grocery stores--lots of locals toss it in with beans, blackeyed peas, or collard greens. I've personally nabbed the cooked portion of the cheek from a whole hog roast. I figure I took the 2am-8am shift raking the coals and guarding the pit from wild dogs, I can claim my favorite cuts for breakfast.


  2. Yummmmmm...delicious one. My mouth is fill with water. I can't stop myself from trying it. I will certainly try it. Thanks!
    planning a trip to italy

  3. Superb posts with lots of information!!! This is really the most miraculous blog site dude….
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