When I think of Valentine's Day, I think of love. And when I think of love, I think of pasta. A couple of weeks ago, the topic of Bucatini all'Amatriciana came up repeatedly in the span of a couple of days. First, Beth mentioned it a couple of times as her favorite pasta to make. While we were cheese-hunting down in the Italian market, she snatched up a giant package of bucatini and some pancetta. Earlier that same day I had read an article in The New York Times about pasta all'amatriciana and it's many variations across Italy, but one key constant was given - that it must be made with guanciale, the cured, unsmoked jowl of the pig. (I told Beth what I had read, but she decided to stick with the cured meat that she knew). Guanciale is only just becoming widely available in America, so I don't blame her for being cautious. I think I've had it maybe twice in my life and I can't say I remembered just what it tasted like. The very next day, I was lazing around the house watching Lidia Bastianich make some classic Roman pastas and wouldn't you know it, she was making Bucatini all'Amatriciana! It was like a sign from above, I must make it, I must go back to the Italian market and grab a chunk of guanciale and prove to myself once and for all that it is meant to be.
And let me tell you, that meat really did make all the difference. It's all about the fat. So much fat. And how delicious that fat is. Almost gamey in its intensity, I chopped the guanciale into lardons and cooked them in olive oil until they were very crispy. That, of course, left me with an almost obscene amount of oil in the pan, far more than I would need for the pasta, so I decided to drain some of that off and stash it in the fridge. Call me crazy, but I think that fat is destined for some buttermilk biscuits this weekend.
Another key ingredient in all'amatriciana is the hot peperoncino. I may have gone slightly overboard with that last night - our lips were burning - but I figure some heat is good for a night that's supposed to be about passion.
Recipe after the jump:
1 pound bucatini (or perciatelli if that's all you can find)
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 pound guanciale, chopped into small chunks
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes, chopped or crushed by hand
1 tsp dried peperoncino or hot red pepper flakes
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup grated pecorino romano
Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan, then add the guanciale and allow to crisp well. Remove the guanciale with a slotted spoon and let drain on paper towels. Pour off the fat, leaving 2 or 3 tbsp in the pan. Saute the onions in the fat until translucent, then add the garlic for a minute or two. Find a hotspot in the pan and sprinkle the peproncino, allowing to toast for a minute. Add the tomatoes and the guanciale, then bring to a simmer for 10 minutes while the pasta cooks. When the pasta is just short of al dente, drain and add to the sauce, tossing well to coat. Add half of the cheese and toss well, adjusting salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately topped with the remaining cheese.