Experiment: Pasta all’ Amatriciana

Years ago, while I was an impoverished law student, I was often forced to improvise meals with just a few ingredients. One evening, having just some bacon, tomatoes and spaghetti, I threw together a simple dish that was so good I have continued to make it to this day. I often add to the bare-bones recipe these days, but the simple preparation of bacon and tomatoes fried together and then tossed with pasta is still a favorite. For the longest time, I thought that I had invented something truly unique and it wasn’t until quite a few years later that I discovered that the Italians had long ago beaten me to the punch. My ‘invention’ is actually over a century old and is known in Italy, and now Italian restaurants everywhere, as pasta all’ Amatriciana… 

The name of the dish derives from its origins near the town of Amatrice in central Italy. Guanciale, or un-smoked hog jowl, is the traditional meat component but pancetta or smoked bacon (as I use) works very nicely. Most recipes you come across seem to include onion or garlic (or both) but these were not part of the original recipe and I did not include them when I came up with my ‘invention’. Nowadays, a few pinches of chili are often added and, though I never used to use it, my wife likes a little spiciness in almost every pasta sauce and I am going to include it in this version.

The Ingredients

  • 2 portions of pasta
  • 1/3 lb. bacon
  • 3 tomatoes (ignore the fourth in the picture)
  • Chili pepper (use more or less to taste)
  • Pecorino-Romano Cheese
  • Salt and Pepper

As you can see the ingredients could barely be simpler. The amount would make a good helping for a single person but my wife and I only needed a light supper and this was enough. The parsley is not a traditional ingredient at all but it doesn’t change the flavor much and just a little tossed with the pasta just before serving will add just a nice touch of colour.

The Method

First, slice the bacon into thick ‘matchsticks’ and chop the tomatoes. Remove the thick whitish pith from the very middle of the tomatoes but don’t worry about de-seeding too much as this is a pretty rustic dish. Crush the pepper into a powder and then chop the parsley roughly. At this point, you can bring a pot of salted water to the boil and add your pasta as the sauce can be made in about the same time as it takes for the pasta to cook.

Heat a suitable pan over moderate heat and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. When it is hot, add the bacon and sauté until it is just starting to become crispy. Add the chili.

 Just as the chili starts to darken, add the tomatoes and turn up the heat to high. Cook, stirring often until the tomatoes have broken down to form an emulsion sauce with the fat thrown off by the bacon. If it is a little too dry, draw off a little of the pasta water and stir it in. Season with a pinch or two of salt and a few liberal grindings of black pepper and turn the heat back down to medium.

Once the pasta is al dente, drain it and add it to the sauce, tossing so that all the strands are coated. Grate over a good few tablespoons of the cheese and throw in the parsley.  Toss a few more times and plate. Serve, garnished with a bit more parsley if desired, and pass extra cheese for grating at the table.

The Verdict

This dish is so simple it is very difficult to mess up and it turned out as deliciously as always. My only quibble with it on this occasion was the chili … I like hot food in general but I also like this dish the plain old original way. I didn’t dislike it with the added heat by any means but as a simple preference I would go without the next time and just let my wife add crushed chili to her own plate as she usually does.  That is not to say that I won’t try other modifications though … a bit of cream would work nicely, as would some fresh basil leaves. If any readers would like to try tweaking this recipe a little I would be pleased to hear the results of those experiments…


  1. i love this dish.. add cream and some grated cheese and you will have a carbonara-like pasta dish, replace bacon with mussels and/or shrimps then you will have a seafood pasta dish.. the possibilities are endless… i love pasta..

    1. Oh absolutely … most of my pasta meals are improvisations on simple themes rather than ‘authentic’ classics.

  2. Drizzle a little wine that you happen to be drinking and it gives it even a richer taste. Love this taste combo.

  3. Looks absolutely fantastic! Years ago when I was an impoverished accounting student I used to make a noodle dish that got me by too. It’s called bami goreng. I made mine with cheap ramen noodles (the kind that is 10 for a dollar), Indonesian soy sauce and pretty much any vegetable or meat that I had on hand.

  4. Such an easy recipe..my husband loves bacon..will try this one for him!

  5. A delicious dish which I’ve not made for a long time. Thank you for the reminder – it’ll go on this week’s menu list 🙂

  6. I love this dish and I cook it quite often too. It is cheap, fast and tasty! I always add a little chilli to mine and I also like to add parsley or basil to give the dish that little bit of colour. Looks great!

  7. Simple dishes with few ingredients are the best. It is like the basic black dress, you can dress it up to suit any occasion.

  8. This is one of those awesome there’s-nothing-left-but-I’m-hungry improvised dishes that can be varied with whatever is at hand. 🙂 Love the pictures and how you explained everything!

  9. I adore this! I still think you can call it your own pasta dish even after finding out it was an Italian classic.

    This reminds me of a colleague who was so excited about a conclusion she had. And the next day that I saw her, she was despondant. Turns out Derrida came up with it too.

    I still thought it was an achievement to come up with the same idea independently!

  10. Looks delicious! I love making homemade tomato sauce for pasta, it’s so much better than store bought sauce and so simple to make. I can’t wait for my tomato plants to start yielding so I can start making sauce again! Nice post.

  11. C J – I love this dish. What’s not to like about such a great combination of ingredients?

    Thanks for reading my blog. I’m signing on to yours as I love blogs from interesting places. While it isn’t a big tourist destination, I think everyone should visit someplace in the arctic circle. It is such fascinating terrain and has great wildlife (few humans, as you note).

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