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.
- 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.
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.
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…