Spaghetti all’amatriciana

One of my favorite Christmas presents last year was this book: The Geometry of Pasta. A collaboration between designer Caz Hildebrand and chef Jacob Kenedy, the book’s conceit is that each pasta shape has a number of sauces that are “perfect” for it. This is no new notion: all of the pasta and sauce combinations that the book promotes are traditional Italian recipes, specific to different regions. But that’s exactly the point — The Geometry of Pasta doesn’t aim for novelty but authenticity. Indeed, what makes this book indispensable for me is its style and thoroughness. The book’s pages pop with black-and-white graphics of every shape from agnolotti to ziti. The entries for each pasta includes such details as dimensions (1.8 inches long and 0.6 inches thick for rigatoni, in case you were wondering) and etymological derivation (rigatoni’s name comes from the verb rigare, “to rule or to furrow”). I am a sucker for etymologies and campy attention to detail, so I of course love this book.

I’ve read The Geometry of Pasta from cover to cover, which might seem strange (who reads cookbooks linearly?), but I see this as an encyclopedia of the history and philosophy behind each groove in penne and twist in fusilli. I now know that the bigoli (a sort of fresh, thick spaghetti) I grew fond of when I lived in Padova are a bit of a nod to the region of Veneto’s industrial roots: bigoli are made with a bigolario, a hand-cranked press bolted onto a kitchen table that forces stiff whole-wheat pasta dough through a brass die.

Oddly enough, I hadn’t tried out any of the sauce recipes from The Geometry of Pasta until this weekend (I lack many of the tools required for the fresh pasta shapes — no bigolari for sale here in Philadelphia!). On my first pass through the book, I marked the recipe for amatriciana, a tomato-based, slightly spicy Roman pasta sauce made with guanciale (cured pork jowl) that goes well with, among other things, bucatini and spaghetti. Spaghetti all’amatriciana happens to be my Aunt Mary Ellen’s favorite pasta dish, and since I’m living with her for my last few weeks in Philly, I thought I should give this recipe a try.

First, I had to get my hands on some guanciale. Not surprisingly, cured pig cheek is not a common ingredient in America, and while pancetta is a common substitution in this recipe, I wanted to make the real deal. To do that, I had to trek down to the Italian Market, to Claudio’s Specialty Foods, specifically. Claudio’s is an old-school Italian meat and cheese shop, the kind of place with hanging salami and provolone where the counter guys are always passing around samples of prosciutto. I got there at around noon on Sunday, which meant that the post-church crowd was gathered at the counter to order antipasti and capicola (gabbagoo, for Sopranos fans) for Sunday supper. Thanks to some samples of pesto and prosciutto, plus some good people-watching, I didn’t mind the 20-minute wait for my pork jowl.

The guanciale I bought happens to be made in New York, oddly enough, and was laden with black pepper and thyme, which added a lot of flavor to the smoky amatriciana sauce. Like most good Italian recipes, this one has very few ingredients and, though it required patience in terms of cooking time, it was really simple to put together, which made it perfect for a Sunday-night dinner. It’s also more impressive than just plain homemade gravy, because it features the unusual guanciale, which, by the way, is like a smokier, toothier pancetta. Aunt Mem approved of the final product, deeming it as good as the amatriciana she’d eaten in Italy.

Spaghetti all’amatriciana
adapted from The Geometry of Pasta

serves 4 as a main dish and 6 as a first course
1 lb spaghetti (I like Barilla)
1/4 lb guanciale, cut into 1/4-inch slices and then into 1/2-inch batons
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
ground black pepper to taste
2/3 cup medium tomato sauce (recipe follows)
grated parmigiano or pecorino romano cheese, to serve

Cook the pasta al dente according to package directions, in plenty of salted boiling water. While the pasta boils, heat a large frying pan over high heat. You do not need to add any oil, as the guanciale will release lots of fat. Add the guanciale and “fry until fiercely smoking and just starting to colour.” Take the pan off the heat for a few seconds, add the red pepper flakes and a few grinds of black pepper. Once it seems like things have stopped popping about like crazy, add 3 tbsp of the pasta cooking water (be careful!) and then the tomato sauce. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan, tossing to coat. Serve with the cheese.

Medium tomato sauce
adapted from The Geometry of Pasta
makes about 2 1/4 cups sauce, depending on how much you let it thicken

[I really like this recipe — it makes a pure tomato sauce that is perfect for later embellishment.]

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (not minced!)
a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 large can (1 lb. 12 oz) of fire-roasted chopped tomatoes (I like Muir Glen)
1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp is good. Check your canned tomatoes to see if they contain salt)
ground black pepper to taste

Heat a large saucepan over medium heat, add the olive oil. Sauté the garlic until it begins to brown, add the red pepper flakes, and then stir in the tomato paste. Add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper, and cook over medium-low heat (gentle simmer) until the sauce has cooked down quite a bit and thickens up, about an hour.


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