Pasta Series #10: Maccheroni all'amatriciana

I admit that I've been dragging my feet a little in writing this post, mostly because there's lots I want to say, and the idea of putting it all down on paper (or rather, Blogger) feels a bit daunting. But here it goes.

The difference in the state of things when I wrote last week's post -- this one here -- compared to how they are currently as I write this newest post is remarkable, a somewhat unsettling reminder of how quickly situations can change and how utterly beyond our control they are. As everyone by now knows, Italy has been in a complete lockdown for over a week in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic. This means that in addition to the closure of all the country's schools, restaurants, cinemas, gyms, museums, bars, and any other sort of place that can bring a group of people together, all shops, parks, businesses, and even most airports -- in short, anything else deemed not absolutely necessary in times of crisis -- have been shut. Only supermarkets, food stores, and pharmacies remain open. The current situation will be reassessed again on the 3 of April, but as the virus's spread doesn't seem to be slowing down here -- even with a complete lockdown --  I am not hopeful that these restrictions will be lifted by then. 

So how are things going? To be honest, the whole situation continues to seem unbelievable, surreal, and if you'd told me back in January that by March we'd all be prohibited from leaving the house due to an illness coming all the way from China (it all seemed very distant and far away on the news, in the beginning) I wouldn't have believed you. In short, life as I know it here has been halted. Just a few weeks ago breakfast at the corner bar, a trip to the mall, and dinners with friends were no-brainers, the norm. With the new lockdown restrictions however, we are allowed to leave the house only to go to the supermarket, where you find a long line (only 10 people are allowed in at once, all of us standing a meter apart) and when its our turn, our hands are sanitized and we're given plastic gloves to wear. We're also allowed to leave the house for medicine, to take out the trash, or to let out the dog (making the taking out the trash an exciting event, and making me wish I really had given in to my consistent wish to adopt a dog!) If you leave the house for other reasons, you can be stopped and fined, unless you have an auto-certificazione, i.e a piece of paper stating your purpose for leaving (the caveat being that no one I know has printers to print this document). You can also be stopped for going to the supermarket with a spouse or family member (only one person per household should go, to cut down on the aforementioned lines). 

In short, I am terribly struck by the little things that I took for granted before all of this, and very much doubt I will go for a stroll around the neighborhood or drink a freshly made cappuccino the same way.

I'm not so worried for myself -- after all, I continue to follow all the recommended precautions, after all, and am young enough to fight off the virus in the hypothetical worst case scenario. Nope -- what concerns me most is Italy, which --for all of its culture and beauty and history and art and food -- is a country who isn't doing so great on the best of days. I fear for small business owners, for restaurant owners and those who have bakeries and bars, and for those who work in tourism (a sector upon which Italy's economy relies heavily). I'm worried about the many people I know who live paycheck to paycheck, as salaries aren't high here and finding work isn't easy.  

Overall, I consider myself quite lucky -- my job isn't threatened, my sister and I and everyone we know are healthy, and we have a balcony if we need some fresh air. I've been spending the time cooking, working (Skype conference calls make everything a lot easier) watching Netflix, reading, exercising at home, and blogging. If we want to see the silver lining in all this: this quarantine has in a way forced me to slow down and made me appreciate the  life I lead here in Rome all that much more; its made me appreciate my friends and family who have reached out, too. Since being in lockdown, I've had the time to catch up with friends I hadn't properly checked in with in too long, spent more quality time with my twin sister, and to be honest, even given the strangeness of this situation, I have still been able to laugh quite a bit (everything seems funnier lately/I think that this is the body's natural reaction to keeping spirits high?) This situation has made me love Italy and its people all the more for how they're handling the lockdown -- complete with a noontime round of applause for all the doctors working around the clock to battle the pandemic, and the 6pm music flashmob out on the balcony -- and its reminded me of how proud I am of my adopted country. When this is all over -- five words that starts a lot of my sentences nowadays -- I will appreciate it and love it more than I ever have before. In the meantime, I hope that everyone continues to adhere to the io resto a casa -- I'm staying at home -- motto, with the idea being that if everyone cooperates, this will (hopefully) slow the spread of the disease, allow hospitals to cope, and at some point, allow things to go back to how they were. And until that happens: I also have this maccheroni all'amatriciana. 

I had planned to post a recipe with artichokes this week, but in the end opted for a pasta recipe -- I love artichokes, yes, but homemade pasta is my true comfort food (as evidenced here, and here, and here) not to mention a great way to distract oneself and pass the time. To sweeten the deal, amatriciana is my very way to dress pasta -- we go way back, having fallen madly in love when I moved to Rome in 2011, where it quickly became my go-to dish when exploring Rome's restaurants (Osteria Fernanda in Trastevere has the best one I've tried to date, as evidenced here). Amatriciana is also one of Rome's four main pastas -- cacio e pepe, gricia, and carbonara are the other three -- and it seems only fitting to post a recipe so characteristic of the Eternal City, a bit of solidarity in the lockdown. 

So! There are lots of amatriciana recipes out there -- in high school I used to make one with onion, pancetta, and Parmesan, whoops -- but know that a real amatriciana should be made with Pecorino, guanciale, tomato, and a bit of chili, if you'd like; I've also read recipes that add a splash of white wine, though this addition is quite controversial. The pasta used for amatriciana is traditionally rigatoni or bucatini, but as this is a post in my beloved Pasta Series, I've paired my favorite sauce with maccheroni al ferretto, a long pasta similar to bucatini (a tube with a hole down the middle) made out of the semola and water dough we've covered with orecchiette, cavatelli, and gnocchetti sardi.  

This pasta was, as predicted, comforting (the carb-equivalent of a warm blanket or a hug) and the scent of the sauce cooking in the pan made me feel like I was out for dinner at a Roman trattoria again. Long story short: my homemade amatriciana made me feel like things were normal again, at least fleetingly -- there's nothing sturdier or more reassuring than the combination of crisp fatty guanciale, punchy Pecorino, and slow cooked tomatoes -- and while I'm not sure how long this all will last, amatriciana, much like it was when I arrived 8 years ago, is a constant, a small comfort, something familiar. Give this dish a try if you want to try your hand at pasta-making (you probably have the time now!) or if simply want something cozy and comforting for dinner (I give you permission to leave out the handmade pasta here). 

Stay safe and healthy everyone -- I'll keep the recipes coming! If you have any special requests for something you'd like to learn about or see on the blog, feel free to email me (fbruzzese127@gmail.com) -- your wish is my command. 

A couple of notes: I have put all quantities here in grams -- to make pasta you really should use a kitchen scale rather than the usual cups and tablespoons that we Americans favor so much. You can use pancetta here in a pinch but know that authentic amatriciana should be made with guanciale; if you want to make just the sauce here and not the pasta, about 500 grams of bucatini or rigatoni (two pastas that are traditionally paired with amatriciana) would be delicious. A tip when making the pasta here: the trick is to not push so hard that the dough gets stuck to the rod, but hard enough so that the resulting noodles are not too thick — it takes some practice, but once you get the movement down and figure out how much pressure you need to use when rolling it's quite easy, promise. If you don't have the special ferro handy (I assume you don't) note that a knitting needle or even chopstick will do here when forming the pasta.

Want to know what the other 9 recipes are in my blog's Pasta Series? I've got these ravioli, this lasagne ai carciofi, these gnocchetti sardi, these cavatelli, these orecchiette, these pumpkin gnocchi, these spatzle with butter and chives, these garganelli, and this paglia e fieno

MACCHERONI ALL'AMATRICIANA
Serves 4 technically but more 3 if you're me and my sister.
Amatriciana sauce from Rachel Roddy via the Guardian.

Ingredients for the maccheroni al ferretto: 
300 grams semola
150 grams warm water

Ingredients for the amatriciana sauce:
120 grams guanciale
400 grams whole tomatoes, canned
100 grams of freshly grated Pecorino cheese
Optional, but recommended: a dried peperoncino or two

Directions:
1.) Start with your pasta! Place the semola in a large bowl and pour in the water. Use your hands to get the dough to form a shaggy mass, and then squeeze it together until a dough starts to form. Gather it all into a ball and turn it out on to your pasta board (or large wooden cutting board).
2.) Turn it out on to a clean work surface or pasta board and knead it for 10 or so minutes, or until it is smooth and shiny. You can see how to knead the pasta here. The dough is anyways ready when you touch it with your finger and it springs back (note that the imprint of your finger will remain and that is fine). Wrap the dough well in plastic wrap, or place it under an overturned bowl, and let it rest for at least half an hour.
3.) Next, form your maccheroni! Cut a piece of dough and roll it out into a long rope. Cut matchstick size pieces of dough from the rope (cut one, and then use it as a template for the others to make sure they're all more or less the same length). Once you have your dough cut into pieces, take one, and press your ferretto (or knitting needle) into the middle. 

4.) Wrap the dough around the ferretto, and then using your hand, roll it back and forth quickly until you can see the dough peek out from under your hand. Give the dough two or so light rolls with both hands on the ferretto, just to elongate it, and then gently release it, wiggling the ferretto a little as you go. If this all sounds confusing: you can see a video of this here

Note that the trick to making the pasta here is not pushing so hard that the dough gets stuck to the rod, but hard enough so that they’re not too thick — it takes some practice but is a piece of cake once you get the movement down and figure out how much pressure you need to use when rolling.
5.) On to the sauce! Cut the guanciale in to strips and then in to smaller pieces. Chop the tomatoes roughly and grate the Pecorino cheese.

6.) In a large frying pan over a medium-low heat, fry the guanciale and cook until golden brown and until the fat begins to render. If you like, add a splash of white wine and let it evaporate.

7.) Add the tomatoes and peperoncino if using, then cook until the mixture has thickened and become saucy, 12-15 minutes. Taste your sauce; if it's too acidic, add a pinch of sugar. Usually at this stage I lower the heat and let the sauce simmer for a bit longer, just to make sure its nice and flavorful (not necessary, but worth doing if you have the time).

8.) While your sauce is simmering, cook the maccheroni for 10-12 minutes (it will take longer than your typical fresh pasta -- we're using semola here) and drain the pasta, reserving some pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauce, add most of the cheese, and toss/beat well until the cheese emulsifies into the sauce, adding a little pasta cooking water if it seems stiff. Serve immediately, sprinkling extra Pecorino on the pasta. 





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