I couldn’t get to the grocery store yesterday, and we both wanted pasta. Therefore, I had to rely on what was on hand: half a red onion, canned plum tomatoes, olive oil, crushed red-pepper flakes, a half pound of rigatoni.

That lineup could have worked well for a simple marinara. A second look in the fridge, however, yielded a left-over piece of guanciale. When I saw this cured pork made from a pig’s cheek, the die was cast: pasta all’ Amatriciana.

Recipes for this classic Roman pasta dish abound, as do debates over its preparation. The major disagreement seems to be over the use of onion. Many feel that it adulterates the flavor of the original. But I like the sweetness the onion adds to the sauce and, if I have some in the kitchen, will use it.

Another dispute centers on the meat: pancetta or guanciale. Most traditionalists I know call for the latter. However, two of my favorite cookbooks, Marcella Hazan ’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking and David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way call for pancetta. I find pancetta too salty and therefore opt for guanciale, which maintains its silky texture during cooking and makes for a more succulent sauce. But either will do.

Finally, there are differing opinions on the pasta shape. Some purists call for spaghetti; others, for bucatini. I prefer the thicker bucatini, but when I don’t have any available, I’ll use rigatoni or even penne.

So here’s my recipe for a serving for two, based on Marcella Hazan’s.

1 Tbs Olive Oil
1 Tbs Sweet Butter
1/2 Red Onion, diced fine
4 oz of Guanciale, cut into strips about 1/4 inch thick and 1/2 inch long
1 14 oz can Italian crushed tomatoes (I prefer San Marzano if available)
1 tsp crushed red-pepper flakes or to taste (I prefer the hot Calabrian)
1/2 lb pasta (bucatini, rigatoni, penne)
1 Tbs of Pecorino Romano, grated, plus more for the table

  1. Add the oil, butter, and onion to a sauté pan and cook over medium flame until the onion is soft. Be sure to stir occasionally to avoid burning the onion. About 5 minutes.
  2. When the onions are soft, add the guanciale and cook until the guanciale starts to render its fat. About 3 minutes.
  3. Add the tomatoes, red-pepper flakes, salt to taste, and stir.
  4. Bring to a slow simmer and cook at a simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes. Taste, at the end, for salt and hot pepper.
  5. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add a generous amount of salt to the water. Add the salt slowly to avoid the water boiling over. Add the pasta and bring back to a boil and cook for about a minute or two less than indicated on the package for al dente.
  6. When the pasta is done to a good al dente stage, drain well, saving about a cup of the pasta water.
  7. Add the drained pasta to the sauce in the sauté pan and cook over a low flame, tossing for about a minute. If too dry, add a tablespoon or so of the pasta water.
  8. Turn off the flame, add the cheese, and toss again.
  9. Serve on heated plates accompanied by some additional grated cheese.

Wine Pairing: My go-to wine for this pasta is a chilled Frascati, the wine of Rome. However, for red-wine drinkers a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo would work well.