Watching the latest episode in Stanley Tucci’s CNN series, Searching for Italy, which focused on Roman cuisine, led me to a more serious and scholarly treatment of the subject, Oretta Zanini de Vita’s Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds.
One of my all time favorite restaurants in Rome is La Matricianella, and one of my favorite Roman pastas is one of its specialties, bucatini all’Amatriciana, a dish that hails from a mountain town southeast of Rome, Amatrice. You may have read about this town a few years ago, when it was devastated by an earthquake in August of 2016.
Among Roman chefs, however, there is some controversy over this dish related primarily to the use of onion and garlic. In fact, the city of Amatrice eventually issued guidelines for the dish that list the “official” ingredients: spaghetti, guanciale, extra-virgin olive oil, white wine, either fresh or canned tomatoes, hot chili pepper, freshly grated Pecorino Romano, and salt.
The last time I wrote about this pasta here, I used a Marcella Hazan recipe, which I’m sure would rile many a purist by its use of onion, pancetta as opposed to guanciale, butter and vegetable oil, Parmesan, and bucatini. Yet despite the substitutions, perhaps even because of then, Hazan’s recipe yields a delicious dish.
But last night I wanted to replicate, as closely as possible, the version I enjoy in Rome. La Matricianella does use bucatini; therefore, so did I. My only other variation from the official recipe as well as from Downie’s, was substituting pancetta for the guancialeI was unable to find a good piece of it here in San Diego.
I also prefer having the pork for this dish in larger chunks than Downie’s “roughly-chopped” style, approximately 1/4” thick, 1/2” wide, and 1” long.
Bucatini all’ Amatriciana (adapted from Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome, by David Downie
4 ounces pancetta (If you can find guanciale, use that.)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (If available, use 1 Italian peperoncino)
1/2 cup Italian dry white wine (Roman Frascati would be ideal.)
1 28-ounce can Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
Kosher salt or coarse sea salt
1 pound bucatini
About 1 1/2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano
1. Cut the pancetta into chunks approximately 1/4” thick, 1/2” wide, and 1” long.
2. Scatter the pancetta around a thick bottomed, high-sided sauté pan/ Add the oil and the red pepper flakes. Sauté over high heat for 2 to 3 minutes to melt the pork fat, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula.
3. Once the pancetta colors, but before it begins to crisp, pour in the wine and boil to evaporate it, about 2 minutes.
4. Add the tomatoes and their juice to the pan, crushing them in your hands. Lower the heat and simmer until the tomatoes are reduced almost by half, stirring often, for 30 to 40 minutes. Taste for salt. (If using pancetta, add some freshly ground black pepper.)
5. Bring at least 5 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add a generous amount of salt Cook until the pasta is barely al dente, about 1 to 2 minutes less than the package’s suggested cooking time.
6. Using tongs or a pasta grabber, transfer the pasta directly from the pot to the sauté pan. Stir and toss it vigorously to finish cooking it, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat, stir in 4 heaping tablespoons of the Pecorino Romano and toss to coat the pasta. (Note: Do not drain the pasta for this dish in a colander; transferring the pasta directly from the pot to the sauce, adds just the right of pasta water to loosen the sauce. This is not a sauce you want to thin out with reserved pasta water; it should be thick.)
7. Serve immediately in heated pasta bowls, with the remaining Pecorino Romano on the side.
This recipe serves at least four and when I’m cooking for two I’ll often make the full recipe to have enough sauce for another night. In fact, I may use the remaining sauce for an Amatriciana frittata as suggested by Downie.
Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to make oxtails like the ones I enjoyed years ago on my first trip to Rome. It was in that city’s Testaccio district that I had coda alla vaccinara, a dense stew of oxtails braised with vegetables, primarily celery, tomatoes, and white wine.
The Testaccio was the location for Rome’s slaughterhouse from 1888 to 1975. Here the need to use every part of an animal led to the district’s reputation for offal, or in Italian, the quinto quarto, the fifth quarter. The best known dishes of the variety include pajata, veal intestines; trippa alla Romana, tripe, and the subject of today’s post coda alla vaccinara. All dishes that are associated with Italy’s cucina povera, or peasant cooking.
I looked through a number of cookbooks for a recipe and found some excellent ones in Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds (the most authentic), David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, and Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. Ultimately, however, I chose a recipe by Amanda Hesser in the New York Times. It seemed the most straightforward; though I did modify it with elements from the other recipes, for example increasing the amount of celery and onion or adding raisins during the last hour of braising.
The dish required at least 30 minutes of prep and more than 3 hours of cooking. And there were some hiccups along the way. Lacking marjoram (either fresh or dried), I substituted fresh oregano. Increasing the amount of onion and carrot required using a bit more oil than called for; my pancetta being somewhat lean didn’t render enough fat to thoroughly brown the oxtails; my soffritto (diced onions, carrots, celery and pancetta) always looked like it was about to burn. Nevertheless, the end result was exceptional. A richly flavored thick sauce, with hints of cinnamon and cloves, coated succulent fall-of-the bone pieces of meat accompanied by silky slivers of celery.
As I was cooking for two, I used a little less than two pounds of meat; however, I kept close to the original amounts of the recipes other ingredients. Fortunately, doing so yielded plenty of left over sauce for pasta later this week.
Finally, don’t be tempted to substitute red wine for the white. The latter allows the flavors of the meat and the celery to take center stage.
Oxtail Braised with Tomato and Celery Coda alla Vaccinara (Adapted from Amanda Hesser in the New York Times)
¼ pound pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 large carrot, peeled, finely diced
1 medium onion, peeled, finely diced
7 inner stalks celery, 1 finely diced, 6 sliced into thirds (about 3-inches long) pieces ¼ cup raisins
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 pounds oxtail (trimmed weight), severed at each joint into pieces about 3 inches long
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste
2 cups white wine
3 sprigs fresh oregano
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (28-ounce) can peeled Italian tomatoes, partially drained
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a deep, heavy casserole or pot that can fit all the oxtails in one layer, combine pancetta, carrot, onion and diced celery and enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan (about 3 tablespoons). (Note that the size of your pan will play a part in determining the amount of olive oil; I had to use 4 tablespoons.)
2. Place pan over medium heat and cook until pancetta renders its fat, about 15 minutes.
Season oxtails on all sides with salt and pepper, add to the casserole, and brown well on all sides, turning them only after they’ve browned. Using tongs, remove oxtails from pan and place in a bowl. Set aside.
3. Add the tomato paste to the vegetables in the casserole and cook, stirring, until paste caramelizes, about 2 minutes. Stir in wine and mix, being sure to scrape up any browned bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. Heat to boiling and cook 3 minutes. Add oregano, cloves and cinnamon and then tomatoes, squishing them between your fingers as they fall into the pan.
4. Return oxtails to pan. Liquid must be as high as one-third of the ingredients. If not, add a little water. Bring the liquid to a boil, cover pan and place in oven. Braise for 1 1/2 hours, turning the oxtails now and then.
5. Add the remaining celery and the raisins, then continue cooking until the meat is tender and falling off the bone, about 30 to 60 minutes longer. (I opted for 60 minutes.)
6. Remove the pan from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve on a large platter or in shallow bowls, making sure everyone gets a bit of the pulpy sauce and celery.
Wine Pairing: Montepulciano d’Abruzzo
Yesterday, I was inspired by a post on Diane Darrow’s insightful blog Another Year in Recipes to cook one of my favorite Roman dishes, pollo alla Romana. Darrow’s post focused on a contemporary recipe for the dish that she compared with her own, which she had published years ago in The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The newer recipe seemed far more involved than Darrow’s, which in my opinion more closely resembled the ones I’ve enjoyed in Roman trattorie.
I wrote to Darrow about the recipe I’ve always used for this dish from David Downie’s Cooking the Roman Way, which uses pancetta and roasted peppers. She responded, and I agree, that this recipe may reflect a trend in Italian cooking where people have more interest in experimenting and elaborating on simple traditional dishes.
Below is my adaptation of Downie’s recipe, which I must say yields an extraordinary chicken dish with many layers of flavor. I served the chicken with some grilled polenta, but crusty Italian bread would work just as well.
Pollo coi Peperoni alla Romana (Adapted from Cooking the Roman Way by David Downie.)
3 to 4 pounds skin-on bone-in chicken thighs, about 9 thighs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large white onion, roughly chopped
2 ounces pancetta, finely diced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (14.5-ounce) can Italian crushed tomatoes
4 to 5 large red peppers, roasted, skinned, and seeded and then sliced into strips 1/2 to 1 inch wide and 1-1/2 to 2 inches long.
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1. Trim the chicken thighs of any excess fat or skin and pat dry. Season the chicken with salt and pepper to taste.
2. Heat the oil in a large, high-sided frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and pancetta. Sauté, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula, until the onion becomes translucent and the pancetta barely starts to crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes.
3. With a slotted spoon, remove the onions and pancetta from the pan to a bowl and cover with a lid.
4. Add the pepper flakes to the pan and stir briefly. Increase the heat to high, add the chicken parts skin side down and brown them thoroughly, turning once, about 8 to 10 minutes. If the chicken is very fatty pour off some of the fat.
5. Return the sautéed onions and pancetta to the pan and stir thoroughly.
6. Pour in the wine and boil to evaporate it, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping any browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula.
7. Add the crushed tomatoes, the roasted peppers, and the oregano. Bring to a simmer over medium heat stirring. Then reduce the heat to low and simmer slowly, partially covered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chicken is tender.
8. Serve immediately on warmed plates accompanied by polenta or crusty Italian bread.
Wine Pairing: Sangiovese di Romagna, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Merlot
I’m often asked which is my favorite Italian regional cuisine. And although my heritage is Neapolitan and Sicilian, and I love the hearty cooking of Tuscany, the exquisite dishes of the Veneto, and the aromatic braises of Piemonte, Lazio is my first choice. There’s something of about the earthiness of Roman cooking, its subtle use of spice and herbs, its tantalizing fried plates, and incomparable pastas that bring be back for visits either by traveling or by cooking.
Indeed, when I cook Roman more often than not I feel like I’m back in the Eternal City at one of my favorite trattorias or al fresco cafes. That’s how I felt last night, as we dined on a delectable pollo in padella, literally “chicken in a frying pan.” This simply prepared dish uses a minimum of ingredients to yield a sauté of chicken so aromatic with fresh bay and rosemary and coated with a silky sauce flavored with onions, garlic, and white wine.
My source for the recipe was one of my go to books for Italian cuisine, Cooking the Roman Wayby David Downie. Although sadly out of print, it’s still widely available online and even as an ebook. In fact, the Kindle version on Amazon is 99 cents, a small price to pay for book that’s not only a source for authentic recipes but for guided tour of Rome and its culinary traditions.
Pollo in Padella Adapted from Cooking the Roman Way
3 pounds skin on-bone in chicken thighs
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 whole fresh bay leaves
3 heaping tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, minced
3/4 cup Italian dry white wine, preferably Frascati
Pat the chicken dry and trim off and discard any excess fat.
Heat 3 tablespoons of oil over medium-high heat in a heavy sauté pan large enough to accommodate the chicken in a single layer. When the oil is hot, add the chicken thighs skin-side down and season the exposed side with salt and pepper. Over medium-high heat, brown the chicken well on both sides, about 8 to 10 minutes.
Transfer the chicken to a bowl with a slotted spoon and pour off all the fat and oil from the pan.
Return the pan to the stove and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and the onion. Over medium heat, sauté the onions, stirring often, until the onions become translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté stirring for 1 more minute stirring to avoid the garlic getting brown.
Stir in the bay leaves and 2 tablespoons of the rosemary.
Add the chicken, one piece at a time, along with any remaining juices, turning them to coat with the oil and the herbs. Sauté over medium heat for one minute. Add the wine, and bring to a boil to evaporate it for 1 to 2 minutes, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan.
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of rosemary, lower the heat to medium-low, and simmer covered for 45 minutes. Turn the chicken once or twice during this time.
Remove the bay leaves and serve immediately with the pan sauce.
Wine Pairing: Frascati, Montepulicano d’Abruzzo