Day Eleven of my internship with the Rome Sustainable Food Project was a very good day.

I know this, because I kept a diary. There were many days I came home exhausted, the kind of fatigue that makes you forget hunger ironically enough, but still I managed to type out something to mark each shift. Sometimes it was just a sentence, sometimes it was several paragraphs. It’s amusing to me now to go back and see which days made the biggest impact. This one was one of them, the day I made my first pasta.

Pasta all'Amatriciana

Pasta all’Amatriciana

I loved eating Amatriciana before I ever cooked it, but now I adore it. It’s part of the holy trinity of Roman pastas (in my opinion) that includes Carbonara and Cacio e Pepe. Imagine a sauce that hits all the flavor pulse points of your tongue at once– sweet, salty and spicy– with the bonus of guanciale, Italy’s badass answer to bacon, studded throughout. Add to that perfectly cooked pasta, along with a generous sprinkling of pecorino cheese and life is complete.

Yes, this was a day worth remembering. So here you go, an excerpt from my RSFP diary:
January 13, 2014
Day Eleven
It was a GOOD DAY! I made my first PASTA!

I knew when we sat down for the menu meeting and I heard the words “Amatriciana” that it was mine.

How can I express the terror of making pasta for an Academy lunch? As someone who used to regularly attend lunch, I know it’s the most important thing on the table. Sure, there are crazy dieters who skip the starch, but almost everyone takes a little, because it’s pasta… and it’s always good. You don’t want to be the person who makes bad pasta. Or worse, no pasta, because it’s late. Or even worse, no pasta because while tossing it, you tossed it right out of the bowl and onto the floor.

These were my fears. But inspired by Vanessa’s [a former intern] parting words (“Just throw yourself into it and don’t be afraid. Make the pasta.”) and by Anna’s [an intern in my cohort] brava performance last week, I let that little voice in my head say YES–out loud. And so I was on pasta duty.

Here’s what I learned:

Amatriciana is a very Roman pasta. It’s not actually from the town called Amatriciana, it’s from the capital city. The ingredients are simple and few: guanciale, tomato and pepperoncini. Chris [the head chef] likes to add red onion, too. The traditional pasta pairing is buccatini.

To make it, you pour a couple jars of whole San Marzano tomatoes through a food mill. You chop thick slices of guanciale (unsmoked, cured pork jowl) into batons. And optionally you slice red onions into thin half moons. Pour a little oil in a large pot, then add the guanciale. Fat renders fat. The oil helps the guanciale to get going. Sautee until the guanciale is rendered and browned, then add the onions and pepperoncino. Cook until onions are transluscent, then add the tomatoes. Bring the heat up to almost a boil, then simmer sauce for 45 min to an hour until the bright red color turns a rusty red and the sauce has thickened.

Now comes the hard part. Cooking the pasta. The water must be very, very salty. The kind of salty that makes your mouth pucker. So get your salty water boiling, then drop the pasta. Let it cook until it’s al dente, then drain and add it directly to the sauce. Stir. You may need to add some pasta water to help the sauce come together. Once the sauce looks shiny and glistening, add some grated pecorino romano cheese and stir. Then, toss. Toss the pasta in a bowl so the sauce completely coats it. This is by far the hardest part. I did one tiny toss and then lost my will [I was making pasta for fifty and the pan was quite heavy… and okay, my upper body strength sucks]. Ross [RSFP cook and passionate pasta aficionado] had to help me finish it. But I will be braver next time! When the pasta is completely coated, pour into serving bowls and then top with a little more pecorino cheese.

I am tired. Time for bed.

But one last thing: Peter. My sweet, dear, wonderful husband. He bought me flowers to celebrate my first pasta. Red tulips. And a suppli [fried rice ball stuffed with cheese] on the side. I love him so much.
Pasta all’Amatriciana
One 28-oz can of whole San Marzano tomatoes
6-8oz Guanciale (pancetta or bacon can be used as a substitute)
1 Small red onion, optional
1-2 teaspoons Red pepper flake
12oz Pasta, preferably Bucatini
Pecorino Romano cheese, to taste
Olive oil
1. Pass tomatoes through a food mill. Chop guanciale into thick baton-shaped pieces. [Optional: Slice red onion into thin half-moons.]
2. Heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the guanciale and cook over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the guanciale has browned. [Optional: Once the guanciale has browned, add onions to the pan and cook until translucent.]
3. Add 1-2 teaspoons red pepper flake. Add more if you like it spicy.
4. Add the milled tomatoes. Simmer the sauce for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until it has thickened and turned a rusty red color.
5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Salt it heavily.
6. When the water is at a rolling boil, cook the pasta for the amount of time indicated on the package. Start checking a few minutes before, to see if it’s al dente. Reserve some water before draining the pasta.
7. Ladle some of the sauce into a large bowl. Once the pasta has cooked, add it to the bowl. Toss the pasta in the sauce to coat it well—you may not use all of the sauce. If needed, add some pasta water to help it all come together. Toss the pasta in the sauce until it’s shiny and glistening. Taste for seasoning. Add more salt or red pepper flake, as needed.
8. Top the pasta with grated pecorino cheese.