Thursday, February 15, 2007

Spaghetti City

We have become addicted to Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, a tomatoey sauce famous around Italy, but particularly popular in the central mountain regions. It derives from an older recipe, la Gricia, made by shepherds, sans the tomatoes. The key to the overall taste is a cut of pork guanciale (a type of bacon) and a healthy dose of pecorino cheese, made from sheep’s milk.

As it happens, when Giorgio and Francesca were recently visiting, they asked if we’d ever visited the town of Amatrice. When we answered in the negative, they sheepishly admitted they hadn’t either, but would like to, as it is only an hour distant from Ascoli and they have a Roman friend who lives there part time. She happens to be there now, they told us. Naturally, we set off for Amatrice to arrive in plenty of time for lunch.

As we approached the town the mountains loomed larger and the landscape grew more intensely rugged. A small lake, very low from the current drought cycle, sits just off the ancient via Salaria and we skirted it to drive along the lovely valley. At a crossroads, the sign pointing the way proclaimed: Amatrice - la citta degli Spaghetti. Amatrice – Spaghetti City. Giorgio was visibly moved and consulted his watch to begin the countdown until we could enter a restaurant to partake of the famed food.

We arrived to a compact, picturesque stone and stucco town set cutely among the surrounding mountains. The setting alone is worth the trip to Amatrice, its heavenly position seemed this day to sit just below the clouds. A major influx of summer visitors are attracted to the nearby National Park, Monti della Laga. Winter visitors find skiing and snow-showing, though Maria, Francesca’s friend, admitted not many tourists visit this time of year, especially with a lack of normal snowfall. The nearby downhill ski run has little excitement to offer, and her Bed and Breakfast out in the countryside is vacant.

Strolling the streets gave the aura of relaxed energy – skis were perched atop car roofs, people ambled but were dressed in outdoor activity gear, and the bars proffered drinks to warm the body – warm punch, hot chocolate, and lots of coffee (much of it served corretto with grappa). The wind was downright frigid and, encouraged by Giorgio who was partaking of a highly alcoholic punch at 11:00 a.m., Bryan consented to taste the corretto. His verdict? “It ruins good espresso.” Now we know.

As we exited the bar to continue our examination of the centro, I saw a patient dog lying on the sidewalk lazily awaiting its owner…and it struck me as to why it seemed so quaint. The atmosphere –barring the medieval origins-is very much like Taos, New Mexico…a frontier town situated among the mountains with an easy-going air, with inhabitants who are passionate for the outdoors. The clothing even resembled what one normally sees around Taos, laced-up hiking boots and sporty wear de riguer but with a touch of sophistication. We also noted more SUVs parked about than one normally sees in a medieval town.

The cold started to wear on us, particularly Francesca who feels anything below 50 “e molto freddo”. The biting wind had her in fits and every three steps she grumbled, “brrr, fa freddo.” Giorgio seized the moment and said well, since it’s so dang cold we may as well eat, and so we were directed toward the coveted dish as Maria showed us a place just outside town that she guaranteed would provide us with the absolutely best spaghetti all’Amatriciana one could ever hope to partake of. The line indicated the truth of her statement, as the place was packed parka to parka. Ski-boots clumped heavily on the floors as we struggled to stay out of the way of the wait staff who bustled about with heaping plates. Long tables lined the wall and the middle of the room and people were just directed to sit together, communal style. Giorgio looked faint as we waited; in anticipation of the feast he’d not eaten any breakfast. Besides that, his potent punch left him a bit tipsy. Finally we were settled into a table and the short menu recited: Spaghetti – and do you want that with classic tomato ‘Matriciana or the Gricia? I took the classic, Bryan opted to try the more ancient but less renowned dish. Secondi? Lamb or lamb, or… would you like to try the lamb? Bryan took the lamb. I chose just a salad, as I’d eyed up the size of the plates while I was waiting and knew I’d be stuffed.

But, Giorgio desperately asked, aren’t there some antipasti? Ma certo, and the waitress started bringing a few plates of nibbles to tie us all over. The first was a pungent-smelling locally-beloved dish I’d rather not see appear on my table as I’ve encountered it a few times in Ascoli and find it revolting. Coratella, made from lamb heart and liver. Blech. The sauce in this particular dish actually made it somewhat more appealing, and because they brought a huge helping, Giorgio insisted we “just had to try it”. I took a very small spoonful. As I knew would happen, I liked the sauce and hated the pieces. I don’t like liver in any form, and I can assure you that heart is not on my list of favorite things for dining. I am a firm believer that there are some parts of the animal that just shouldn’t be eaten. Innards fall in that category. The bruschetta con funghi was more up my alley.

And then, dum da da da….the Main Event arrived. The famed Spaghetti with a capital S, mounded up onto a platter-sized plate, with nice, coarsely-grated pecorino cheese dotting the top. It was – as promised – scrumptious. The pork guanciale gives a slightly smoky yet slightly sweet flavor to the sauce and a dash of peperoncini gives it just a hint of spiciness. It was definitely the best plate of spaghetti I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve tasted many renditions of Amatriciana sauce around these parts. Bryan’s Gricia was quite tasty, too; it seemed rather light, though I know the presence of pork fat precludes that from actuality.

No photos were procured of the plates. I admit I’m a bit camera-shy in crowded places. Besides, we’d not had the “ah, you’re foreigners” stares we often encounter in small towns, finding instead that we were rather accepted as compatriots…meaning Romans. Judging from the license plates outside, the majority of patrons were from the Eternal City and, being as we were, with Giorgio and Francesca, whose heavy accents belie their hometown, we slipped in under the radar. Besides, we have already established that Bryan looks Roman. Under the circumstances, I didn’t want to have the camera flash blaringly announce, “Hey y’all, we’re tourons!” and so I left it in the car.

Stuffed, we piled back into the car to drive home but stopped to get some photos of the gorgeous countryside. We’ll return to Amatrice when it warms up a bit, to explore the trails and enjoy the comfortably laid-back feel. Even aside from the classic fare, there’s something very attractive about Spaghetti City.

Here's a history of the spaghetti, in Italian.

Are you hungry now?  Want to make the 'matriciana at home?  Hop over to La Cucina for a recipe.

copyright 2007 Valerie Schneider


Anonymous said...

I like Amatrice, very pretty place with great hiking nearby. Definitely good food ;) Would like to go to Taos someday.-Kay

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Sounds like another place to add to the list for my next visit.

Anonymous said...

you're making me hungry -- and also eager to get back to La Dolce Vita, and see these corners of your Italian world.

Ciao, Mama Jo