Ever since I've taken a greater interest in food, I've made more of an effort to seek out culinary experiences when I travel. In Istanbul, I took in the sights and smells of the spice bazaar, where heaping piles of brightly-colored spices compete for consumers' attention, and on my most recent trip to Italy, I made sure to check out the central markets in Florence and Ravenna. Foodie travel icon Anthony Bourdain says the best way to learn about a place is through its markets, and while I'm not sure I completely agree with that, it is a treat unto itself to see all the rare foods that are common in other countries but that don't get imported to the United States for whatever reason.
In addition to visiting the markets, I felt a certain hyper-awareness of what I was eating when I was in Italy this time around. I enjoyed the food a great deal more than I did the first two times I was there, due to a combination of older, more diverse taste buds and greater knowledge about what I was eating. Also, I feel that I have much stronger memories of what I ate this time around.
A simple plate of spaghetti all'amatriciana, for example, stands out in my mind as a study in culinary elegance. There weren't many ingredients, but everything in the recipe served an important purpose. Guanciale, or cured pork jowl, adds a funky, smokey flavor to the dish, balanced by the heat of red pepper flakes. Tomatoes provide acidity, and onions lend their sharp bite. Italians can be very rigid and resistant to interpretive license with their classic dishes, and it is easy to see why -- you shouldn't mess with perfection.
Since I don't have one of those expansive, European-style markets at my disposal, I had to make a few improvisations when I attempted to replicate that plate of pasta in my own kitchen. For one, guanciale only exists at expensive gourmet shops, so I substituted bacon, since I had some on hand. It wasn't quite the same, but it would do. I also substituted regular, cheap canned tomatoes for the imported San Marzano varietal favored by Italians. Sacrilege, I know, but the dish still turned out just fine.
The dinner I ended up with, bucatini all'amatriciana, was easy and quick enough to be a regular weeknight meal around here. It will never supplant Sardinian sausage sauce as my favorite at-home Italian meal, but it's always good to have options, especially when they conjure up such happy memories...
adapted from Saveur
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 oz. pancetta or bacon , cut into strips
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small carrot, minced
1⁄2 medium onion, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon. crushed red chile flakes
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 lb. bucatini or spaghetti
1/2 c. grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
Heat oil in a large, high-sided skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta; cook, stirring, until lightly browned, 6–8 minutes. Add pepper; cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes more. Increase heat to medium-high; add garlic, carrots, and onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 6 minutes. Add chile flakes; cook for 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens and flavors meld, 20–25 minutes. Season with salt; keep warm.
Bring a large pot ofsalted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook until just al dente, 6–8 minutes. Reserve 1⁄2 cup pasta water; drain pasta. Heat reserved sauce over medium heat. Add pasta and reserved water; cook, tossing, until sauce clings to pasta, 2–3 minutes. Add 1⁄2 cup Pecorino; toss. Divide between serving bowls; serve with additional Pecorino.