Mr. Magpie and I often revisit the slightly macabre query: “What would be your last meal?” His answer remains the same, year after year: blue crabs and cold beer, enjoyed outside with family and friends. Mine has evolved over time but it is nearly always pasta. My current choice would be Amatriciana. This is the page our well-loved, tomato-splattered, dog-eared copy of Sauces and Shapes opens to on its own, so frequent has Mr. Magpie made it since we first discovered it a few years ago. He has annotations in the margins and the page is itself wrinkled with pasta water and grease. Let these tactile indicators of its beloved positioning in Mr. Magpie’s incredibly diverse and ambitious monthly meal planning speak for themselves. This past week alone, he has prepared 3-day-brined pork chops served with Garden & Gun’s outrageously delicious, peanut-streusel-dotted sweet potato casserole (yes, you need the sorghum syrup, but you can find it on Amazon) and steamed, buttered green beans; homemade sheet pan pizza startlingly similar to Prince Street’s finest using Kenji Lopez’s recipe; Zuni-style roast chicken with our favorite Boulud carrots and roasted small potatoes, slightly smashed and garnished with salsa verde; chicken salad (from aforementioned roast chicken leftovers) accessorized with tarragon and the tenderest butter lettuce from our garden; and the most satisfying Italian Wedding Soup with fregola, escarole, and lamb meatballs. Suffice to say, Mr. Magpie is an absolute genius in the kitchen and I eat like a queen. He insists on varying the protein (I’m sure we’re due for seafood next), cuisine, style, and we rarely repeat — with the exception of a handful of pastas that he makes over and over and over, at my urgent request.
Amatriciana is one of those. (Orecchiette with broccoli rabe and spicy sausage, penne with puttanesca sauce, and linguine and clams come in close behind.). The way Oretta Zanini de Vita describes this dish in her cookbook is perfect: “It seems incredible for such an easy, humble sauce, but this is one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read: fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom. You have to use spaghetti or bucatini, they say–nor is it that simple, since there are spaghetti-only and bucatini-only factions. No cheese but pecorino is permitted. And woe betide you if you use pancetta in place of guanciale.” Later: “Like many rustic, simple sauces that have found immortality on trattoria menus throughout Italy, this dish is only as good as its ingredients…The result is a red sauce studded with bits of lightly fried pork, but you don’t want it too red. The pasta and guanciale should be coated with a thin mantle of sauce, not hidden. Don’t let the gloppy, oversauced trattoria version be your model. The cheese is sharp and salty, but again, don’t use too much.” There are many paragraphs circling in on these details and the provenance of the dish and why you must only use pecorino romano in this dish, and the way Oretta runs through all of these details — the finnicky commitment to tradition, the ideal serving style, makes my mouth water.
On an experiential level, a big plate of bucatini dressed in Amatriciana sauce is the ultimate comfort food. It is delightfully salty and the bucatini affords such an incredible mouthfeel — chewy and satisfying. There is nothing like a big forkful of slightly porky, slightly tomato-centric bucatini, offset by the tang and salt of the cheese. It is deeply satisfying. If you don’t consider what you’re doing, you’re bound to eat an entire plate and still want a few extra bites right out of the serving dish. A plate of this pasta would be the centerpiece of my final meal, but I’d probably also bribe Mr. Magpie into making sauteed broccoli rabe dressed with chili, garlic, and anchovy to serve alongside it, which is in my mind the perfect bitter foil to the fatty condimento (and rabe is my favorite vegetable), and I’d eat it all at the coffee table of our living room, sitting on the floor next to him, with an easy-to-drink red wine like Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, drunk out of a juice glass — the way I like it.
*Note that photo at top is NOT accurate to the recipe, i.e., it shows parm and may in fact be carbonara or something, but still…evocative!
Anyhow, below, our beloved Amatriciana recipe, with Mr. Magpie’s annotations:
Amatriciana a la Oretta, a la Mr. Magpie
This sauce is used on flour and water shapes [i.e., not egg pasta] — spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but rigatoni, cassarecce, or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapreti/pici do nicely too. [Ed. note: do yourself a favor and invest in some really good dried pasta for this dish. It makes a world of difference. The sauce clings to the pasta much better, and you can just taste the quality. Eataly carries a lot of our favorite brands and ships anywhere. While you’re there, pick up some great olive oil — we’ve tried most of the styles Eataly carries, and all are delicious; I think “experts” believe EVOO from Liguria in Italy is the best, and here is one such bottle — and San Marzano canned tomatoes. Mr. Magpie places a few huge orders for these staples each year, either from Eataly or Gustiamo. These high-quality pantry staples really make a difference in this simple recipe in particular! Meanwhile, the guanciale makes this dish! It is worth seeking out.If you are in NYC, you can find guanciale at Dickson’s in Chelsea Market, at Eataly in Flatiron, and occasionally at Hudson and Charles on the Upper West Side, conveniently a few doors down from Barney Greengrass, and therefore worth a trip on its own (stock up on guanciale for dinner and then lox and bagels for the next morning). If you are in the D.C. area, we have been getting our guanciale from Organic Butcher in McLean, which in fact delivers to Bethesda. I would venture to guess that Butcher & Larder in Chicago would carry it, too — Gepperths and Paulina were also favorite butchers of ours when we lived there, but they seem more entrenched in the classic German butcher tradition, so not sure they’d carry it.]
For the condimento:
4 oz guanciale, cut into thin strips
2-3 tablespoons EVOO
1 small onion, chopped
1 whole 14 oz can whole peeled tomatoes
1-2 small pieces dried chile
salt [we use only Diamond Kosher salt]
To make the dish:
1 pound pasta
70 grams grated pecorino
Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Taste a piece to assess how salty it is. Then, when it jut begins to crisp, add the chopped onion and saute gently until transparent. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the gunaciale). Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.
Bring 5 quarts of water to a boil in an 8 quart pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.
Drain the pasta, reserving some of the starchy pasta water in a Pyrex measuring cup. Place pasta back in cooking pot off the heat. Coat with a little pasta water and cheese, adding cheese in increments of about 1/3 cup, tossing constantly with tongs. You want to see the cheese and water start to cling to the bucatini to create a kind of cheesy saucey coating. Then add sauce to the pasta pot and continue tossing constantly with tongs, adding additional cheese/pasta water as needed to create perfectly coated strands.
Serve immediately on plates (not bowls), grating additional pecorino on top.
What about you? What would be your final meal?
+Funny how some dishes weave themselves into the fiber of memory.
+Writing about Paulina Meat Market above reminded me of this lovely story from a small Polish restauranteur in Chicago.
+If you’re thinking ahead to Thanksgiving, I shared all of our favorite Thanksgiving recipes in this post from a few years back (scroll down).
+Ideas for a date night at home.
+Are you an adventurous eater?
+Notes on hosting girlfriends at home — including some delicious menu ideas.
+Some of our all-time favorite recipes — the scarce handful Mr. Magpie will make over and over again.
+Some of our favorite cookbooks!
+This sweater is somehow marked down to $41 in the ivory color in an XS…snagged.
+These earrings are in my cart.
+Beauty guru Courtney Grow swears by this pommade for the perfect slicked-back bun. I trust her implicitly. This reminds me that I have on a few occasions in the past few weeks let my hair air dry overnight and then curled it into loose, beachy waves using a 1″ barrel iron. I let my hair cool for a few secs, run my fingers through it, and then set with my favorite texturing spray, also by Ouai. It yields the perfect “cool girl” waves IMO.
+When I do wear my hair slicked back in a low bun, for some reason I always want to wear gold hoops (?) and have been sporting these inexpensive ones, whose quality impresses me!
+This utilitarian-chic radio and bluetooth player is marked down to almost 70% off. I might buy it as a stocking stuffer for Mr. Magpie for when he’s gardening / grilling in the area below our deck and the music doesn’t quite reach him!
+Lake Pajamas just restocked its maternity collection and I immediately sent pairs to two friends who delivered recently! Such a luxe and lovely gift for a new mama. So often the gifts are (understandably) all about baby — nice to spoil mama too.
+These mini Kankens are perfect for little ones when traveling. Micro has one and I keep his books, toys, stuffed animals, etc in it so it’s easy for him to find his stuff! They come in such great colors, too.
+Just look at this chic pendant light — love!
+Adore these placemats from such an unlikely source!
+Drawn to these slightly masculine penny loafers.
+Inexpensive velvet hairbows for littles.
+Honestly, I might order this bag for myself.
+This floral jacket ($20!) for a little lady is too cute!
+I don’t know how else to say it — these coupes are sexy?
+I love the look of these under-$100 black waterproof suede boots — like, if you need to look pulled together but also trudge through Chicago snow on your way to work?
+Love the color of these cord overalls for a baby.
+A refined take on the shacket.
+These dramatic coats from Saks Potts have been all the rage the last few years. You can get the look for less with this, or aim somewhere in the middle with a Shrimps coat, which is definitely on my lust list…!