The tragic story behind spaghetti all’amatriciana

(CNN) – What is Italy’s best pasta sauce? That’s the kind of question that can spark a fight in the home of spaghetti and tortellini.

Will it be Bologna’s meaty, slow-cooked ragu – so famous that half the world has bastardized it and called it “Bolognese”?

Liguria’s nutty basil-rinsed pesto? Or how about carbonara?

Maybe it’s the red stuff. For many, a great pasta dish needs tomatoes, and for these type of people, Amatriciana is the sauce to end all sauces.

Thick, sweet tomato sauce, spiced up with guanciale (a particularly aromatic type of pork cheek bacon), warmed up with lots of pepper or chilli and with pecorino cheese as a texture, this is one of the classics.

But although his fans around the world consider Amatriciana their carbonated comfort blanket, the court’s recent history has been tragic.

A terrible earthquake

More than 300 people were killed in the 2016 earthquake.

Sarah Tilotta for CNN

It is said to have been invented in the city of Amatrice in Latium, Italy’s central Italian region, which is also home to Rome. While Rome is on the Mediterranean coast, Amatrice is 90 miles northeast, closer to the Adriatic than the Mediterranean, in a basin in the Apennines.

It borders on the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park, which extends over 150,000 hectares and three regions of central southern Italy. The park is one of the largest protected areas in Europe, known for its golden eagles, brown bears and the southernmost glacier in Europe.

The area around the park has been the center of earthquakes in Italy in recent years.

An earthquake near the town of L’Aquila, an hour south of Amatrice, killed 308 people in 2009 and left around 65,000 homeless. The city is still being rebuilt.

And in October 2016, Norcia, an hour northwest of Amatrice, was hit by a 6.6 magnitude quake that trembled across the country from Rome to Venice, 260 miles away. It also has to be completely rebuilt.

The aftermath of the earthquake.

The aftermath of the earthquake.


It was Amatrice’s turn on August 24, 2016 at 3:36 a.m. An earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter scale destroyed almost the entire city and the nearby settlements of Arquata del Tronto, Pescara del Tronto and the epicenter Accumoli in 142 seconds.

It killed 299, another four victims died later. Most of the dead were in Amatrice. “Amatrice no longer exists,” the mayor at the time, Sergio Pirozzi, told reporters that morning.

Almost 400 people were injured and 41,000 lost their homes. Four years later, most of them are still living in temporary accommodation.

Still broken, but still boiling

What used to be the main street in Amatrice, October 2020.

What used to be the main street in Amatrice, October 2020.

Julia Buckley / CNN

Little has changed today. The center of the city – or what’s left of it – is an army-controlled zone where pedestrians are prohibited. On the former pretty main street Corso Umberto I, only a few buildings are left, which are supported by scaffolding: a few bell towers, the arched hull of a church.

Beyond the old town there are other buildings that are supported by scaffolding. others who appear to have survived or been rebuilt; and makeshift huts where the rest of the town’s residents live and shop. A 16th century statue of artist and architect Cola dell’Amatrice has been restored and sits on the edge of the disaster area next to a sign that prohibits selfies.

And at the end of town is a collection of stylish modern buildings hastily erected around a pseudopiazza. The area del Gusto, della Tradizione and della Solidarietà (area for taste, tradition and solidarity) was designed in 2017 by the architect Stefano Boeri, who is responsible for the world-famous “vertical forest” in Milan.

The city is surrounded by mountains.

The city is surrounded by mountains.

Julia Buckley / CNN

Surrounded by the green mountains, it is a space that has brought the rest of the city’s restaurants together. And Amatriciana is very important.

The museums and churches can be destroyed, but thousands of tourists still come to Amatrice to eat the most famous pasta dish. And even in a glorified shed, it’s still one of the most memorable meals to have in Italy.

Your favorite spaghetti dish on the spot

In Ristorante La Conca, Elisabetta Perilli does not have a printed menu. Instead, it tells you what’s available – and it’s everything Italians called “Chilometro Zero” that is locally sourced.

First, a platter of local sausage and salami is the way to go – Norcia, an hour away, is world famous for its sausage.

The antipasti platter in Ristorante La Conca.

The antipasti platter in Ristorante La Conca.

Julia Buckley / CNN

But after that the tourists only want to eat one thing: Spaghetti all’amatriciana.

How is it different from the Amatriciana that we eat all over the world?

At La Conca, the Perilli family uses square spaghetti instead of round ones, as this allows the sauce to penetrate more surface. The noodles are also more coarsely textured than smooth, making the sauce easier to stick to.

Amatrice has an annual pasta festival, but it was canceled in 2016 and 2020.

Amatrice has an annual pasta festival, but it was canceled in 2016 and 2020.

Sarah Tilotta for CNN

And if you’re used to Amatriciana with a dash of chilli, you’ll be surprised – because this is where most of the spices come from regular pepper, although they add chilli to it. That makes it less spicy than you might be used to, but smoother and warmer, almost with a hint of nutmeg. It’s a warmth that spreads through your mouth when you eat. It’s more subtle than the Amatriciana you may be used to – and it’s masterful.

Perilli says the most important thing is that it must be clean. The family used to produce their own, but like everyone else here, they lost their animals and their healing space in the earthquake. Today they buy Guanciale from a producer not far away.

The aftermath of the earthquake

Residents installed a statue of Cola dell'Amatrice, a Renaissance artist and architect.

Residents installed a statue of Cola dell’Amatrice, a Renaissance artist and architect.

Julia Buckley / CNN

Like everyone else in Amatrice, the Perilli family was badly hit by the earthquake. Her city center house was completely destroyed, as was her restaurant, which her father Gabriele opened in the 1950s and which was popular with Italian celebrities such as singer Adriano Celentano.

“You should have seen our restaurant,” she says, pointing to a photo of Celentano with Gabriele – who made a cameo in his film “Serafino” – on the wall. “We had photos everywhere. It was nicer.”

Still, she calls her family “happy” because they had land – so they built two wooden chalets to live in instead of having to move into the prefabricated estate that other residents of the city center have moved to.

And the slow bureaucracy of the recovery process means residents don’t know if or when their homes will ever be rebuilt.

Visitors are not allowed to walk through the former city center.

Visitors are not allowed to walk through the former city center.

Julia Buckley / CNN

“Those of us who have houses in the middle still don’t know whether we’re going to rebuild them in the middle or take them outside,” she says. “We went from a peaceful city to a disaster.

“The city is under construction now. We can’t go there. Our houses have been flattened and we can’t visit where they were. There’s nothing.”

After the earthquake, residents were allowed to return to what was left of their homes to see if they could salvage possessions. Then the city was walled and considered a military zone. The residents can drive through, but not stop, not get out and not visit the location of their old houses.

Kitchen secrets

The secret to a great Amatriciana, according to Perillis: make sure the guanciale is clean and cook it with the rest of the sauce. Use the meat fat to fry the mixture instead of cooking the vegetables in olive oil first.

There’s only one problem. According to Elisabetta, ordering Amatriciana in Amatrice is what sets you apart as a tourist. The real dish of Amatrice, she says, is spaghetti alla gricia – a “white” (tomato-free) Amatriciana made from nothing but guanciale, pepper and pecorino cheese. It is believed that this is the original Amatrice dish. The residents only added tomatoes in the 19th century.

The courts’ fame – although this is where they originated, both Gricia and Amatriciana are closely linked to Rome – led Italians to gather to support Amatrice after the earthquake.

“We were lucky,” says Perilli. “People donated and gave us the chance to start all over again.” The Area del Gusto was built with donations from the Corriere della Sera newspaper and the L7 TV channel and enables residents who stayed – because many of those who left – to earn again.

“We had fewer people here this summer, but a lot of Italians come here on vacation. There are no more hotels, but they come for lunch,” says Perilli.

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