Not My Father’s Spaghetti all’ Amatricana is an homage to my father and my childhood – Goodbye Prego, hello homemade deliciousness!
As an American child of the ’80s and ’90s the conventional food scene was a little more whitewashed than it is today. The terms local, organic and “farm to table” were not the esteemed labels they are nowadays. They were reserved for the fringe eaters, “hippie food”, California eccentrics and the wealthy who could afford to blow money on fad items. Artisanal, small-batch, “Mom and Pop” restaurants were often seen as inferior. We wanted our food fast and cheap, void of variation and complex flavor. The Big Mac was a premium hamburger, Roy Rogers made the best-fried chicken, and we wanted them by the bucket and bagful.
I thought Chi Chi’s and Taco Bell were authentic Mexican food. Chinese food was what you ate if you wanted something exotic and the pizza parlor was haute cuisine Italian style. My father would often stockpile fast food items in the freezer to be reheated in the microwave whenever a home-cooked meal needed to make way for the hustle and bustle of life.
My mother was much more health-conscious and would frequent our local food co-op. Alas, tofu, lentils, tea and goats milk couldn’t hold a candle to what the Saturday morning cartoon, candy pushers had to offer. My brother and I would watch commercial after commercial selling sugared happiness enrobed in red dye #40, lake blue, sunset yellow E110 and so on and so forth. We were convinced that this stuff was what dreams were made of. We wanted Nerds, Gobstoppers, Pop Rocks and Atomic Fireballs. Days where I managed to score a Twinkie or a package of Sno Balls were the best!
What a bleak culinary outlook influenced by chain restaurants, corporations and chemical companies, luckily there was a beacon of hope that helped guide me to a culinary awakening. Spaghetti dinner! My father is second generation Italian and you could tell that there was something special about spaghetti dinner that spoke to his soul.
My father did make a few other specialties besides spaghetti, like polenta and lasagna but spaghetti dinner was an almost weekly event. If you were a guest at our house you were definitely going to be served a giant bowl of spaghetti. One of the greatest things about spaghetti dinner was that no matter what was going on in the world I knew spaghetti meant that we were going to sit at the dining room table and eat together as a family.
My father chopped the vegetables with pride and taught me exactly when to add the pasta to the water and exactly when to take it out. He taught me that it was Italian blasphemy to serve spaghetti sauce on the side or haphazardly poured over the pasta. You have to cook the pasta in the sauce for a minute or two to get every delicious strand coated and flavored with the sauce.
Then there was the parmesan. Parmesan is a very personal choice never assume that you know a persons preferred ratio. It’s best to leave the parmesan on the side so that people can choose more or less. My dad would often exclaim “Mangia Mangia”. This was pretty cute. Despite having heard some Italian growing up, it was the only word that he knew and he clearly enjoyed using it.
Now admittedly my father had taken to the use of Prego spaghetti sauce. The chopping of the vegetables and the boiling of the water were the homemade parts of spaghetti dinner but still the concept stayed with me. There was a better way to eat. A meal made with fresh ingredients, pride and heritage. A little of this and a little of that. It didn’t always come out exactly the same but there was an artistry to it. There was a maker….a cook……a chef! What was offered up at the dinner table was so good that it had the power to bring family and friends together.
Now with decades of cooking under my belt I still remember my father’s spaghetti and the lessons it taught me. Not My Father’s Spaghetti all’ Amatricana is an homage to my father and my childhood. It is my recipe for that get everyone to the table meal. Goodbye Prego, hello homemade deliciousness!
- 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 3/4 pound pancetta or guanciale (you can use thick cut bacon as a last resort thick cut (1/4 inch) diced or cut into lardons.)
- 2 medium yellow onions (chopped)
- 1 tablespoon light brown sugar (don't freak out trust me.)
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 6 cloves of garlic (finely minced)
- 2-28 oz cans whole (peeled, San Marzano or plum tomatoes, hand crushed skins and hard bits removed)
- 1/4 cup rough chopped basil (more for garnish)
- 1 pound dried spaghetti (linguine or bucatini)
- 1/4 cup chiffonade or rough chopped basil
- 1/4 Pecorino Romano (more if you are feeding cheese lovers)
- Coat the bottom of a large saute pan with olive oil and place over medium heat. When the oil begins to shimmer add the pancetta and cook until most of its fat has rendered and the pieces have begun to brown and crisp.
- Remove the pancetta from the pan leaving the rendered fat. Add the onions and the brown sugar to the fat and cook on medium-low heat until the onion becomes soft and begin caramelizing, about 20-30 minutes (do not allow to burn).
- Add the garlic and the crushed red pepper. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the tomato and 2/3 of the cooked pancetta and bring everything to a boil. Once boiling reduce the heat and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.
- Check for consistency and seasoning. Add more salt or water if necessary. Add 1/4 cup of basil and turn down the heat to the very lowest setting just to keep it warm until the pasta is done.
- Reserve 1-2 cups of the sauce from the pan
- Cook the pasta according to the directions minus 2 minutes (al dente)
- Drain the pasta
- Add the drained pasta directly into the pan with the sauce. Cook over medium-low heat for 1-3 minutes until well combined, adding some of the reserved pasta sauce if necessary.
- Transfer the finished pasta to a large warmed serving bowl or individual bowls.
- Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, grated Pecorino Romano, basil chiffonade and the remainder of the crisped pancetta.