Back in September, while traveling in Italy, I wrote up an ambitious Roman Party menu as part of one of the Project Food Blog challenges. While I conducted extensive research to come up with this menu, I unfortunately didn’t have the chance to cook it in Rome, being too limited in both space and tools in my small Trastevere apartment and also lacking the requisite friends to invite. When I returned home, my suitcase was full of delicious souvenirs I wanted to share with my friends, but I waited for the just the right occasion to invite everybody over and cook my Roman feast dinner party menu.
A Roman Dinner Party
Welcome cocktail: Limoncello
Platter: Pecorino-Romano and Honey, Aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, Roasted Figs, Fig “Salami” & Fennel-Scented Salami.
To Drink: Champagne for the birthday girl
Classic Bruschetta & Grilled Lemon Shrimp on Arugula
To Drink: Folonari Pinot Grigio 2009
Cacio e Pepe
To Drink: Masi Modellissimo
Secondi Piatti & Contorni
Involtini Alla Romana
Spinach Salad with Crisp Pancetta
Zucchine a ‘Scapece
To Drink: Allegrini Valpolicella 2009
Dark Chocolate Gelato
To Drink: Vinsanto del Chianti Classico, Vignamaggio, 2000
One of my friends was turning 35 at the end of November, and her boyfriend wanted to make her a surprise party. I volunteered, knowing the birthday girl would love everything on my Roman menu, and I enlisted the help of my friend Lucie to assist me in preparing everything. There would be 11 guests at the table, so we planned everything a week in advance. I wrote up a shopping list, reserved some time in my schedule to go to the grocery store, and my friend promised to come and cook with me.
Lucie came over the day before the party, and we split up all the tasks between what could be done in advance and what had to be done at the last minute. We ended up doing the bulk of the work during our first afternoon, so when she came back the following day, we only had a few, small last-minute tasks left to take care of. We then had plenty of time to relax, paint our nails, get dressed, and have a drink while we waited for everybody to arrive.
I’m proud to report that the evening was a great success. Over the course of dinner, we asked a couple of people to help us with specific tasks (pouring wine and water and clearing the table after each course), both to allow us to concentrate on service and to prevent the “everybody gets up to help” syndrome. Everything went smoothly, and the evening was a terrific experience for me.
There was one particular dish that I was very eager to try: the Bucatini All’Amatriciana. First, bucatini pasta are a party to eat in and of themselves: shaped like very long and thin macaroni (imagine a spaghetti with a fine hole in the middle), they are known as the most difficult pasta to eat, because they don’t seem to enjoy cuddling with forks. They curl up and roll off every time you lift up your fork, and they continually threaten to splash the sauce that they’re coated in onto you.and your clothes. Why would you want to eat bucatini? Because they are very popular in Rome, and their coarse nature is precisely what makes them so pleasurable to eat–a great bite and the perfect pasta to host the delicious and legendary Amatriciana sauce.
The sauce was the second but most important reason as to why I couldn’t wait to make this dish. Its main ingredient is guanciale, a special and precious variety of cured bacon made from pig cheeks. Back in Rome, I was given a huge chunk of guanciale by a very kind butcher, remember? It was vacuum-packed, so I lovingly carried it back home. I couldn’t wait to taste its promising, luscious flavor in the Amatriciana sauce, which was how the butcher and our guide, Eleanora, said we would best enjoy it.
Well, the recipe delivered, and it alone made my trip worthwhile. The flavor of the sauce was spicy and rich, the guanciale providing a subtle smoked flavor and its fat melting to a creaminess that coated our palates. This is not a recipe to make if you’re on a diet, but why would you be on one while a piece of guanciale is waiting for you in the refrigerator?
I suspect that guanciale isn’t something that’s so easy to find on our side of the ocean – I know I can’t find it in Quebec City. Your best chance is an Italian grocery store or a very good butcher that keeps terroir products. If you can’t find it, you can still make this recipe with unsmoked pancetta. Buy it sliced very thickly so that you can dice it and get the best texture in your sauce.
This recipe comes from our guide in Rome, Eleanora. She mentions in her recipe that the use of onions in the Amatriciana sauce is somewhat debatable amongst Italians. I loved it with onions, but I will be curious to raise the question on my next visit to Rome. I’m sure it’ll be a very entertaining discussion!
Makes 4 servings
200 g (1 cup) guanciale (or unsmoked pancetta), diced
400 g (14 oz) whole canned tomatoes, crushed
1 small while onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 glass of dry white wine (about ½ cup)
1 cup pecorino-romano cheese, grated
½ cup parmigiano-reggino cheese, grated
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
500 g (1.1 lb) dry bucatini pasta (of the thickest spaghetti you can find)
Fry the guanciale in olive oil over low heat until golden and crisp. You’ll have a lot of fat in the pan but that’s ok, you want to keep it all. Add the onion and sprinkle in the peperoncino flakes. When the onion is translucent, splash with the wine and boil to evaporate it. Add the tomatoes and cook uncovered for 10 minutes. Lower the heat to the minimum to keep the sauce warm while the pasta boils.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, add some salt and plunge the pasta in the water. Set a timer for a minute less that the cooking time specified by the manufacturer. Shortly before the pasta is ready, scoop up a ½ cup of starchy pasta cooking water.
Drain the pasta and pour it in the tomato sauce skillet. Add the grated cheeses and the reserved pasta cooking water. Cook for a few minutes more, mixing and rocking the skillet to coat the strands evenly. Serve piping hot with more grated cheese if necessary (believe me, it is.)
A sweet ending: White chocolate and pistachio biscotti, dark chocolate gelato and fresh raspberries with a glass of Vinsanto del Chianti Classico.