On our first night in Rome, we were tired. The journey had included two masked flights, two times through airport security, a tense Customs experience with lots of verifying COVID vaccination and testing. So, by the time we landed in Italy, arrived at our hotel (via disgruntled taxi driver), checked in and unpacked, we were completely exhausted. And hungry.
When in Rome, hungry is a good thing to be. Actually, there’s probably no better place in the world to be hungry. In Rome, there is a fabulous restaurant on every street, an outdoor bistro table with your name on it in every neighborhood. And so, we left the hotel to find our own table. It wasn’t just any table I was looking for though, but one in a restaurant that served pasta all’amatriciana.
A traditional pasta dish, pasta all’amatriciana is based on cured guanciale (pork cheek), pecorino Romano cheese and tomato. It has a depth to it, due to the pork cheek, that simple tomato-basil sauce lacks. A subtle smokiness, a deep, full flavor, delicious when accompanied by a full-bodied red wine or, really it’s perfect just eaten with a big bib on so you can shovel it into your face. I’m not generally a big meat eater, and so initially was not familiar with pork cheek. It’s similar to pancetta or thick-cut bacon, and it’s wild how much flavor it adds to the tomato sauce. Personally, I pick the actual meat out and give it to my husband, who very happily accepts it into his own bowl; but as the flavor is cooked into the sauce, you don’t have to eat the pork to have an unrivaled pasta experience.
After that night in Rome, it was off to the Amalfi Coast. As the Coast is in a completely different region of the country, amatriciana cannot be found on the menus in southern Italy. There instead we find seafood, olive oil-based sauces, with lemon and simpler, fresher flavors being preferred. And while the pasta dishes on the coast are also fantastic, there was something about the flavors of all’amatriciana that lingered and beckoned us back to Rome. Something about those first-night flavors that stuck with us throughout the trip and made the return to the capital and the impending flight afterward seem less stressful.
On the train back to Rome, we scoured the internet to find the restaurant that had the best pasta all’amatriciana. Of course, there was no consensus. We looked at reviews by well known food critics, personal blogs and local websites written in Italian dialects we could barely puzzle out. We wanted to be certain to have the very best of our favorite dish on our last night. Knowing we wouldn’t find anything quite so authentic at home, we made it our mission.
It was dinner time on the last night of our trip and back in the Eternal City, we still didn’t know where to have dinner. What place truly had the best all’amatriciana? As we wandered down the stradas and vias, past the Colosseum, past tavernas and gelato shops, walking by bistro table after table filled with smoking, drinking, eating, loudly-talking patrons, we finally glanced a menu at one spot, and simply picked a table and sat. The place might not have been written up on any travel websites or voted “the best.” But it was beautiful outside, the sun was shining and our favorite pasta was on the menu. We were happy and we had pasta … who is to say it wasn’t the best all’amatriciana in all of Rome?