Trust the Italians to meet disaster with food.
While nobody is making light of Wednesday’s earthquake that struck Amatrice, a small town in the Appenine mountains about 70 miles as the crow flies from Rome, several independent efforts have sprung up to use the town’s signature dish — spaghetti all’ amatriciana — to help relief efforts.
What is it? Mostly tomato, with a little cured pork cheek, sheep’s milk cheese and a touch of hot chili — at least in its pure form. But there are many versions out there, especially in the U.S.
“We need to move quickly,” he wrote, suggesting that everyone give one euro (about $1.13) for each plate of pasta all’amatriciana they bought and ate.
Apparently independently, Foodiamo, an Italian-food-focused website, is organizing a fundraising campaign with several Italian restaurants in Los Angeles. And Maialino restaurant in New York and many others have decided to use pasta — not just all’ amatriciana — to gather donations.
In Italy, too, the idea is feeding people’s desire to help.
In just two days, Campana said on Facebook, more than 700 restaurants had agreed to raise money this way.
The town of Assisi, about 46 miles northwest of Amatrice, quickly announced it would join Campana’s campaign. Restaurants there are adding the dish to their menu and will give one euro (some reports say two) per portion served.
The move is partially in solidarity for the help that Assisi received after its own earthquake disaster of 1997, Assisi’s mayor, Stefania Proietti, explained in a video posted on Facebook in which she is seen eating a lunchtime bowl of pasta all’ amatriciana.
The Italian Red Cross is coordinating relief efforts, with a clever image that plays on the ama — meaning love — in amatriciana. The Red Cross suggests a donation of two euros, one for the victims of the earthquake, and one for the Red Cross itself.
Before the quake struck, Amatrice was set to host the 50th anniversary of a festival, or sagra, celebrating pasta all’ amatriciana this weekend. Relief efforts focused on the dish have united pasta lovers and temporarily diverted attention from the controversy surrounding both the recipe and its association with Amatrice. And enthusiasts on social media are trying to organize a virtual sagra, planning to share images online and donate to help quake victims.
The canonical version contains just four ingredients, aside from pasta: tomatoes — ideally canned or jarred, guanciale (salted, cured pork cheek), pecorino sheep’s milk cheese, and some flakes of peperoncini, dried hot chilli.
The pasta, some will tell you, must be bucatini, long like spaghetti but fatter, and with a hole down the center. Others say spaghetti is best, but you can also find amatriciana hiding in large, ridged tubes of rigatoni.
In Amatrice, however, the sauce is served with spaghetti. Last year, in a huge public spat with an Italian television chef, the mayor of Amatrice insisted that the sauce also contained not only white wine but also both peperoncini and black pepper. That formulation was quickly denounced by top chefs in Rome.
In Rome, onion can put in an appearance, as can white wine, black pepper and even olive oil. The guanciale can be soft and unctuous or crispy as crackling. Elsewhere, it seems, there’s no limit to what some chefs will put in the dish and still retain its name.
As for the link with Amatrice, that, too, is contested. A “white” version, known as gricia and containing only guanciale and pecorino, has been associated with the mountain shepherds of the area for centuries. But tomatoes, probably canned because they don’t grow well around Amatrice, were a late addition, possibly as recently as after the Second World War. And they might first have been added in Rome rather than in Amatrice.
Heated discussions about the “authentic” recipe and history of any specialty are an inescapable ingredient of Italian cooking. What nobody is arguing about today is that spaghetti all’ amatriciana is both delicious and good way to raise funds for the rescue and reconstruction.
Jeremy Cherfas is a biologist and science journalist based in Rome.