A few days ago the New York Times published this article on the pasta sauce Amatriciana. It was a loving portrait of the town of Amatrice, but I thought it contained a lot of questionable assertions about Amatricina. Although I doubt it will be published, I wrote this letter to the editor in reply. For my own recipe, check this out.
In defense of Marcella’s Amatriciana
I read with interest Stephen Hall’s loving portrait of the town of Amatrice and the pasta sauce (Amatriciana) which takes its name from it. His description of Amatrice, all but destroyed by a 2016 earthquake, and its slow recovery were moving and valuable.
His discussion of the pasta sauce, however, left much to be desired. His criticism of Marcella Hazan’s recipe was especially troubling. Mr. Hall’s search for the “real Amatriciana” led him down a common but unfortunate road in pursuit of a kind of non-existent purity, as if such a thing as the “real Amatriciana” could possibly exist. This approach to cooking is akin to one who looks for the “real” Beethoven by playing only on period instruments or the real Hamlet by performing with an English accent.
Cooking, like music, is about taste, judgment, and expression. Slavish reliance on recipes and formulae are antithetical to good cooking, as Marcella knew and taught. She knew that good cooking contained an element of improvisation and personality without creeping into the more questionable territory of “creative” cooking.
Mr. Hall criticizes Marcella’s use of butter in her recipe for Amatriciana, and in his article chefs from Amatrice heap on the scorn on the idea as well. But this only shows the small-mindedness which too often plagues and holds back proud and provincial Italians. Marcella knew better. Having lived in Rome, she surely knew that olive oil was the traditional cooking fat in Amatriciana. But she also had a palate. She knew that good cooking tasted like it came from a real person whose personality came through in the dish. Marcella was a human being of course and wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t a “goddess”, but a cook with personality. Her cooking was not the soulless, anonymous cooking of most restaurants, but the personal cooking of the home. A little butter in her amatriciana surely created a texture and flavor which she preferred to the “official” version from Amatrice.
No, Mr. Hall, by cooking Marcella’s version all these years you haven’t been “doing it wrong”. Perhaps, you were not cooking the “real Amatriciana”, whatever that might be. You were cooking Marcella’s Amatriciana to be sure, but there’s no reason that hers might not have been the one to provide the most pleasure to you. Maybe you were right all along.