It has been a while since I have published a post, but earlier this summer I decided I was going to pick up this blog again. Finally, today I have decided to explore a couple of works of art that are very close to my culture and country.
As you can probably guess from most of my posts, I grew up in Italy and so a lot of my experience with food is connected to this country. As probably many of you have heard on the news and on social media, Italy is experiencing a very tough few couple of days. The center regions of Italy, Marche, Umbria and Lazio have been hit by a terrible earthquake.
Fortunately, my family lives far from the area and everything is ok, but I still can’t wrap my head around the many many deaths (now 291), wounded people, people who are still under the rubble and debris, and who have lost their families and homes. The towns that were hit the hardest are the towns of Amatrice, Accumuli, Arquata del Tronto. The mayor of Amatrice says: “Half the town no longer exists”. And it is true, I keep checking the news and look at pictures and the town looks completely destroyed, buildings completely wiped out by the earthquake and reduced to debris. The town is in terrible conditions and the work that firemen, the civil protection department and many volunteers are doing is immense, and still there are people that have not been found and that are probably under what was once their home.
But how is this is connected to Art of Food? Well, for once I decided that I wanted to talk about a specific recipe first, rather than a work of art. The dish I’ll be talking about today is Pasta all’Amatriciana. The famous dish from the central region of Italy: a delicious pasta with a silky tomato sauce, savory Pancetta (cured pork cheek) a bit of red chillies and Pecorino, (sheep’s milk cheese). Well, as you could probably tell from the name, “Amatriciana” comes from Amatrice, the town that has been hit by the earthquake.
I researched about the history of Amatriciana and found that is a dish that originated in the mountains of Amatrice, in the Appenines. It seems like the recipe has been around since the 15th and 16th century. As Chef Gabriele Bertaccini explains in his blog that the dish was prepared by migrant shepherds with available ingredients like guanciale, pecorino and pasta. This recipe was called “pasta alla gricia” and is now known as Amatriciana bianca, “white amatriciana”. It was only after the introduction of tomato to Europe from Latin America in the 17th century, that tomato became a staple in the dish.
It is so interesting that we associate tomato as an iconic Italian food, when it was introduced way later than many other dishes. Pasta with tomato sauce, which is the iconic Italian dish, is a more recent invention. Pasta on the other hand has been around for centuries. My junior year of college I took an amazing class on the “History of Italian gastronomy”. We read old cooking manuals starting from the 13th century in the Middle Ages, up to post WWII Italy. It is amazing to read these recipes and see how flavors changed, how some ingredients disappeared from the Italian table and how some were introduced, tomato for example. It is interesting to see how we find pasta in 13th century books, but as something completely different that what we know it to be today, it was eaten with vinegar, sugar, and many other complex ingredients. Pasta as we know it today is a recipe from the 19th century. It is said that pasta became a staple of southern Italy, especially Naples, as we can see in many photos from that period portraying the “Mangiamaccheroni”, (Spaghetti eaters). Spaghetti were popular in the streets, as street food. I found some old photographs, that I think are truly works of art. I especially like old photographs because of the quality of the image and because they were first taken in black and white and then colored. These photos seem to be used for postcards of Naples and became such an iconic image, that these very photos became a city mural. I also like the work by Giorgio Sommer, as it looks very staged. The people and the props seem to be carefully placed to replicate a natural scene.
It is during the 19th century that pasta became popular all over Italy. Spaghetti with tomato sauce was infact part of the army staple diet during the Italian unification. The story of pasta and moreover how gastronomy changed in Italy is explained in Al Dente by Fabio Parasecoli, a great read if you are interested in gastronomy, history and culture.
Pasta and spaghetti have then become the icon for Italy and Italian food abroad. I chose to use a frame from the film An American in Rome by Steno as today’s work of art, representing Alberto Sordi eating spaghetti. In the famous movie scene Sordi wants to eat like an “American” trying to combine mustard, jam, and milk, a real concoction, and then is tempted by the Italian steaming maccheroni as he says: “Maccherone, mi hai provocato, e mo te distruggo” (Maccheroni you provoked me, so now I destroy you). Here is the scene from the movie, a must see classic.
Alberto Sordi in An American in Rome
But now that we have some context, back to the main issue: the terrible earthquake in Italy. This weekend the town of Amatrice was supposed to be having their 50th Amatriciana festival, celebrating the wonderful tasty dish. Now that the town is destroyed and the population in distress, Italian chef Paolo Campana in collaboration with the Italian Red Cross, launched an initiative to have the festival virtually. Many restaurants in Italy and all around the world are participating to the initiative. For each dish of Amatriciana, and is some cases any pasta dish, the restaurant will donate 2 euros: one coming from the merchant, and one from the client. The money will be donated to the Italian Red Cross to help the towns and people hit by the earthquake. Please consider going out and eating in one of these places if you can, as it is a very important and clever initiative. If not, just consider donating, here are some instructions.
I am truly saddened and I can’t even begin to think about the hard and terrible times these people are going through. I am donating to help these towns and people get back on their feet, please consider doing so as well. Enjoy a nice steamy plate of Amatriciana and think of helping the people of Amatrice and the other towns.