What is it called?
Amatriciana? or Matriciana? Well, this is another of those culinary-slash-etymological Italian domestic feuds that divide the country. And the closer you get to the Latium boundary lines the more oversensitive people are about this matter.
So, how to behave when there’s no chance of guessing on which side of the barricade you are, without hurting anybody’s feelings and sparing yourselves the consequent inevitable bore of a “corrective class” about Italian culinary dogmas?
Be vague! Let the natives name it first and go with the flow. Let them know what you know: it must be done with guanciale – not with pancetta! – with pecorino romano cheese – not parmigiano! – blame those foolish who add onion or garlic, and you will gain their trust.
Amatrice is the village in Latium where this sauce has the origins. Both names have the same meaning: “the Amatrice way”. “Amatriciana” in official Italian language, “Matriciana” in Roman dialect. So both are correct.
The origins of a legend
This recipe is actually a variation of the ancient “Gricia“, which you already know and which is made with cheek lard only. Tomatoes, as I mentioned already, have been brought to Italy after the discovery of the New World and had been imported at first as an ornamental plant. Obviously, the aesthetic standards and habits of that age were quite different from ours, but this is not the only example of plants on the edge between the kitchen and its window sill.
Tomatoes were so misunderstood at first, that around 1550, the Italian botanist and doctor Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1500 – 1570) classified them as a poisonous species because of their high content of solanine (common also to potatoes) which was considered to be dangerous for human health… but at least, the smarty-pants admitted of having heard rumors about somebody brave enough – or hungry enough – to eat the fried fruits of the plant back in those times already. And that is actually the very first yet vague evidence of tomatoes as an edible food: even their first growers, the Peruvian people, considered them only a decorative element. It has been in the 17th century that finally tomatoes have been discovered as a food and only at the end of the 18th century France and southern Italy started growing them intentionally for food-producing.
I could go on adding bits and dates and names, but I do not want to bore you; also, you can easily find a lot about this subject on the internet yourself. But no matter how good can anybody be at googling things, for sure nobody will ever find out how and when some anonymous guy, in a small village lost in the centre of Italy, had the potty idea of throwing some chopped tomatoes on top of the frying guanciale and started bragging to his neighbors about it, turning a masterpiece into a legend.
Find the recipe for “Pasta a la Matriciana” here.