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Town devastated by earthquake is home to a beloved Italian tradition

Amatrice, almost destroyed by a quake that killed at least 120, is not on guidebooks — but Italians know it as the birthplace of pasta amatriciana.
Photo via EPA

The mountain town of Amatrice, which was devastated by the earthquake that hit central Italy on Wednesday, is not usually mentioned in the same breath as other celebrated hilltop towns in the area. Just 100 miles (150 kilometers) from Rome but nestled among the rugged Appennine mountains, it's not a destination mentioned in guidebooks: devoid of major artistic beauties, Amatrice doesn't get the love, and the tourist money, that nearby Orvieto and Assisi enjoy.


And the destruction wrought by the earthquake — the town is largely flattened, dozens are dead, and cold mountain nights will be miserable for thousands of homeless survivors in tent camps — is heartbreaking.

But to most Italians, Amatrice is a household word, associated with far happier times: pasta amatriciana, the bacon-and-tomato sauce-based dish that bears the town's name, is a beloved national staple.

Thanks to the mainstreaming of ethnic cuisines, and to the bacon craze sweeping the United States, it has become popular around the world, too. Amatriciana has been made by celebrity chefs on the Food Network, and can be found easily if you have a craving for it in Tokyo, want a risotto-based variation in Sao Paulo, or feel like going on a hunt for the best of its kind in Los Angeles.

"It's not ideal for fast restaurants," said Albano Ballerini, a Brooklyn-based chef from Italy's Marche region, who sometimes serves it as a special at his restaurant, Amorina. It demands a certain respect for tradition, he said, even though it's flexible enough to withstand deviations from the time-honored classic featuring cured pork cheeks, peeled tomatoes and sheep's-milk pecorino cheese.

Its history is an example of how humble Italian dishes, once the food of peasants, have been turned into globalized success stories. That significance is not lost on the city of Amatrice, whose official website features a page, in English, with the history of the dish.

"Amatrice is mostly famous for its gastronomic and culinary tradition, which has found its highest point of expression in the recipe for Spaghetti all'Amatriciana," says the website, which also cautions readers against thinking the dish was invented in Rome.

Local pride is strong in Italy, and the city of Amatrice wants people to know that it wasn't Romans who first put bacon and pecorino cheese on their pasta: It was the amatriciani shepherds who came to the city to sell their meats and cheeses in the 1600s, and made the dish popular. (Tomatoes were added about one century later, as the import from the New World spread through the peninsula. The sauce doesn't actually have to go on spaghetti: It works well with most pasta cuts. Ballerini said he puts it on bucatini, or even on semolina gnocchi.)

The transformation of amatriciana from hearty fare for the people to food fit for kings — quite literally — happened thanks to Roman chef Francesco Leonardi, who made the dish for a banquet hosted by Pope Pius VII for Austrian emperor Francis I in 1816. That's according to Italian food site Agrodolce, which explains that Leonardi was a rigorous follower of local culinary traditions, about two centuries before that became the fashionable attitude for chefs worldwide. And nothing was more local at the time than the amatriciana — a dish so popular in Roman taverns that the word "amatriciano" had become synonymous with "tavern owner."

In fact, according to Italian-American celebrity chef Mario Batali, Amatrice is "considered by many Italians to be birthplace of the best cooks on the peninsula." That may be a debatable statement in a country where people will go to great lengths to defend their local culinary traditions. But one thing is for sure: the great food legacy of Amatrice will no doubt survive the earthquake that destroyed its birthplace.