It occurred to me just the other day that despite my lifelong fascination with food, I never really write about cooking on the site. It’s odd, because although I write about restaurants here quite a bit, I typically cook most of my own meals. I’m a staunch devotee of the enormous Saturday farmer’s market at the Ferry Building, and often check out other smaller markets around San Francisco. I love to hunt down all the best things, and take the time to cook them up just right.

They say we tend to inherit our food habits from our grandparents, and I suppose Angelina, my father’s mother, was the culprit in my case. She and my grandfather lived just a few blocks away when I was a small child, and to enter her home was to consent to a meal. Grandma (or Mama, as all of the adults knew her) always had something going on in the kitchen. She raised eleven children, and several of them were typically present in the dining room at any one time, arguing, laughing and eating beneath the framed copy of The Last Supper  that hung over the table.

I was too young to know it then, but she was teaching me the rudiments of the food I would grow to love. Simple Italian recipes, in her case prepared in the style of Calabria, where she and my grandfather Luigi were born. This was peasant food, emphasizing vegetables and inexpensive staples like pasta and beans. Each visit began in the same way: once I had assured her that I was not, in fact, hungry, she would proceed to make me something delicious. Often it was a simple, garlicky bowl of wilted spinach with beans, something I still love to this day.

Bucatini All'Amatriciana - amatriciana

The Bucatini All’Amatriciana at Lupa Osteria Romana in New York. | Photo: Melville G., Yelp

This lesson wasn’t about recipes, though. Mainly, my grandmother taught me that food was love. She showed me a thousand times that when people come into your home, there is no better way to welcome them properly than to cook. Make them something special; something warm and delicious that makes the kitchen smell wonderful. Let them see how happy you are that they came. I’ll never forget that lesson, and it has been part of every great meal that I’ve enjoyed since.

So I’m going to be writing about cooking, and this is my first piece. Most of the material is going to be focused on simple techniques, free-form recipes and tips on ingredients. This is because I’ve always believed that cooking is 80% shopping, and once you’ve got the right stuff in the pantry, the rest is knowing a few simple techniques. If you’ve got those bases covered, you can always come up with something good–recipes be damned.

Today, I’m going to roll through my go-to crowd pleaser: Bucatini All’Amatriciana. This is a classic Roman dish that I stole from Mark Ladner’s kitchen at Lupa Osteria Romana in Lower Manhattan circa 2002, simplified and made better (kidding, Mark. You’re the man.). If you are unfamiliar with the dish, it’s basically a spicy tomato sauce loaded with bacon, onions and garlic, and it is an absolute knockout. My quick version below is done with top-quality canned Italian tomatoes, so it can be prepared any time of year.


  • Six ounces guanciale, pancetta or best-quality bacon*
  • One 28 oz. can of San Marzano Italian whole tomatoes packed in their own juice (these MUST be imported, do not fall for San Marzano “style”; the ones marked “DOC” are the very best)
  • One half large red onion, cut in 1/4 inch half moons
  • One half large yellow onion, minced
  • Six to seven cloves of garlic, sliced thinly
  • One rounded teaspoon of red pepper flakes
  • One teaspoon of dried thyme
  • 1/4 lb. of good pecorino, grated
  • Four tablespoons of Reggiano parmigiano (optional)
  • 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
  • One lb. bucatini (preferably DeCecco or Rummo)
  • Sea salt

*Note: Roman chefs specify an unsmoked variant of cured pork for the dish called guanciale, a cut that comes from the hog’s jowls. Guanciale has a very delicate flavor, and is mostly made up of fat; once rendered, that fat is used to cook with (in this case, the onions and garlic to start the sauce). I love good guanciale, but it’s an intensely ‘porky’ product that doesn’t appeal to everyone, particularly during the cooking process (it can smell funny to some).

It can also be hard to procure, and for this recipe can be replaced with either pancetta or highest-quality fatty bacon. And though the recipe doesn’t specifically call for it, when using smoked bacon, I find it actually adds an appealing note to the dish’s flavor.

To start out, cut the bacon into 3” strips (about 1/4” thick, maybe a little thinner). Coat a pan with the olive oil, heat it to medium and toss in the bacon. Cook around 9-12 minutes, until the bacon is browning and fat is well rendered.

Toss in the onion, and a couple of minutes later add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook over medium/low heat an additional 6-8 minutes, or until lightly golden. There should be a little bit of onion and garlic starting to stick to the pan.

Add tomatoes directly from the can to the pan, crushing them by hand one at a time into the bacon and onion mixture. Take extra care to smash the denser tops of each tomato, and to remove any skin or basil leaves that you find. Add remaining tomato juice, strained to remove any leaves or skin. Salt to taste, add thyme. Remember that salt is crucial in any dish using tomatoes; San Marzanos are exceptionally sweet, so make sure these get enough salt for best results.

Simmer at low to medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 20-25 minutes. When the sauce is complete, the tomatoes should be entirely cooked down and well incorporated, and should have a dense, almost unguent texture. Remove about 1/4 of the sauce and put in a container for later, or place in a serving bowl on the table for those who want extra.

The bucatini should be boiled in well-salted water (the water should taste “as salty as the sea”). Remember that 95% of the salt you put in the water goes down the drain, so don’t worry about the amount–and use the cheap stuff. I use 2 tablespoons when cooking a pound of pasta.

Start checking the pasta two minutes before the lower number on the pasta box. Keep it on the al dente  side, and be careful, because bucatini can be hard to read. Drain it, and for pete’s sake, don’t rinse it. 

Put the bucatini directly into the pan with the sauce, and toss until thoroughly coated. Serve immediately, and top liberally with the cheese. There is an old Italian saying reserved for this moment: Pasta waits for no one. Yell if you must.

And Buon Appetito!