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Substituting ingredients in pasta all’Amatriciana is sacrilege

Like many foods that are both delicious and steeped in history, pasta all'Amatriciana has attracted a devout following of purists who feel it should always be made one way and never another.

The name quite literally indicates that the point of origin for this saucy dish starring tomatoes and ground pork is the town of Amatrice, in central Italy. What began as sustenance for shepherds has evolved into a perfect comfort food.

According to Amatrice's official website (there's a recipe there, if you want one), an authentic pasta all'Amatriciana contains the following ingredients: spaghetti, guanciale (cured pork jowl), olive oil, tomatoes, chilies, pecorino (a salty sheep's-milk cheese) and a drop of white wine. This is a dish that has been deified, so substituting or adding ingredients is often considered sacrilege – perhaps even more so following the tragic earthquake last summer in which the once-picturesque Amatrice was nearly destroyed.

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"Use one ingredient for another, it changes not only the flavour of a dish but also the history of it," Piergiuseppe Monteforte, then the deputy mayor of Amatrice, told The Guardian last year. "If you use ingredients like garlic or onion in an Amatriciana, it means you are ignoring a pastoral tradition that is almost 1,000 years old, passed down from generation to generation."

But Toronto chef Alida Solomon – who lived in Tuscany for seven years – says Amatriciana has countless variations. "It's a staple in every Italian home, and every family has their own version," she says.

Like many chefs, she prefers tube-shaped bucatini pasta to spaghetti because it retains sauce better. She adds red onion to her version, but avoids using chopped garlic, which can be overpowering.

At Vancouver's Tavola, chef Mike Jeffs also uses bucatini. He replaces guanciale with pancetta, which he says is easier to cure in-house. For him, the key to Amatriciana is less in the minutiae and more in the proper rendering of the pork fat during cooking, which serves as the flavour base for one of the world's great pastas.

"When you do that dish properly," Jeffs says, "you can throw away any other pasta dish in the world and just make that one for the rest of your life."

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