Friday, April 20, 2012

Pasta All'Amatriciana - a Food Photography Challenge

The memory is fading slightly, but if I close my eyes and focus intently I can still picture René's smile as he refilled my glass of Italian house wine and made sure my Penne Pasta with Tomatoes and Basil was to my liking.  And indeed it was.  Returning his smile, my husband and I sighed with pleasure while savoring the tastes and aromas of Rome.

Crusty Bruschetta doused in olive oil and balsamic only enhanced the freshness of the diced tomatoes flavored with garlic that were served on the side.  Parmesan, freshly grated from a chunk of cheese over my steaming pasta, served to add depth to the dish.  And lastly, the Tiramisu, tender and mocha flavored with a hint of Amaretto and a delightful dusting of cocoa.  Ahh... but that one is for another post.

Opening my eyes I find myself back in San Diego where everything resembling Italian is served in a big way.  Trying numerous restaurants in desperate attempts to recreate our lunch in the shadow of the Roman Colosseum, we've given up as we can't take any more disappointments.  Meal after advertised traditional Italian meal has not lived up to our memory instead serving giant-sized portions of pasta smothered in some sort of tomato-like sauce.

Perhaps our memories are clouded with a veil of vacation bliss, but I've begun to think that I won't be getting that perfect traditional Italian Pasta without returning to Italy.  My dear husband, however, has said that unfortunately the current budget does not really seem to be expecting two such trips in less than 6 months.  Hence, I'm on my own.

As luck would have it, my Food Photography and Styling group, The Inspired Plate, offered up this month's challenge as:  Pasta.  Could I make a traditional Italian Pasta Sauce myself?  With no current trip to Italy booked, it's worth a try.

A chance sighting at a local market of La Cucina Italiana's Pasta Issue had me paying a rare full price for a magazine, in addition to spending over an hour in a steamy, bubbly bath with a glass of Chianti as I devoured the recipes on the glossy pages.  Pure, simple and classically Italian, recipe after recipe caught my eye.  However, procrastination left me with a mere 48 hours to cook and shoot my pasta challenge.

By 8 AM garlic and prosciutto sauteeing in olive oil had the house smelling reminiscent of the Roman streets, and the addition of thinly sliced onion only served to add more authenticity.  With my freshly brewed espresso in hand, I sighed with slight disappointment as I pulled my can opener from the drawer to open the canned tomatoes which I luckily had stocked in the pantry.  With our tomato season still months off, and myself being a self proclaimed tomato snob, I knew the red globes on the store shelves would surely not meet my standards with their white, pithy insides.

White wine along with the tomatoes finished off the sauce, and as the concoction stewed I worked to set up my photo scene.  Quickly reminding myself I'm no Martha Stewart or Tartlette, I struggled to place props in appealing formations.  Luckily the sauce was meant to simmer for a while, and over half an hour later I had a somewhat agreeable arrangement only missing the food.  Cutting the bread as the pasta boiled, I poured a glass of wine (a prop at only 9 AM!) and set out the cheese and pepper.

Unable to resist, I prepared a bowl to taste before preparing the pretty bowl for my photo.  Sitting at the table with a touch of excitement coursing through my body, I took a bite.  Closing my eyes it all came back... René the waiter, the pasta, the sounds of the cars speeding over the loose cobblestones,  the cocoa on the tiramisu, the motorbikes zipping around corners and the soothing chatter of the Italian language.  Yes, this dish brought it back.  Inhaling deeply, I took in the tastes and aromas of Rome... right here in my San Diego kitchen.

Living Life in Rome - 11/11
For more glorious past photos, take a trip around our Inspired Plate Blog Circle starting with Kat Clark.

Pasta All'Amatriciana
adapted from La Cucina Italiana - The Pasta Issue
Classic and traditional, this flavorful sauce originates from the city of Amatrice.

1 1/2 pounds tomatoes (or two 14 oz. cans)
1/4 cup diced pancetta (we used prosciutto)
3 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 to 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes 
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 pound spaghetti or other pasta
freshly grated Parmesan Cheese
freshly ground pepper

If using whole tomatoes, peel tomatoes.  (Plunge whole tomatoes in a boiling pot of water for about 30 seconds.  Drain, then peel).  Dice the tomatoes and set aside.

Heat oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat.  Add diced pancetta or prosciutto, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until slightly crisped, about 5 minutes - stirring frequently.  Remove meat from the pan and set aside.

Add the thinly slice onion, crushed red pepper flakes and sliced garlic to the oil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens, about 4 minutes.  Add the white wine increasing the heat to medium and continue cooking until most of the wine has evaporated, about 3 minutes.

Add the canned tomatoes (or freshly diced that you set aside earlier) and meat, reducing heat to low and simmer, covered, until the sauce thickens, about 45 minutes.

Cook pasta according to the package directions.  Drain when done and transfer to a large bowl.  Add the sauce and toss to combine.  Serve with freshly grated Parmesan Cheese, fresh pepper and a few sprinkles of parsley for garnish.


  1. What an AWESOME post Kim!! I'm so jealous you went to Italy and hope you can get back soon! Love the styling and all your different photos. You did an amazing job and it's a wonderfully written post. :)

  2. Rome! What I would give to take a trip soon with my hubby! I loved reading your post! Your setup is perfection!!! Makes me feel like I'm there!

  3. Oh Kim what an awesome story and lovely images to go along with it. I'd love to go to Italy one day...**sigh** I love your use of props and all the different angles. Well done. :)

  4. I really have to watch myself or I find I am making past 24/7. It is definitely my go-to dish. This sounds amazing and I hope it made you remember your wonderful trip!

  5. My mouth is watering at your descriptions just as much as that fantastic photo! Amazing writing, amazing shot Kim. I love this. You brought back many wonderful memories of my time in Italy with this post. Simply lovely all around.

  6. Loved LOVED your post and copy.. Amazing writing as always my friend! I'm kinda excited.. nnnoo REALLY excited for what's in store for you. You have grown so much through the years as an editorial food writer.. and your photo's are resplendent of your talent! Thank you for taking us on a virtual tour and a sit down meal at your Roman San Diego ristorante. I can taste that sauce.. love simmered pancetta and tomatoes in olive oil. Yumm!! Love your photo's Kim!! They are definitely La Cucina Italian worthy!! My FAVORITE Magazine.. EVER!!!! :) xoxo

  7. What a great post! You did a fantastic job of describing your experience...I can visualize the whole scene! The pasta looks amazing. I am glad that you were able to recreate such a pleasurable experience!

  8. Or the little old lady beating her rug on an upper apartment balcony? I can't believe you were able to take me back there as well. I can see and taste it all.

    You know, Mario Batali always uses San Mateo canned tomato in his sauces. Just had to tell you. He uses fresh if they're going to be barely cooked or eaten raw. Otherwise, he believes that brand of canned is equal to the task.

    Either way, you pasta dish is perfection.

  9. Geeze I just had lunch and you are still making me hungry. Great writing and beautiful images. I love the bread in the background and the bright colors.

  10. I must say that your pasta looks utterly divine! I cannot believe how perfect your styling is :D

    Choc Chip Uru

  11. You photos are beautiful, your story is lovely and the recipe looks great. For all the great prop styling, though, my favorite photo is the one of you and your hubby enjoying glasses of wine at the dinner table :)

  12. Beautifully done, Kim. I swear that everything tasted better in Italy...the melon, the tomatoes, the cheese. I'm so glad this dish brought you back to Rome.

    PS...the 4th photo with the bowl and the cork is fantastic!

  13. Lovely pictures...and lovely pasta! I love amatriaciana...have made it a time or two and always loved how the pancetta gives it such a nice smoky flavor!!

  14. Great post! Loved hearing about your trip! This pasta looks delicious. I love light pasta dishes like this one!

  15. The pictures in this are fantastic. This post reminds me of my trip to Italy, only our tour selected a lot of really bad restaurants. At one hotel my wife offered to have me go back into the kitchen and show them how to make an Italian meal. Glad you ha a better eating experience than we did.

  16. As always, your words flow perfectly and your photography makes me drool.....great post! We are have been in pasta mode this week, it's always best when made from scratch at home!

  17. What an amazing post and great pics. I haven't had lunch yet, and now I'm absolutely starving and drooling for your pasta:-)

  18. Could not love this more. The images are absolutely stunning. Honestly. (I want some for my kitchen walls!). And the story to go along with it. You are a woman after my heart! Phenomenal job, Kim!!!

  19. Awesome!! It's 8am and I'm craving pasta for breakfast! Beautiful lighting and colors! I, too, am incredibly jealous of your travels!!

  20. This is gorgeous, and so my kind of pasta. I love the simple, yet amazing flavors here! So authentic!

  21. What a great post! So jealous, Italy is high on my list of places I want to visit. This pasta looks simple, but so delicious!

  22. Adam loves this post as it reminds him of his years in Rome, smelling the garlic and pancetta in the streets and gorging himself on pastas... all'amatricana, alla putanesca, so many delicious variations. Looks like you rose to the photo challenge, these are really nice potos.

  23. Your post really helpful for my research and developed.

    Pasta in Algeria


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