Sunday, November 13, 2011

Eating in Italy - a Guest Post by Rick Blechta

Today's Sunday and I (Vicki) am in darkest Africa. Literally. Therfore I've assigned the blogging duties to my good friend and fabulous mystery writer Rick Blechta. Rick knows food! And mysteries.

One of the many things we writers have to “suffer” through is doing research for our various projects. In the crime writing game, this can be especially important. Get your facts wrong and you’re sure to hear from readers who know the subject that you blew.

With that in mind, I always want to get things right. Since by training I’m a musician (and being blessed with a mind for all facts trivial), I use music as a background for my novels. If I’m not already familiar with something, I know another musician who is. However, also being pretty foolish, I often bring things into my stories about which I have no idea. That sort of thing can eat up a lot of valuable hours (and money) as I bring myself up to speed on whatever it is I don’t know much about.

Which brings me to Italy – literally. I’m currently working on the follow-up to a novel that will be released next fall, The Fallen One. This story’s protagonist is a singer. For the sequel, it seemed to me useful to set some of the story in Italy, where opera is a part of the culture. Having never been to Italy, I needed to get that all important first-hand experience of the country. It took 4.75 seconds to convince my wife that a visit was A Good Idea. So we boarded an airplane this past June and went off on a research trip to that land where great food and wine can be found on nearly every street corner.

Rome was our first stop, and being an inveterate reader of menus posted outside of restaurants, I noticed that nearly every one of them listed spaghetti all-amatriciana. Curiosity piqued, we ordered it at the first opportunity. One bite and we were in heaven. Since my wife speaks Italian, she asked about the very distinctively-flavored meat in the dish. It wasn’t pancetta, and though it looked like bacon, it certainly didn’t taste like it. We were told it was guanciale, a speciality of the region around Rome. The chef was also charmed into giving us the recipe.

Back in Canada, we found out that even a lot of Italians have never heard of guanciale. We persevered and eventually came up with two suppliers in our area. We’re lucky. In New York this summer, I spent over a day on the phone before coming up with a place that sold it. There is no substitute for guanciale, so don’t even think about substituting anything else for it! If you’re interested in trying this recipe, I’ll list some mail order sources for it in the States at the end.*

Serves 4.
1 lb dry spaghetti 1-2 Tbs
Good quality olive oil 4 oz
diced or thinly-sliced pieces of guanciale (cut off any rind first)
3/4 cup sliced onions
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes (try to get imported Italian ones)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1+ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat olive oil, then fry guanciale over low heat until it’s crisp and browned. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon. Leave all the fat. You’ll need it.
2. Cook the sliced onions in the guanciale fat and olive oil until it’s translucent.
3. Add the tomatoes, white wine and pepper flakes, then boil the sauce fairly hard to evaporate most of the liquid. Meanwhile cook your pasta to taste.
4. When everything is ready, put the cooked guanciale back into the sauce and stir it a bit.
5. In a warm bowl or in the hot pasta pot, toss the pasta with the sauce to get it well-coated, then add the Pecorino Romano. Toss thoroughly to melt the cheese into the sauce. We usually add a bit of salt to taste and a healthy grinding of pepper.

Not only is this dish absolutely delicious, but you can pretty well put it together in about the time it takes to bring a pot of water to the boil to cook your pasta. With a glass of good white wine, you’ll feel like you’re in a trattoria in Rome. Buon appetito! -=-=-=-=-=-

Rick Blechta is a Canadian crime writer and musician. Orchestrated Murder, his seventh book, has just been released by Orca Book Publishing in their Rapids Reads series. Next fall, his full-length novel, The Fallen One will make its debut. Visit for all the information. *Mail order sources for guanciale in the US: or I’ve also heard that some Whole Food Markets carry it.

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