food / travel

This Devastated Italian Town Is About People Not Pasta

Foreign journalists have flocked to Amatrice after the Aug. 24 earthquake, focusing on the spaghetti all'amatriciana dish that the town was famous for. But this is no time for folklore.

Firefighter in Amatrice on Aug. 28
Firefighter in Amatrice on Aug. 28
Mattia Feltri

AMATRICE — In the immediate aftermath of last week's devastating earthquake in central Italy, Amatrice mayor Sergio Pirozzi said his town, one of the worst-hit, "no longer exists."

As we survey the damage, that statement couldn't hold truer. Amatrice has been reduced to rubble. The tourism industry — Amatrice's lifeblood — has been decimated. More importantly, dozens of its residents were killed by last Wednesday's quake, including children who represented the town's future.

Journalists came here from all over the world to report in the wake of the earthquake that has killed nearly 300. They all opened their television reports with the same cliché: "Welcome to Amatrice, home of spaghetti all'amatriciana," a reference to the famous sauce prepared with pork jowl, tomato, and pecorino cheese that originated here and has become popular across the country and the world. This would appear obvious to any visitor as the town is littered with signs and banners publicizing the annual spaghetti all'amatriciana festival, which was due to be held on Sunday. Hotel Roma on Amatrice's main street, where many tourists died after the building collapsed in the quake, competed with Castagneto hotel to win the title for the best preparation of the dish.

This year was supposed to be the festival's 50th edition. Thousands of visitors had flocked to the town for the occasion, increasing Amatrice's population from 3,000 to a stunning 30,000. In front of the crumbling elementary school, carabinieri military policemen occupied the square that was due to host outdoor diners on the festival weekend.

Instead of celebrating their town's culinary heritage, locals lined up for medicine, clothes, and bread at tents administering aid. They streamed into government offices to organize funerals. They gathered at a garden that was demarcated as a zone to identify the dead.

Will the town vanish from the map?

A journalist who interviewed the owner of the Castagneto hotel tried to cheer him up by reminding him that he served the best spaghetti all'amatriciana in the world. The owner stared back at him blankly. It doesn't make sense to talk about food in the wake of such a catastrophe. In recent days, Italian publications covering the earthquake mostly chose to ignore the source of Amatrice's fame. Anguished shepherds and pig farmers, who reared the animals that fed this tradition, can't reach their flocks or farms in remote hamlets. They fear their livestock will be attacked by wolves.

When Pirozzi spoke about Amatrice's devastation last week, we didn't fully comprehend the scale of the damage. The town's identity has disappeared, along with the buildings and streets.

The survivors are letting go of the town's soul and culture now that their homes, churches, and shops have been reduced to dust. Amid the bustle of rescuers and aid workers, locals are reduced to thinking of their devastated homes and daily needs. The survivors and the displaced are unable to remember what it was like before 3:36 a.m. on Aug. 24, the moment the earthquake struck. The tremors marked the end of their loved ones and their town's identity. But this shouldn't be the end of Amatrice. Its story must go on.

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