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Seriously Italian: Pasta alla Gricia

Editor's note: On Thursdays, Babbo pastry chef Gina DePalma checks in with Seriously Italian. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats. Take it away, Gina!

Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, Amatriciana and Gricia: If you spend any extended time in Rome, these four pasta dishes are sure to become familiar and beloved friends. Together they form the backbone of primi choices at every trattoria in the Eternal City, where the locals have strong, vocal opinions on where to find the best execution of each, never all at one place.

Each recipe bows to the Roman palate, where Pecorino Romano is favored over Parmigiano-Reggiano and guanciale is preferred to pancetta. There are only five or six additional ingredients needed to make all four dishes, and I learned that my Roman friends keep these components on hand at all times, ready to turn a chance encounter on the street into an impromptu meal at home, "Come upstairs for dinner, cara. I'll make us some Amatriciana." Really? You don't have to run to the store first?

Pasta alla Gricia is the least-known member of the group, but hands down my favorite. I can't think of a better delivery vehicle for pasta than a perfect balance of cured pork and cheese, so here's a primer on how to make this Roman classic.

The first and most important step to making authentic pasta alla gricia is starting with the right ingredients. I'm sorry, but I have to be a purist here and insist on guanciale, or cured pork jowl, which has a unique, intensely piggy flavor, and Pecorino Romano, the hard, tangy grating cheese made from sheep's milk. With so few components at play, substitutions are not minor. Pancetta and Parmigiano will make a tasty dish, but you cannot call it alla gricia, for the simple reason that their flavors are quite different.

20090224-gina1.jpgThe same goes for add-ins, so there should be no garlic used here, nor any onion, herbs, or wine. No. None. Nooooooo.

I've seen these ingredients included in some recipes, but in Rome this is a deal breaker--as much of an affront as tossing frozen peas or heavy cream into Carbonara. Creative license is allowed, however, when it comes to the pasta. I've enjoyed bucatini, spaghetti, ditalini, mezze rigatoni, penne, and even gnocchi served alla Gricia, and they all work just fine.

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Guanciale

You can order fantastic, authentic guanciale from Salumi Artisan Cured Meats in Seattle, or Murray's Real Salami in New York.

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