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.
The 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.
- 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of guanciale
- 2 tablespoons of grated Pecorino Romano
- 4 ounces of dried pasta
Bring your well-salted pasta water to a boil. While the water is heating, slice the guanciale thinly into narrow strips, wide ribbons, or even a fine dice, the cut can depend on how you want the guanciale to mingle with the pasta you've chosen. (I like to bite into my guanciale, so I chose the ribbons.)
Place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with a tablespoon or two of olive oil and place over medium heat; the olive oil helps to render the fat evenly and acts as a conduit, transferring the flavor from the pan to the pasta.
Drop the pasta into the water as you slowly sauté the guanciale. The goal here is to slowly soften the fat, keeping it translucent; avoid letting it turn brown and crisp, or the pleasure of biting into those soft, juicy, fatty parts will be lost. When the guanciale has softened, add a small splash of water from the pasta pot.
Lower the heat, and keep dribbling in spoonfuls of pasta cooking water as it evaporates, just enough to keep the guanciale moist. The starchy water is a key element to the finished dish; it combines with the fat to form the "sauce" for the pasta.
When the pasta reaches that perfectly al dente texture, scoop out about a cup of the cooking water and set it aside. Quickly drain your pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and listen for some sizzle. Toss the pasta vigorously, coating it with the guanciale and rendered fat, and add a small splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring it all together.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the grated Pecorino Romano cheese, but avoid the temptation to add too much. The cheese is there to help bind the guanciale to pasta and add that perfect, sheep-y backnote. Grind some black pepper into the pan, toss well and serve immediately on a heated plate.
Ecco! There you have it: simplicity, balance and harmony on a plate. Enjoy it with a glass of wine from the Castelli Romani, if you can. Once you've mastered Pasta alla Gricia, you're on the right path. Add an egg, and you've got Carbonara; take away the guanciale, add more cheese, black pepper and pasta water for Cacio e Pepe; incorporate sliced onion and tomato for a fine Amatriciana. Buon Apetito!