Gricia, Amatriciana, Carbonara: The Origins of Rome's Pasta Classics

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik except where noted]

A little over a year ago, Carlo Cracco, one of Italy's most celebrated chefs, made a pair of televised pasta gaffes. First, during an appearance on C'è posta per te, one of Italy's most popular talk shows, Cracco proposed garlic as a potential ingredient for amatriciana, a tomato-based pasta sauce enriched with rendered cured pork. Furious at such a suggestion, residents of Amatrice, the reputed birthplace of amatriciana, chastised the chef. The town's mayor took to Italian gastronomy's most animated forum, Facebook, declaring that "the only ingredients present in real amatriciana are guanciale [cured, spiced pork jowl], pecorino, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, black pepper, and chili."

A few days later, while co-hosting MasterChef Italia (the Italian cable version of the Fox cooking competition) alongside Joe Bastianich, Cracco committed the Italian-pasta equivalent of eating a New York slice with a fork and knife: He suggested adding onion to gricia, a pasta dish made with guanciale and its slick rendered fat, Pecorino Romano, and black pepper. Deemed outrageous by pasta purists, both blunders made national headlines, and La Repubblica, one of Italy's leading papers, declared the first situation "the garlic war." When the dust had settled, thousands of comments on the topic of recipe origins and authenticity had been posted to Italy's top newspaper websites, food blogs, and Facebook. If anything was certain in the aftermath, it was that most people are very confident that they possess the one true recipe for each of Italy's regional specialties.

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Although the origins of gricia—and possibly amatriciana—lie 60 miles northeast of Rome, both dishes are now part of the Italian capital's culinary canon. Most Roman recipes for gricia call for pasta tossed with savory tiles of guanciale (or pancetta), finely grated Pecorino Romano, and piquant ground black pepper. But, at his eponymous restaurant near the Vatican, chef Arcangelo Dandini emphasizes the peasant origins of this dish by omitting black pepper, which, he says, "was a precious spice and a sign of luxury that would have been out of reach" (though it became more common and affordable in the postwar era). Dandini says the tomato-free combination "is the real amatriciana of Amatrice," although he does call it gricia on his menu.

In her book La pasta: Atlante dei prodotti tipici, food historian Oretta Zanini De Vita writes that amatriciana, which is named for Amatrice, was originally made with guanciale, onion, and pecorino. Tomato was introduced only after the Second World War. Two leading Rome food authorities both say that the original amatriciana was made without tomato—but they have clashing theories on the recipe's core ingredients. Such arguments are at the center of virtually every discussion of regional dishes in Italy.

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Regardless of where tomato-based amatriciana was invented, there is widespread disagreement about its ingredients. Amatrice's mayor cites a rather long list, including black pepper and chili—two spices that Roman chefs never combine—as well as wine, another rare ingredient for this dish's Roman incarnation. In her landmark volume Il talismano della felicità, cookbook icon Ada Boni prepares bucatini all'amatriciana with onion, guanciale, lard, tomatoes, pecorino, and black pepper. Meanwhile, Dandini spices things up with guanciale, tomato, pecorino, and chili. In Rome, the ingredients aren't the only variables; the guanciale ranges from soft and gently cooked tiles, as in Dandini's version, to Salumeria Roscioli's crisp guanciale cubes.

The debate inspired by gricia and amatriciana is nothing compared to the controversies over carbonara. Although it has become a pillar of Roman dining, carbonara is a relatively new dish; mentions of the now-iconic pasta only began to surface in cookbooks and culinary guidebooks in the 1950s and '60s. Today, depending on the Roman cook, carbonara might be made with guanciale or pancetta, whole eggs or yolks only, Pecorino Romano and/or Parmigiano Reggiano, and black pepper. Ada Boni lists butter and oil among her ingredients, while the Accademia Italiana della Cucina's official recipe includes a garlic clove. The finished sauce comes in variations, too, including silky and light or tight and nearly scrambled.

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Although carbonara's main ingredients are similar to those of gricia and amatriciana, the dish is widely considered a mid-20th-century Roman invention, with no connection to Amatrice. Its far-fetched origin myths are well known. One often-repeated legend is that Roman cooks made it with American soldiers' K-rations of bacon and eggs. In The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley rebuffs the notion, saying, "The absurdity of this at a time of hardship and intolerable shortages calls for no comment." Another legend states it was a favorite dish of carbonari (charcoal burners), which has a coincidental linguistic similarity, but which Riley likewise dismisses: "It is equally strange that the wild and lawless carbonari...might have invented this dish." Despite lacking a shred of evidence to support them, Romans widely repeat both myths. More plausibly, carbonara is a rich and decadent dish of Roman origin that emerged from the postwar years and reflected the growing wealth of the Italian capital and increased access to formerly cost-prohibitive ingredients. In any case, one thing's for sure: Its popularity in Rome is undeniable, and rivaled only by cacio e pepe.

As the name suggests (cacio is Roman shorthand for Pecorino Romano, and pepe is, unsurprisingly, Italian for "pepper"), the dish is made of salted sheep's cheese and black pepper. Long, hot pasta strands are tossed with the cheese and pepper—as well as some pasta cooking water—to achieve a sauce that ranges from tight and dry to loose and creamy. Some cooks use only Pecorino Romano, while others combine it with Parmigiano Reggiano. Many Roman restaurants also use olive oil emulsified into the sauce, or, as Flavio De Maio of Flavio al Velavevodetto does, "to add a bit of shine."

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[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Regarding cacio e pepe's origins, chef Claudio Gargioli of Armando al Pantheon notes, "In Viaggio in Italia, Goethe talks about a pasta that was dressed in cheese. It's an ancient dish and Roman to the core." Perhaps this cheesy pasta was a precursor to cacio e pepe, but black pepper was almost certainly added later, in the postwar years. By the 1960s, cacio e pepe was wildly popular, often appearing at various stages of a wine-fueled meal, including the end. Claudio continues, "It's a fast dish to prepare, and it was one of those dishes that would close out a dinner. After dessert, there was cacio e pepe!" Downing a plate of cheese- and pepper-covered pasta after il dolce might seem strange to Romans today—thanks to the city's current food surplus and increasingly moderate drinking habits, these hunger-based, alcohol-fed traditions of the past have become a foreign concept—but this retired custom is a reminder that the way we eat in the Italian capital changes to adapt to new circumstances. As the slow evolution of local cuisine continues, gricia, amatriciana, carbonara, and cacio e pepe embody the pasta-laden, Pecorino Romano–laced, undeniably savory spirit of Roman cooking.