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Growing up in Rome from the age of five, I developed a particularly strong affinity for the Eternal City's four iconic pasta dishes—amatriciana, cacio e pepe, carbonara, and gricia. These simple primi were my gateway into cooking, in no small part because they call for only a handful of inexpensive staple Roman ingredients and don't require any pricy equipment, or even much of a time commitment.
In the same way that most people in the States know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich, any Roman can throw together a bowl of carbonara. But that doesn't mean they all do it well. Mastering the standards isn't easy. When legendary French chef Joël Robuchon recently passed away, one of his quotes started making the rounds on social media in memoriam posts: "The simpler the food, the harder it is to prepare well." A perfect example of this can be found in the most overshadowed of the Roman pastas, pasta alla gricia.
What Is Pasta alla Gricia (and What Isn't It)?
Gricia (pronounced GREE-cha) is often described as a "white amatriciana," or "carbonara without eggs," definitions that relate it to its better known Roman siblings. Neither of those explanations is blatantly wrong, but they don't give gricia the credit it deserves.
Roman food authority Katie Parla notes that, if anything, gricia is the older sibling to amatriciana, likely introduced to the city by immigrants from the Apennine mountains. The addition of tomato to make what we now know as amatriciana was a Roman touch that came about later in the game.
Gricia is not the Fredo Corleone to amatriciana's Michael. It actually deserves respect. It's a beautiful dish of dry pasta that's cooked and dressed in a sauce made with rendered guanciale (cured pork jowl), black pepper, pasta cooking water, and grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Recently, pasta enthusiasts like chef Evan Funke have taken up the cause, campaigning to "make gricia a household name." We all need to do our part.
The Elements of Gricia
Now that we've recognized gricia on its own terms, let's take a closer look at its ingredients. It's important to note that there are Italian chefs and home cooks who deviate from the following list of gricia ingredients, opening themselves to public ridicule and admonishment by merely suggesting the addition of something like chopped onion or white wine. Whether these are culinary displays of bravery, sacrilege, inspiration, or contrarianism is a matter of debate.
In a country that wasn't fully unified until 1870, pasta (and all food for that matter) plays an important role in provincial, regional, and national identity politics. Don't believe me? Then you should spend some time perusing one of my favorite Twitter accounts, Italians mad at food. It may seem silly that people get so worked up over the fine details of a simple pasta dish, but to make a really good gricia, it's all about those details.
Fantastic Meats and Where to Find Them
If you want to make pasta alla gricia, then you will need guanciale. Not pancetta. Not bacon. Not salt pork. Guanciale, end of story. But guanciale is sooo hard to find, can't I just use pancetta? They're basically the same thing, right? False, and false. First, let's parse through the pancetta-guanciale same-but-different argument. Yes, pancetta (cured pork belly) and guanciale (cured jowl) are both fatty, delicious, cured Italian pork products that, when properly rendered, lend flavor and texture to pastas, soups, and vegetables. But in terms of flavor, they are completely different. Guanciale is funky (in a really, really good way) and gets all up in your face, while pancetta's porky flavor is more clean, conventional, and subdued.
Daniel has already addressed this issue in regard to both carbonara and amatriciana, but as already discussed, gricia is its own thing, and we need to examine the porcine paradox through the gricia lens.
In this trio of Roman pastas, gricia has the shortest ingredient list, and this places the pork front and center. There's no silky, smooth egg-yolk sidekick, no fruity fresh tomato to soak up the spotlight. It's just pork, pepper, pasta, and cheese, and the sauce itself is little more than an emulsion of rendered pork fat and starchy water. Knowing that, you need to go with the brash pork that adds the most funk and flavor. (That's not to say that you can't make gricia with pancetta. Sure you can, just as you can prefer filet mignon to a rib-eye, and request Black Eyed Peas tracks at weddings. Different strokes.)
Five years ago, procuring guanciale in the States was no easy task, especially for people who don't live in a major city with either a sizeable Italian-American or bearded-hipster population ("I was into whole-animal charcuterie before it was cool"). I can neither confirm nor deny that whenever I go back to Rome for a visit, multiple whole guanciales somehow find their way from my favorite norcineria (pork-only butcher shop) into my luggage.
But we are living in a different time now, and you don't have to get embroiled in an international cured pork smuggling scheme to get your hands on some guanciale. In 2018, we are all only a couple of clicks and 48 hours away from a delivery of tasty guanciale. Heck, you can even get it shipped over, legally, from the same Roman norcineria that I love so much.
Once you have the guanciale, you'll need to cut it up and cook it. For gricia, I like to cut small batons that the French call lardons. Cutting the guanciale this way ensures that there is an even distribution of fat and meat in almost every piece (the end pieces of the jowl are mostly fat, but that's not a bad thing), which in turn leads to even cooking and fat-rendering. To properly crisp the guanciale, it's important to cook the pork over medium-low heat, so that it doesn't burn before it renders its fat. I like my guanciale lardons crispy, with translucent morsels of tender fat. Cut and cooked this way, they also pair perfectly with my go-to pasta shape for gricia, rigatoni.
Rome's four classic pastas can each be served with a couple of different shapes of pasta, but they each have a totemic spirit shape. For carbonara it's spaghetti; amatriciana is most commonly made with bucatini; and cacio e pepe is traditionally paired with tonnarelli, a fresh egg dough pasta that looks like thick, square spaghetti. Gricia can be served with spaghetti, but I find it is best matched with rigatoni.
Rigatoni's ridges are made for sauce-coating, and their short tubular shape is a perfect hiding spot for crispy chunks of guanciale. As with the guanciale, you'll want to purchase the best pasta you can find at a price you are comfortable with. Not all pasta is created equal, and you get what you pay for. So what should you be looking for? Take a look at the two pieces of rigatoni in the photo below.
You can make a batch of gricia with either one, but the top noodle is going to make a better one. As I explained earlier on, the sauce for this dish is an emulsion of rendered guanciale fat and pasta water. Daniel has written an excellent piece about the importance of starch content in pasta water for building well-emulsified, non-greasy sauces.
High quality dried pasta, like the one at the top of the photo, produces the starchiest pasta water, and also has a coarse exterior texture that makes for a better sauce-holding surface. So what makes these two noodles so different? It mostly comes down to the ways in which they are extruded and dried. The piece of rigatoni on top, made by a small-scale manufacturer, has been extruded through a traditional bronze die that produces that signature rough texture.
Industrial pasta manufacturers may claim to extrude their pastas through bronze dies, but they fail to mention how their dies are coated in Teflon, which produces noodles (like the one at the bottom of the photo) with a glossier, smoother surface. Pasta of this kind has fewer pores and cracks through which starch can leak out, which means less starchy pasta water. According to Harold McGee, the godfather of food science, the darker yellow color of industrial pasta is a result of rapid high-temperature drying techniques that deactivate enzymes that destroy pigments and cause brown discoloration. The higher-quality pasta, on the other hand, is dried for a much longer period of time at a low temperature, which yields a duller color, but much better flavor.
I'm not saying you need to buy artisan pasta every time you make arrabiata, but once in a while, it's worth the splurge.
You'll need Pecorino Romano, and you'll want to grate it finely on a Microplane. But before you get grating, do make sure you've invested in the right product. Much like Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano is a product with a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status in the European Union. This designation is a quality seal that differentiates regionally specific products from their imitators.
Cheese that is labeled Pecorino Romano can only be made from sheep's milk in certain regions of Italy, and its production is overseen by a consortium. The cheese you'll find labeled simply "Romano," on the other hand, is made from cow's milk, and is not subjected to the stringent rules of Pecorino Romano production. Romano is a poor imitation that doesn't come close to the flavor of the genuine article.
Let's get to the cooking.
How to Cook Pasta alla Gricia
Step 1: Cut and Cook the Guanciale
I start by popping the guanciale in the freezer for a few minutes. Like bacon and pancetta, chilled or frozen guanciale is much easier to slice into lardons. Once the guanciale is all cut up, I cook it in a large stainless steel skillet with a touch of olive oil over medium-low heat until most of the fat has rendered and the pieces are golden brown and crispy. I then remove the guanciale pieces from the skillet with a slotted spoon and set them aside, leaving the rendered fat in the skillet.
Removing the cooked guanciale at this stage allows us to control its texture in the finished dish, and makes it easier to build a stable emulsified sauce. Leaving the guanciale in the pan for the entire process would make it limp and soft, instead of that sweet spot between crisp and tender (more on that later). Whatever you do, please don't discard any of that beautiful rendered guanciale fat. All you'll be doing is throwing away money and flavor. This isn't health food, and that's okay. You can eat a kale salad tomorrow.
Step 2: Bloom the Pepper
Once the guanciale is out, I reduce the heat to low and grind a healthy amount of black pepper into the warm guanciale fat. I find measuring freshly ground pepper to be a hassle, so when I say that you want about a teaspoon of pepper, that's an eyeball measurement. If you want to crack a bunch of pepper into a ramekin to then measure it out, go for it. Once the pepper is in the skillet, I swirl it around until it begins to foam and release its floral aroma.
Step 3: Cook the Pasta Halfway
While the guanciale is crisping, I bring three quarts of water to a boil in a pot. Cooking pasta in a smaller amount of water results in starchier water, and for gricia, we are all about that starch. Not only will we be cooking the pasta with less water, but we will also be pulling it from that water early and finishing it for an extended period in the skillet, adding reserved pasta water to help it cook the rest of the way.
We therefore need to adjust our approach to seasoning the pasta water with salt, since we'll be reducing a large amount of that pasta water into the sauce. Keep in mind that the other main elements of the dish—guanciale and Pecorino Romano—are on the saltier side as well. A couple of teaspoons of kosher salt for three quarts of water is plenty. Once the water is seasoned, I add the rigatoni to the pot, set a timer for five minutes, and stir frequently for the first minute to prevent the pasta from sticking.
For this recipe, I only use 12 ounces of dry pasta, as it's a heavy dish, and that is more than enough for four servings. This amount of pasta also ensures that we won't be overcrowding the skillet for the second stage of pasta cooking.
While the pasta cooks, I set a colander inside a large bowl, and place them in the kitchen sink. Right before the timer goes off, I use a large liquid measuring cup to scoop out two cups of pasta water, and transfer it to the skillet, which I return to high heat, bringing the mixture of pasta water and guanciale fat to a rapid boil to emulsify it. I drain the pasta in the prepared bowl, reserving the rest of the pasta water for later, and then add the rigatoni to the skillet.
Step 4: Glazed Over
Once the pasta's in the skillet, we're halfway there. Because the pasta only cooked for five minutes in the pot, we'll need to finish it in the skillet. During this stage, it is important to keep the contents of the skillet constantly swirling around—we're simultaneously cooking the pasta, building the sauce emulsion, and glazing the rigatoni in that emulsion, as you would for a side of glazed carrots.
This is a great time to test out your skillet-wrist-flick-toss skills. If you don't feel confident with that technique, don't fret. You can simply swirl the pan, and use a spoon (not tongs, please, as they can mangle the pasta) to rapidly stir the pasta. The beauty of cooking the pasta in this way is that the rigatoni will continue to leach starch into the sauce, strengthening the emulsion, while the sauce stains and coats the noodles. It's a reciprocal give-and-take relationship.
This method also extends the cooking time window for perfectly al dente pasta, a phenomenon that Daniel calls Pasta Bullet Time. You want the sauce to be thickened, fully emulsified, and just pooling at the edges of the skillet. If the sauce begins to over-reduce before the pasta has finished cooking, all you need to do is add a little more pasta water to the skillet, and just keep swirling. Just before the pasta reaches a perfect al dente, I return the guanciale to the skillet and toss it to combine. This brief time in the skillet allows the pork to heat through and soften ever so slightly, giving us that perfect crispy-chewy balance.
Step 5: Make it Rain Cheese
I then finish the pasta off-heat, so that the addition (or additions to be precise) of Pecorino doesn't break the emulsion. I start by adding half the grated Pecorino, tossing and stirring everything together until the cheese is fully incorporated. I then go in with the remaining grated cheese, and repeat the tossing step to fully incorporate and melt the Pecorino. Adding the cheese in two stages prevents it from clumping and ruining the perfect gricia that we've so carefully constructed.
And there you have it, pasta alla gricia. Simple, no?
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