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Rome may be the capital of a united Italy, but at heart it’s a bustling provincial town—and like every provincial town in Italy, there are certain dishes that are indisputably part of the Roman table. There are four pastas that every Roman cook and every Roman diner know well and will argue about endlessly, from where they originate to precisely how they should be made in the most authentic fashion. Here they are.
There is much discussion about the origin of these pastas, although Amatriciana gives us a hint. It obviously comes from the town of Amatrice, today in Lazio but originally in the Abruzzi, a region of shepherds who were legendary for their semi-nomadic existence as they moved their flocks across vast swaths of the territory in search of grazing grounds, up in the high mountains in summer then bringing the sheep back down to the lowlands in the fall when the mountains are covered with snow.
These same shepherds are often credited with being the originators of these pastas, supposedly made from ingredients in the shepherd’s backpack:
- A piece of guanciale or pancetta
- A hunk of Pecorino
- A bottle of oil
- Some black pepper
- An egg or a jar of tomato sauce begged off a farm wife along the way
That’s a fine fantasy, but the truth, I think, is simpler but just as romantic: Back a hundred years or so, it was immigrants from the Abruzzi to Rome, a distance of less than 100 miles, who were among the original operators of the humble Roman osterie and trattorie where these dishes first made an appearance. That the dishes got adopted as authentically Roman is proof, yet again, that, as with so much of the food in Italy, the story is as much about cultural history as it is about ingredients and recipes.
All four pastas are easily made at home from pantry items every self-respecting Roman cook always has on hand, and one or more of these is always available in pretty much every trattoria in the city. They relate to each other as well, with their use of similar standard pantry items combined in slightly different permutations.
1. Pasta alla Gricia
Pasta alla Gricia is the simplest and the easiest, the pasta dressed with rendered guanciale (cured pork cheeks), a little garlic, black pepper, and grated Pecorino cheese, all mixed with a little cooking water to form a sauce that naps the pasta perfectly.
2. Pasta all'Amatriciana
If you add San Marzano tomatoes and a dried chile to Pasta alla Gricia—and possibly some diced onion (though this is controversial, with some arguing onions must be included, others just as fervently that they cannot be allowed) cooked in the fat of the rendered guanciale—you end up with Pasta all’Amatriciana.
3. Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe comes next, wherein the pasta is sauced with nothing but a mass of grated Pecorino Romano and lashings of cracked black pepper, the whole amalgamated with a little pasta cooking water to form a lush, creamy sauce that coats the strands of pasta. It seems simple, but the trick is to get the perfect balance of melted cheese and pasta water to make a creamy sauce and not wind up with a clumpy mess.
4. Pasta alla Carbonara
Finally there is Pasta alla Carbonara, my childhood love to the exclusion of all others.
For carbonara, you render out pancetta (cured, unsmoked bacon) rather than guanciale and toss the pasta with the crispy bits and melted fat, along with raw eggs that have been beaten with grated Pecorino and Parmesan. The heat of the hot pasta just cooks the raw egg to a luscious consistency that coats the pasta perfectly. Finish with a little pasta cooking water, then a lick of black pepper to top the dish as it goes to the table.
The "Right" Way to Make These Pastas—Discuss.
An Italian, whether a cook or not, always stands firm on how a dish must be made; if it’s not made that way, they’ll tell you, then it’s not that dish. This is fine up to a point. And then you realize that the next person who describes the recipe to you has added or deleted an ingredient and is equally firm about her own version and the inauthenticity if the dish is made differently.
Over the years, as I’ve listened to the arguments and read the experts, I’ve come to a few conclusions of my own. The ingredients are simple but with all except Amatriciana, the technique of cooking the sauce is as important as the ingredients themselves, and that business of adding a little pasta water at the end to finish the sauce is often key to the success of the whole thing.
However, as a non-Roman, I admit to all sorts of modifications. I have my own code as to what is acceptable and what is not. Much as I like to add diced onion to my Amatriciana (anathema to many Romans), if you tell me you add cream to your Carbonara, I simply roll my eyes.
I like to add onions to my Gricia, too, as well as the garlic that only some say is acceptable. I might add chopped parsley to the Amatriciana, and sometimes some wilted cooking greens go into my Carbonara to offset the richness of the eggs, cured pork, and cheese. For a true Roman, these modifications are an abolition, but I have long ago made peace with them.
What's your favorite of the Roman essential pastas? Let us know in the comments!