4 Classic Roman Pastas That (Supposedly) Came From a Shepherd's Backpack

April 10, 2017

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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.

Their Origins

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“In your last paragraph you said "abolition" but I think you meant "abomination."”
— Leonardo

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.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was originally published in March of last year. We're republishing it because, well, these pastas are timeless.

What's your favorite of the Roman essential pastas? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Leonardo
  • pierino
  • Allie
  • Monica Campagnoli
    Monica Campagnoli
  • An Italian in my kitchen
    An Italian in my kitchen
chef/owner of Nina June Restaurant,


Leonardo March 3, 2021
In your last paragraph you said "abolition" but I think you meant "abomination."
pierino May 19, 2016
For serious eye rolling try ordering fettucine alfredo in Rome. Even though the dish was created there Romans treat it as something for tourists.
Allie April 17, 2016
Ah the most simple dish is missing here - pasta aglio olio.
Two ingredients to add to the pasta; much debate about how that should happen - e.g. lightly bruise some garlic or mince it? Leave the garlic in for serving, or remove it after transfusing its flavor to the oil (This one I cannot leave unsaid: NEVER leave the garlic in. Who wants to munch directly on the strong garlic that is generally the only option these days?). What grade of olive oil? What about pepper?? That's a whole 'nother ingredient. (But so is salt, in the pasta water.) The permutations are endless! And of course everyone believes that his/her version is "correct".
This is fun. :) Thanks for the article.
amanda April 10, 2017
I love aglio olio. This is how my dad from Northern Italy makes it: a pinch of red chili flake, pepper and kosher salt in a dry pan over low heat just till you can start to smell the pepper, add EVOO and sliced garlic and cook on low/med-low until the garlic is soft and just golden (this makes it sweet and delicious to eat), stir in some anchovy paste or fillet for umami, remove from heat, add a bunch of finely chopped parsley and add cooked spaghetti (cooked in salted water). Add a pat of butter for some richness and a lot of freshly grated pecorino and toss together. buono appetito.
priya April 16, 2017
thank you for this! i have never been a pasta + evoo as sauce person, but i love whenever i am in italy, as they flavor the oil. now i can too.
pierino April 5, 2016
First, I agree there should be no cream in a carbonara.
But another version of how it came to be has to do with Italy's liberation at the end of World War II. During the war things like bacon were in short supply. American GI's were hungry for things they were familiar with, like bacon and eggs. Even though pancetta and guanciale are unsmoked you see the connection. Carbonara refers to coal or a coal burner, "carbonista". So possibly it takes it's name from the black pepper's resemblance to charcoal flakes.
Allie April 17, 2016
things they were familiar with, like bacon and eggs.

That is great! In my youth (when I could seat a maximum of two guests with a little foldable table) with ignorant, food-scared people (who always, dammit, wanted to go to get cheesesteaks near my apartment) I would serve "Pasta with bacon and eggs." Pleased the pickiest eaters (well not so much vegetarians but at least they don't want to get cheesesteaks either).
Monica C. April 5, 2016
I'm really excited to know more of this italian week ?... I'm italian and I live in Bologna (totally different traditionally recipes). Only I add few words: it's true, cream does not belong in Carbonara but uhmmmm, as italian I love it. Bacon it's not the same of guanciale or pancetta (and be careful there's fresh pancetta and pancetta for pasta...). Well, that italian is a really rich culinary tradition. I think it's important to know the original and then to cook what we like. So, enjoy your pasta and thank you for this wonderful article! Monica
An I. April 5, 2016
I have been living in Rome Italy for over 20 years (to a Roman) and I have eaten these dishes too many times to count, and yes every Italian house does it a little different and swears their's is the best. Needless to say never Cream! And in my opinion these are some of the best Pasta dishes. Looking forward to Italian week. Regards Rosemary
JBoyce April 4, 2016
I don't really much care about "the right way" to cook just about anything. My own version of Carbonara uses crispy bacon (when I lived in France, I could buy "lardons" in any grocery, and these work really well) and chopped fresh mushrooms sautéed in the rendered bacon fat. I don't much like Pecorino, so I stick with Parmesan (with sometimes some Tallegio as well).
It's OK. I'm not Roman. I don't care what's "right"; I know what I like.
Kathy April 4, 2016
No, No, No. Cream does not belong in Carbonara! If you add cream it is a totally different dish and does not deserve the name Pasta Carbonara. I get annoyed when you go to a restaurant and they try to pass off a dish made with Alfredo style sauce as Carbonara.

I have been making this since I was about 15 (58 now) and it is my favourite comfort food.
HDeffenbaugh April 4, 2016
The simplicity of these pastas is what attracts me the most. I have a hard time eating pasta dishes that are overdone in sauce and extra ingredients. Basic bold flavors is key for me. I look forward to trying these out and creating some new staple pasta dishes.
Joy L. April 4, 2016
I'm so excited for this week of Italy because I will be going to Italy for the first time next month! I get to stay for 47 days! Thank you for breaking down the dishes! It makes me even more excited to eat there :)
Josh S. April 4, 2016
"For carbonara, you render out pancetta (cured, unsmoked bacon) rather than guanciale"

blasphemy! #guancialepersempre
Sara J. April 4, 2016
interestingly enough when I lived in Rome in the late 70's early 80's we never saw guanciale. i always ate carbonara with pancetta. But that's the fun of these dishes, everyone swears there's is the only truly authentic and yet there are as many versions as there are Romans!
Josh S. April 4, 2016
This is very true. I've heard you can add the tiniest pinch of nutmeg to pancetta to give it that smoky guanciale taste (have never tried that, though)
Michael A. April 4, 2016
Damn auto-correct!
Chef A. April 1, 2016
My all time favorite pasta sauce is Puttanesca and I make it all the time, what could be bad with olives, anchovies, chile and tomatoes..
Nancy J. April 4, 2016
I totally agree with you!
Courtney C. March 31, 2016
Cacio e Pepe is one of my absolute favorite pasta dishes, but I can never, ever get it to taste like it does in Rome. I think it's the Pecorino that we import here in the US - it's too aged and sharp tasting in contrast with the pepper - it even looks different. I've read that they use a young Pecorino when making Cacio e Pepe in Rome, and I've been searching through the Italian shops in my area to find some - but have not yet been successful. Oh well, I can dream of the creamy, delicious Cacio e Pepe in the trattorias of Rome and enjoy my still tasty Cacio e Pepe here.
702551 March 31, 2016
The Roman trattorias are probably using caciocavallo, not pecorino romano. Both cheeses are available here in the States at well appointed grocery stores in large metropolitan areas, as well as online retailers.

Without even bothering to check, I'm betting that some affiliate store sells caciocavallo.
Patti F. April 4, 2016
I bring my Pecorino Romano back from Rome, but I still have trouble stopping it turning to rubber bands when I make Cacio e Pepe. I live in hope that one day I'll find a Roman chef who will let me watch him do it.
Courtney C. April 4, 2016
Thanks for the tip cv! I will have to try that for sure! Patti, thanks for commiserating with me on the difficulty of the dish!
Nancy H. March 31, 2016
Would it be shameless self-promotion if I add that these and many other pasta recipes, from Rome & beyond, can be found in Sara's book The Four Seasons of Pasta, written with her mother?
AntoniaJames April 10, 2017
Thank you for the tip! I have and regularly consult Sara's "Olives & Oranges," which I highly recommend. ;o)
priya April 16, 2017
thank you!
Martha March 31, 2016
Oops! sorry for that last picky comment.. this was an exceptionally wonderful made these classics SIMPLE! Thanks
Lisa April 4, 2016
Why apologize? You are correct. Good cooking and precise language don't negate one another.
Martha March 31, 2016
Don't you mean "abomination" , not "abolition"?
Ron A. April 13, 2016
Amy April 16, 2017
Just add some truffles from northern Italy and I'm good!!