The Best Things in Life Are Simple/Have Guanciale

May  9, 2017

One of Rome's most beloved dishes, pasta alla gricia, is nothing more than sizzled guanciale (delightfully fatty, peppery, cured pork jowl) and grated Pecorino Romano (sheep's milk cheese) tossed in pasta (typically spaghetti, bucatini, or rigatoni)—held together with some of the pasta cooking water. It is an immensely satisfying, quick-to-make meal packed with flavor.

Its beauty lies in its incredible simplicity. In fact, it might remind you of Rome's other famous pasta dishes, all of which have ingredients that you can count on one hand. It's a little like amatriciana, minus the tomato. Or carbonara minus the egg. Or cacio e pepe with the addition of guanciale.

Many actually call gricia, which also goes by the names of cacio e unto (“cheese and grease”) or amatriciana bianca (“white amatriciana”) the original ancestor of amatriciana as we know it today. They both hail from the province of Rieti, 50 miles north of Rome, a hilly land of shepherds. Like amatriciana, gricia was the humble lunch of shepherds, made with two of the region's favorite products—locally made pecorino cheese and guanciale, which you can think of as a relative of bacon or pancetta. In the winter, the shepherds would head to Rome to sell their cheese and the dish was adopted as one of Rome's own. The tomato probably appeared in amatriciana sauce in the 1800s, but before that, it was simply alla gricia.

Guanciale for gricia Photo by Emiko Davies

When it comes to learning more about one of Rome's top four pasta dishes, I usually turn to the following Roman food goddesses (all Rome-based cookbook authors) for advice. Katie Parla calls it “the unsung hero of primi piatti romani” and suggests using pancetta if you can't get guanciale. Elizabeth Minchilli notes that the pasta cooking water is essential to pull the dish together—you should consider it the fifth ingredient. Rachel Roddy stresses the Roman preference for a softly cooked guanciale that should remain succulent, never “brown and crisp, which would negate the pleasure of biting into soft, fatty, sweetly flavored curls.”

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And everyone usually points out the vital tip that the cheese should be added off the heat. Why? I can tell you from experience. You'll end up with a big ball of melted cheese, quite separate from the pasta water floating in the bottom of the pan.

Rigatoni alla gricia Photo by Emiko Davies

It is indeed a simple dish, but deceivingly so. As in cacio e pepe, there is a technique to get that loose, creamy emulsion that will result in pasta just coated in the cheesy “sauce.” (It is not really ever a sauce, but you want that pasta cooking water and the handfuls of grated Roman pecorino to marry one another to make a perfect glossy dressing.) Sara Jenkins has a great technique that could easily be used for gricia too (after all, the only difference is the addition of plump strips of softly cooked guanciale).

Finally, the secret is practice. As Rachel Roddy says, “Practice until you can sauté the guanciale until it is perfectly soft, pink and succulent, perfectly judge the splash of pasta cooking water, understand exactly the right amount of vigorous pan shaking required to bring the ingredients together.”

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The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.