Wednesday, March 4, 2009

alla gricia

Welcome to the special delights of Roman pasta. Each Italian region has its special flavors and its favorite primi. In Bologna, it's tagliolini, in Milano its risotto, Venice and bigoli, Liguria and trenette, and so on down the peninsula -- and each has its classic preparation, or sauce.

Rome is special to many of us. For those who love Rome as much as we do, we heartily recommend one of our favorite cookbooks: David Downie's "Cooking the Roman Way". It is truly special and it captures the heart and soul, smells and tastes, of that great city.

As David presents in his book, and as all lovers of the cooking of Rome know, there are four classics in the Eternal City. What makes these classics so special is that they are all so simple. And incredibly perfect!

The four, in order of difficulty are: spaghetti a cacio and pepe (pecorino and black pepper); spaghetti alla griglia (guanciale, pecorino and pepper); bucatini all' Amatriciana; and spaghetti carbonara.

Every kitchen should have the basic ingredients of these wonderful dishes always on hand -- and that is really easy. Invite someone in at the last minute? Presto, an immediate dinner. perfecto!

The simplest of these classics is the pecorino and black pepper dish, shown below, in a photo from the wonderful David Downie book.

The next, in order of complexity (and complexity does not really exist at all here), is today's theme: spaghetti alla gricia (gricia means little bits). The key, everyone agrees, to a perfect alla gricia is the meat: the renowned guanciale, which is cured pork jowel. It has a unique flavor, with a soft, juicy texture -- it is a little stronger than pancetta. It also has the wonderful quality of dissolving into the pasta.

The experts all agree: for a perfect alla grigia (just as for a perfect all'amatriciana or carbonara) one must have guanciale. But let's face it: not always possible! We are fortunate that we have a new Italian salumeria in the Ferry Building in San Francisco, where we can now get guanciale. Those living in Seattle can get it at Mario Batali's father's place, Salumi (see a previous post here). There are places in Chicago and New York that we know of. But not always easy.

So sometimes we use pancetta, and, frankly, sometimes we use very good bacon, and have a wonderful meal. The main thing is to keep it simple and enjoy.

Note that in this recipe there is no garlic and there is no onion. Purist! Mario Batrali has a variation with both garlic and onion. We have that variation at -- click on pasta and spaghetti and you will find it under spaghetti alla gricia. You also will find at that web site the recipes for alla amatriciana and carbonara, and cacio e pepe.

spaghetti alla gricia
  • three tablespoons olive oil
  • six ounces of guanciale
  • one-quarter to one-half cup pecorino romano, freshly grated
  • strong pinch of red pepper flakes
  • freshly ground pepper (plenty)
  • salt

  • one pound of spaghetti

Get your four quarts of water boiling away. Add two tablespoons of salt.

In a saute pan over medium heat, put in the olive oil, and then the guanciale and the red pepper flakes. We like to cut the guanciale (or the pancetta or bacon) into little squares. Others prefer strips. Cook, stirring, until it is just barely beginning to brown. It should not be crisp! Take off heat.

If we are using bacon, we use only one tablespoon of olive oil at first, cook the bacon until it is brown, and then remove from the heat and drain the pan, putting the cooked bacon on paper towels. We then add the remaining olive oil to the saute pan and the red pepper flakes, and heat through. Then return the bacon to the pan, stir, and set aside until the pasta is ready.

Put the pasta in the boiling water and cook to al dente. When it is al dente, reserve a cup of the pasta water and drain.

Put the pasta in the heated saute pan, add at least a half cup of the reserved liquid, stir. Add the twists of the fresh black pepper. Stir. And add half the cheese, and stir. Do not over-cheese. Serve in heated bowls with the rest of the pecorino at the ready.