Pasta alla Gricia

Is there anything more delicious than a bowl of Roman pasta? That is to say: spaghetti alla carbonara, with its silky, eggy sauce, pecorino cheese and thick pieces of guanciale; cacio e pepe, slightly spicy and addictively cheesy, especially delicious made with fresh tonnarelli; bucatini all'amatriciana, with its sumptuous, tomato sauce, meaty guanciale, and generous grating of pecorino cheese; and oh, yes, pasta alla gricia.

What's that? Gricia who? Thought so. Unless you're actually living in Rome I'm willing to bet you haven't heard much about that last one, pasta alla gricia, which much like a youngest child with lots of loud and outgoing older siblings, often gets overshadowed (I myself admit that I am an amatriciana girl). It doesn't have the decadence of carbonara, the intense cheesiness of cacio e pepe, or the tomatoey goodness of amatriciana, but gricia -- made with just three main ingredients -- really shows you that less can be more.

So let's talk about these ingredients! Aside from the pasta, the main players here are the guancial (cured pork cheek) and Pecorino Romano (a hard, tangy grating cheese made from sheep's milk). The Pecorino has a salty, sharp flavor that is wonderful paired with the juicy, fatty guanciale. Now, if you're worried about the short ingredient list, don't be! Guanciale and Pecorino have flavor in spades and are more than enough to make this dish great -- therefore do NOT be tempted to add things like parsley, garlic, onion, butter, chili, wine, or any other such thing, as they are not necessary here (not to mention they are won't make an authentic gricia). The flavorful, sheep-y cheese, the rendered fat from the guanciale, and a bit of starchy pasta water are all you need to make a simple but addictive-ly good sauce and a filling, comforting, and downright delicious finished dish. This is straightforward, rustic Roman cooking at its finest, and I must admit, I do regret being such an amatriciana fantatic all these years -- our friend gricia deserves just as much love and attention as its more famous siblings. 

A lot of notes on this one: Regarding substitutes, pancetta or bacon and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese -- while perhaps easier to find if you're not in Italy -- will not produce the same dish, so if you want to make actual pasta alla gricia, try for the guanciale and Pecorino (well-stocked supermarkets and specialty food stores should have them). You'll notice that there is no salt in this recipe.  Between the salty guanciale and the Pecorino, you will not need any. I used a larger grate on my cheese grater when grating the cheese this time, but think in hindsight I prefer using the smaller one, to make the cheese a bit finer and the sauce smoother. You can use any pasta you want here -- rigatoni would also be nice -- but I happen to like spaghetti. If you want you can use this recipe as a base to make any of the other three Roman pastas; add egg to make carbonara, tomato to make amatriciana, or leave out the guanciale and up the pepper and cheese to make cacio e pepe. I make this for me and my sister, which is why the quantities below are for 2 very generous portions, so feel free to up the ingredients accordingly if you're feeding a bigger group.

PASTA ALLA GRICIA

Ingredients:
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces (112 grams) guanciale
5-6 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
8 ounces (224 grams) pasta of your choice
Black pepper, to taste

Directions:
Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. While the water is heating, slice up the guanciale (you can cut it into narrow strips, wide ribbons, or dice it)

Place the guanciale in a cold sauté pan with the olive oil. Turn on the heat to medium.  Once your water is boiling, drop in the pasta. Begin to sauté the guanciale. When the guanciale has softened, add a small splash of water from the pasta pot. Lower the heat, and keep drizzling in spoonfuls of the pasta cooking water as it evaporates, just enough to keep the guanciale moist (the starchy water will combine with the fat to form the "sauce" for the pasta).
When the pasta is al dente (follow package directions) scoop out about 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set it aside. Quickly drain your pasta and add it to the pan, then turn up the heat and wait until the pan begins to sizzle. Toss the pasta in the pan to coat it with the guanciale and rendered fat. Add a small splash of the reserved pasta cooking water if necessary to bring it all together.
 

Remove the pan from the heat and add the grated Pecorino Romano cheese, but try not to add too much more (there should be just enough cheese to help bind the guanciale to pasta). Grind some black pepper into the pan, toss well and serve immediately. Serves 2-3.
Recipe slightly adapted from one of my culinary idols, Gina DePalma, via Serious Eats (www.seriouseats.com). 

 



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