• Pasta alla gricia: An iconic Roman dish of pecorino cheese, pepper and guanciale or cured pork jowl. (Jono Fleming)Source: Jono Fleming
The simple and comforting pasta alla gricia is extremely popular in Rome, but relatively unknown here. Perhaps not for long though.
Caterina Hrysomallis

10 Jun 2021 - 1:20 PM  UPDATED 15 Jun 2021 - 12:31 PM

--- Stream the new season of Cook Like an Italian with Silvia Colloca where Silvia cooks pasta alla gricia free on SBS On Demand ---


There's a famed Roman pasta we don't hear about much in Australia called pasta alla gricia.  

Silvia Colloca, chef and host of SBS Food program Cook Like an Italian, explains, "Pasta alla gricia is one of [central Italian region] Lazio's most iconic dishes. Something you'll always find in Roman restaurants or trattorias."

Pasta alla gricia is defined by three key ingredients — pecorino cheese, pepper and guanciale, which is cured pork jowl. 

"The simplicity of this dish leaves room for the heavy richness of the guanciale to shine through, contrasting beautifully with the sharp bite of pecorino and woody black pepper," says Colloca.

"The simplicity of this dish leaves room for the heavy richness of the guanciale to shine through."

Akela Nevelli is head chef at Italian restaurant Bar Carolina in Melbourne. Nevelli says although he loves carbonara, which is often referred to as pasta alla gricia's 'cousin', he prefers pasta alla gricia.

"I love them both, but if I had to choose, I would say pasta alla gricia as it's a little lighter without the eggs," he says.

So, how is pasta alla gricia made? It's a quick and simple dish, but it's important to be well organised when it comes to food prep. Timing is everything — if the cheese and fat congeal, it can totally ruin the dish.

You need to take care with how you cook pasta alla gricia, but the results are worth it.

First, prepare the water for your pasta. "Salt the water and don't forget that the salt you put in the water is effectively an ingredient. So be generous," says Colloca.

Nevelli says, "On a hot pan, toast ground pepper on full heat for two minutes, then place it to the side."

In the meantime, cut the guanciale into strips or little cubes, whatever you prefer texturally. Over medium heat, drizzle some olive oil and add the guanciale and the toasted pepper. Cook until the fat has rendered and the guanciale is golden brown.

"By now, your water should be boiling, so drop the pasta in and give it a good stir to avoid any sticking," says Nevelli. 

Colloca and Nevelli agree with what pasta to use for this dish — rigatoni. Colloca says, "The ridges [of the rigatoni] they're just magnificent and they trap the sauce."

Take the pasta out of the water about a minute before the time instructed on the packaging, since there's a bit of pan cooking to come. 

The secret to most great pasta sauces is adding some 'acqua di cottura', which is the residual water from boiled pasta. Nevelli says, "Use a ladle to transfer some of the boiled water into the guanciale pan and turn down to a low heat.

"Once the pasta is cooked to al dente, strain it and transfer it to the pan, add grated pecorino and turn off the heat. Toss the pasta, moving it around the pan with tongs until it's evenly covered with the thick sauce," he says.

Roman-style rigatoni alla Gricia

A simple pasta throw-together that's ready in 15 minutes, complete with chunks of guanciale and a good shaving of Roman pecorino.

You need to do two things to ensure a great pasta alla gricia. The first is to find good quality guanciale. Many delicatessens sell it, but if you can't get your hands on it, you can use pancetta — though some Romans will tell you that's a no-no.

The second is to get the ratio of the sauce ingredients right. "It sounds very simple but achieving the right consistency and texture when making a sauce with only hot, starchy water, pork fat and pecorino cheese can be quite challenging. If you upset the balance, it can easily end up being too dry, oily or watery," says Nevelli

As they say, sometimes it's the simple things that are hard to master. But this dish is well worth the challenge.

Spaghetti aglio e olio

This dish is a great example of Italian cooking philosophy. Just a few simple, good-quality ingredients can create something truly unforgettable.

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