Recipes from Rome: Weigh in on Italy's staple food
Rome is famous for four types of pasta — cacio e pepe, gricia, amatriciana and carbonara. If you walk into any trattoria in Rome, you are likely to find at least two or three of these pastas on the menu (if not all four).
The Romans are very, very territorial when it comes to food, especially when it comes to their pastas. The quickest way to start an argument is to ask two Romans whether it is proper to add pancetta, guanciale or (gasp!) bacon to carbonara or whether to add onions to amatriciana — I'm team guanciale and no onion.
These pastas can be seen as building blocks. Cacio e pepe is long pasta, like spaghetti or tonarelli, with pecorino romano cheese and black pepper. In Roman dialect, cacio means cheese, so the pasta is literally called cheese and pepper. Some people add butter to cacio e pepe to make the sauce come together more easily, but this is a big no-no when it comes to tradition.
However, most restaurant servings of cacio e pepe have a more than generous serving of butter in them, so use it at your discretion. Cacio e pepe is like sexy, sophisticated Roman mac and cheese. Since it is only three ingredients, it may seem simple, but mastering the sauce takes years of practice.
Gricia is just cacio e pepe with guanciale added. Guanciale is cured pig cheek, kind of like bacon but much sweeter. The guanciale is cut into cubes or strips and then lightly fried. The cooked pasta, usually rigatoni, is then tossed in the pan with the guanciale and its fat, pecorino romano cheese, black pepper and a healthy dose of pasta water. It is called pasta alla gricia because the sauce kind of turns gray (gricia meaning gray). Not the most appealing name, but definitely a contender for my favorite pasta of all time.
Amatriciana is maybe the most controversial of all Roman pastas because there is more room for variation. I'm going to stop that right here — amatriciana should be made exactly like gricia, with just enough tomato added to the pan with the fried guanciale to make the sauce blush.
Some variations include adding onions or, much worse, garlic. These alliums, while acceptable in most other sauces, only serve to interfere with the beautiful purity that is amatriciana. The only variation I find slightly acceptable is the addition or replacement of crushed peperoncino (red pepper) for black pepper. We won't even get into the amatriciana-isn't-really-Roman argument. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.
My favorite pasta in the universe is spaghetti alla carbonara. Carbonara is my desert island, death row pasta. There are many legends about the origins of carbonara. One of the most common stories is that American soldiers during WWII brought bacon over with them, and the Italians created a pasta with the American bacon and eggs.
As such, some say that bacon is the most traditional way to make carbonara. Carbonara is, again, gricia with eggs added. I'll admit, when I'm in the States I make carbonara with bacon. It's so easy, and it tastes so good.
However, in Rome I will always choose guanciale — pig cheeks forever. If you've never tried carbonara, you absolutely need to. The eggs added to the sauce make it extra creamy and delicious. On two separate occasions, I have made 5 a.m. after-club carbonara for strangers. 10/10 would do again.
If all of this sounds very opinionated, it absolutely is. This is the kind of food that inspires passion bordering on violence, it's just that good.