Pasta alla Gricia, the most ancient and simplest of the four great pasta dishes of Rome, may be the most satisfying. Read on to find out how to make this Roman classic at home.
While it’s the least globally famous of Rome’s ‘fantastic four’, Pasta alla Gricia may be the best Roman pasta classic. It’s certainly the most accessible.
It’s the one that ‘fits the bill’ if you’re looking for an everyday pasta that’s both complete as a meal and easy to make. It’s also a dish that epitomizes the Roman style of pasta cookery.
Ironically, Pasta alla Griccia was new to us when we ate a tasty bowl at the Mercato di Testaccio in Rome. At the time, it was just a pasta that we had read about but didn’t quite recognize. Now it’s a top contender for our favorite Roman pasta.
Pasta alla Gricia is all about fatty pure pork flavors and the way those flavors meld with pasta. In this dish, the pork fat in guanciale melds with starchy pasta water to create a basic white sauce that’s the star of the pasta show. Sure, Pecorino Romano and black pepper share the playbill but, unlike in Cacio e Pepe, these ingredients merely act as necessary supporting actors.
The History Of Pasta Alla Gricia
If we could travel back in a time machine a few hundred years, we’d like to think that alla Gricia would be the pasta that most Romans would be eating upon our arrival. In the real world, we have to settle for the pasta’s documented history which is sketchy at best.
Some stories link the dish to the mountain origins of Pasta Amatriciana and a small town called Grisciano while others reference a Swiss canton. The recipe has even been linked to German bakers in Rome. In other words, nobody knows for sure.
Discover our favorite Rome restaurants for Pasta alla Gricia and other classic dishes.
What we do know is that stretching ingredients in dishes like Alla Gricia has sustained people throughout human history. In all likelihood, ancient Roman cooks didn’t understand starch and fat emulsions scientifically. Either way, they probably appreciated the dish’s simple, affordable way of taking a little bit of cured pork and creating something satisfying and magical.
Luckily, we don’t need to know its definitive origins to create this delicious pasta dish. Our job is to honor the spirit of the cuisine while replicating the nature of the flavors and textures that make the dish a classic.
Pasta Alla Gricia Ingredients
The Pasta alla Gricia ingredient list is ridiculously short with just a handful of items:
Accordingly, you should use the best available ingredients.
The dish starts with Guanciale – fatty pork jowl. While you can substitute pancetta or even bacon for this product, the flavor and fat content won’t quite be the same. If you live in the USA, we encourage you to find guanciale either at a specialty retailer or via mail order. You can alternatively order guanciale from Italy but the shipping costs will likely be substantially higher.
We recommend splurging on quality pasta. Look for pasta produced through brass dyes since that process leaves a rough grippy edge on the pasta that allows the sauce to stick better. We like to use spaghetti; therefore, our dish is Spaghetti alla Gricia.
Using Pecorino Romano cheese is a must. We encourage you to grate the cheese on the smallest setting on a box grater. You’ll want to place it aside and have it at the ready for when you complete your sauce.
Lately we’ve been using a large peppermill and it really makes a difference. Every crank of the mill yields a substantial grind of pepper. We never thought of splurging on a large peppermill but, after using one at home, we’ve found that it’s worth the extra money.
How To Make Pasta Alla Gricia
Pork fat is one of the true wonders of cuisine. It melts like a dream and flavors dishes like no other ingredient.
Our Gricia recipe begins like many others but, instead of removing our Guanciale from the pan, we choose to lower the heat after the fat begins to render, allowing the pork to slowly caramelize. To us, the resulting pork fat is a beautiful thing.
You don’t want the guanciale to burn like crisp bacon. Once the pork has browned sufficiently, remove it from the low heat of the stove. You’ll want the pan to be well heated once the pasta water and pasta ar added to the pan. The pasta will loosen a fair amount of flavorful fond formed from the browning pork fat.
Our recipe calls for a large amount of pasta water, about 1 1/2 cups. This may seem like a lot, but if you boil your pasta in a minimal amount of water (about 5 cups for one 1/2 pound of pasta), the water should thicken to a viscous slurry.
We also call for a small amount of grated Pecorino Romano – about 1/4 cup. You can grate additional cheese on top of the pasta for service. Finally, we recommend grinding the pepper on the pasta as a last step so that it’s at its freshest and most aromatic.
Pasta Alla Gricia Instructions – Step by Step
Begin by freezing the guanciale (or pancetta or bacon) for about 30-45 minutes. This step prevents the fat from melting in your hands and enables you to slice the meat thinly and evenly.
Cut the rind off the guanciale. (Do the same if there’s a hard rind on the pancetta.) We like to slice our guanciale about a 1/4″ thick.
Lay the guanciale flat in a cool 12″ frying pan. Turn the heat to medium high. Cook the guanciale until it just browns on the edges and the fat begins to render. Turn the heat to the lowest setting.
Keep an eye on the pan and remove the pan from the heat if you feel that the meat is close to burning.
To begin the pasta, boil about 5 cups of water in a saucepan large enough to fit the pasta.
While many recipes call for boiling the pasta in a large amount of water, we use less water for two reasons. First, a smaller amount of water takes less time to recover to a full boil once the pasta is added. Second, the density of starch is greater with less water, which creates a sort of loose slurry that thickens the sauce.
When using a long strand pasta like linguine or spaghetti, it may be easiest to use a 12″ sauté pan to boil the pasta. If, like us, you use a large sauce pan, you’ll still need to bend the long stranded pasta to submerge it all in a small diameter pan in a small amount of boiling water.
Either way, we prefer pans with long handles (like our All-Clad pictured here) since they make it easier to use tongs to remove the pasta from the pasta cooking water
About 3 minutes before removing the pasta from the pan, turn the heat on the pan with the guanciale to medium high. About 30 seconds before your pasta is ready, pour about 3 to 4 ladlefuls of pasta water into your pan. The starchy pasta water will not only help create the pasta sauce but it will also deglaze the pan, liberating any flavorful fond formed on the bottom of the pan by the pork.
Once the spaghetti is cooked to just al dente (you can taste to check), use tongs to transfer the pasta to the pan for finishing.
If you choose to use a colander instead, you can move about 1 cup of the cooked pasta water to a heatproof measuring cup before draining your pasta. Though you may not need the water, it’s good to have some in reserve in case the sauce gets too thick.
Once the guanciale is in the pasta pan, mix the pasta, the pasta water and the guanciale. Add more pasta water as need to make a viscous sauce. (We typically use about 1 1/2 cups of the pasta water.)
Remove the pan from the heat. Add the Pecorino Romano and stir with the pasta.
The sauce should be white and creamy. Grind in fresh black pepper to taste. You can optionally grate more Pecorino Romano when serving.
Pasta Alla Gricia Wine Pairing
Wine Pairing: Silene – 2019 – Damiano Ciolli – Lazio – Cesanese
We like to pair Roman pastas with Roman wine. We paired this dish with Silene’s Damiano Ciolli, a light bodied red that we liken to an earthy pinot noir. Prominent flavors include mushroom, cherry and raspberry.
These flavors weren’t a surprise. Since we got this bottle as part of our Roscio Italian Wine Club delivery, we already knew that it was a winner.
Consider joining the Roscioli Italian Wine Club. The club delivers artisan wines like Silene to destinations around the world.
Alla Gricia was invented in Italy’s Lazio region.
The Alla Gricia recipe was probably created in Grisciano, a small Lazio village.
The Alla Gricia recipe includes ground black pepper, guanciale, pasta, Pecorino Romano cheese and water.
You use pancetta or bacon if you don’t have access to guanciale.
Roman cooks often use spaghetti but you can use your favorite pasta in the Alla Gricia recipe.
Pasta alla Gricia is one of the easier Roman pastas to make at home.
No. Alla Gricia ingredients include guanciale and Pecorino Romano cheese. Guanciale is a pork product and Pecorino Romano cheese has rennet.
Carbonara is made with an egg while Alla Gricia is made with Carbonara. In other words, Carbonara is creamy while Alla Gricia is meaty.
Did you make this pasta dish? If so, please rate the recipe below.
Pasta alla Gricia Recipe
- 5 ounces guanciale (pancetta or bacon can substitute)
- ½ pound spaghetti
- ¼ cup Pecorino Romano cheese (grated on the diamond setting of a box grater)
- ground black pepper (to taste – about 1 to 2 teaspoons)
- Pecorino Romano cheese (grated, additional for serving)
- Place guanciale in the freezer for 30 – 45 minutes. Freezing the guanciale will make it easier to slice.
- Slice guanciale into lardons about 1/4" thick by a 1/2" wide.
- Place cut guanciale flat into a cool pan and turn heat on medium high.
- Turn the heat down to its lowest setting once the guanciale just begins to turn translucent, gets brown on the edges and renders its fat. Keep an eye on the pan. If the guancale looks like it's beginning to get too brown, remove it from the heat.
- Boil the spaghetti in 4 to 5 cups of salted water. (We like to add about a tablespoon of sea salt or table salt.) You may need to gently bend the pasta so it it's all submerged. Cook per instructions on the pasta box.
- Raise the heat on the guanciale to medium about 3 minutes before the pasta is ready.
- Just before removing the pasta, transfer 3 to 4 ladlefuls of the pasta water (about 1.5 cups) into the pan with the guanciale. Scrape up any brown bits that have accumulated in the pan.
- Use tongs to transfer the pasta to the guanciale pan. If you choose to use a colander to drain the pasta first, reserve about`1 cup of the pasta water before draining the pasta.
- Mix the pasta with the starchy pasta water and guanciale. Remove from heat.
- Add the Pecorino Romano and mix until the sauce is creamy. You should be able to see the bottom the pan when you drag a wooden spoon across it.
- Once the pasta and sauce are done, mix in a generous amount of ground black pepper to taste.
- Grate additional Pecorino Romano on the top of the pasta. Devour!
- You can replace guanciale with pancetta or bacon based on availability. However, we highly recommend guanciale for this dish.
- If you serve this recipe as a starter, it should serve 4 people.
- You can double this recipe to serve 4 main dishes.
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About The Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on their website 2foodtrippers. Since launching the site in 2012, they’ve traveled to over 40 countries in their quest to bring readers a unique taste of the world.
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Original Publication Date: February 23, 2021