Spaghetti 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 Griscian while others reference a Swiss canton. The recipe has even been linked to German bakers in Rome. In other words, nobody knows for sure.
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.
Spaghetti alla Gricia Ingredients
The Pasta alla Gricia ingredient list is ridiculously short with just a handful of items: guanciale, pasta, Perorino Romano, ground black pepper and water. 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.
→ Click here to buy a quality pepper mill if you don’t already have one in your kitchen.
How to Make Spaghetti 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.
→ Click here to order a box grater from Amazon if you don’t already have one.
Spaghetti 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.
→ Click here to buy the same All Clad pan that we use in our recipe. We swear by this pan.
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.
Spaghetti 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.
→ Click here to join the Roscioli Italian Wine Club. The club delivers artisan wines like Silene to destinations around the world.
Spaghetti alla Gricia Recipe
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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 the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.