Core Four: A Brief History and Beginner’s Guide to Classic Roman Pastas

My family has a love affair with Rome. My parents got engaged in Rome in the late summer of 1997. We have been to Rome 9 times in the last 5 years, twice in the last 6 months alone. In all fairness, my dad is Italian. Although we’re only Neapolitan and Sicilian, the beautiful eternal city has a special place in our hearts. 

While pasta is not unique to Rome, there are 4 classic Roman pasta dishes that every Italian knows and loves. They are variations on the same basic ingredients: guanciale, pecorino romano, and pepper. For these dishes, simplicity is key

Guanciale is a fatty cut of pork cheek or jowl that is cured and chopped into thin slices when used in cooking. Many people think that pancetta is interchangeable with guanciale, but I can promise you it’s not. Pancetta is a completely different cut of pork with a totally different curing process that does not give a dish the noticeable and robust flavor added when using guanciale. Any recipe that tells you otherwise is incorrect and inauthentic. That being said, good quality guanciale is very hard to find in the United States, and even the not-so-good guanciale is quite expensive. This makes replicating these dishes outside of Italy a real challenge. 

Pecorino Romano is a hard salty cheese made from sheep’s milk. The taste is very similar to that of Parmigiano Reggiano, except a bit gamier and ever so slightly saltier. It is one of Italy’s oldest and most popular cheeses. It is most often grated before being used in cooking. 

Pepper has been used since ancient times by Romans as a luxury spice to add flavor to food. However, now that it is much more commonplace and much less expensive, pepper has become a staple in many typical roman dishes.

The invention of each of these pastas is equal parts ambiguous and fascinating. Their histories are as subtly different as the variations in their recipes.  

Author’s Note: This article is geared more towards an explanation of these 4 pastas, and not recipes. The goal is for you to understand the difference more than to teach you how to make them. If you are interested in how to make any of them and want step-by-step instructions, I recommend looking up those from Elizabeth Minchilli or Giallo Zafferano (though the latter will have to be translated from the original Italian). 

Now, let’s get into the pastas: Pasta alla Gricia. Pasta all’Amatriciana, Pasta Cacio e Pepe, and Pasta alla Carbonara. 

Pasta alla Gricia

First and foremost is pasta alla Gricia. This is my least favorite of the classic Roman pastas, which seems to be the general consensus among my family members too. Where there isn’t agreement, though, is in the origins of this pasta. Its creation dates back to around 400 CE, nearly two-thousand years ago! One theory suggests that it got its name from the word Gricio, which was the title of those who sold common foods, in the local Roman dialect. Another theory, this one less likely, proposes the name of the dish derives from Grisciano, a nearby commune. Many are more skeptical of this theory because Grisciano is no more than a few small houses than a proper town where a pasta like this could have been. Nonetheless, the dish found its way to Rome and remains a staple in the cuisine.

Pasta alla Gricia is often referred to as the “Mother of Roman Pasta”, as it uses all of the ingredients the other pastas are based on: guanciale, pecorino romano, and black pepper. It is typically made with the Spaghetti or Rigatoni pasta shapes. You first cook the guanciale in a pan in its own fat, add cooked pasta to the pan, and slowly mix in grated pecorino romano and freshly cracked black pepper. It is also worth mentioning that pasta alla Gricia is sometimes referred to as Amatriciana bianca (a white sauce), which will be best explained by introducing our next pasta.

Spaghetti alla Gricia from Trattoria Lilli (Via di Tor di Nona, 23, 00186 Roma RM, Italy). Photography Credit: Sarah DiPietra

Pasta all’Amatriciana

Next up is Pasta all’amatriciana, the easiest to distinguish from the other three just by looking at it. Pasta all’amatriciana has a tomato-based sauce but includes identical elements to Pasta alla Gricia. “Amatriciana” means of or from Amatrice, which is a comune northeast of Rome in the same region of Lazio.This variation came about later, most likely around the late 18th century, when the people of Amatrice, mostly shepherds, finally got access to tomatoes. In recent years, a large debate was sparked over whether the dish should include cooked onions or not, only resolved with the deputy mayor of Amatrice speaking out against the addition of onions in Pasta All’Amatriciana.

For those of you who are picky eaters, (or have little brothers that are picky eaters like I do), this one is most close to a spaghetti and tomato sauce you would see in the United States. As I said, it has the exact same ingredients as Pasta alla Gricia, guanciale, pecorino romano, and black pepper, with the addition of tomato, of course. Sometimes, there is also the inclusion of white wine. It can also be made with a Spaghetti or Rigatoni shape, but a Roman favorite is Bucatini, a long tin noodle with a whole through the middle. Again, as in its mother dish, you cook the guanciale in a pan, remove the guanciale but throw in the peeled tomatoes to cook in the fat, add cooked pasta, and slowly mix in pecorino romano and black pepper. 

Rigatoni all’Amatriciana from Trattoria Lilli (Via di Tor di Nona, 23, 00186 Roma RM, Italy). Photography Credit: Sarah DiPietra

Pasta Cacio e Pepe

Then, we have Pasta Cacio e Pepe. Cacio e Pepe is the most Roman pasta at heart, as according to legend, the dish was born in the Roman countryside among shepherds. During the migrations of their flocks, shepherds would create cheese from their milk and add it to dried pasta to sustain them through the season. Adding in peppercorns, they had created a dish to keep themselves warm and an everlasting cornerstone of Roman cuisine. 

Pasta Cacio e Pepe is probably the most simple of all 4 of these pasta dishes, as it has the shortest list of the ingredients: pecorino romano and black pepper. This pasta can be really hit or miss depending on the strength of the sheepy flavor in the pecorino romano, which is personally not my preference. However, when made well, there is so much beauty and deliciousness in the simplicity of it. It can be made with Spaghetti, but traditionally, Romans love using Tonnarelli, a slightly thicker noodle with a square cross section. Put cooked pasta into a pot, adding in pecorino romano and black pepper, slowly pour in a little starchy pasta water to melt the cheese, and mix. 

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe from Osteria Angelino dal 1899 (Via Capo d’Africa, 6, 00184 Roma RM, Italy). Photography Credit: Sarah DiPietra

Pasta alla Carbonara 

Finally, the last, my favorite and probably the most well-known Roman pasta: Pasta alla Carbonara. The first written documentation of Carbonara, coming from the Italian word “carbonaro” meaning charcoal, was in a newspaper in the 1950s. The article described the hankering for the dish by American soldiers after the Liberation of Rome at the end of World War II. Since then, it has become very popular among Romans and Italians alike, as well as a fan favorite across the globe. 

Pasta alla Carbonara includes the classic ingredients as the others do, pecorino romano, guanciale, and black pepper. But it also uses egg (more specifically egg yolk) which attributes to the more yellow color of the dish. It is also most frequently made with the Spaghetti or Rigatoni pasta shapes. Like Pasta alla Gricia and Pasta all’Amatriciana, you fry the guanciale in its fat and then add in cooked pasta. Separately, you combine pecorino romano, beaten eggs, and a generous amount of black pepper together before slowly adding the mixture into the pan, a little at a time to avoid the egg from cooking or curtlining, mixing until creamy. 

Spaghetti alla Carbonara from Taverna Agàpe (Piazzetta di, Vicolo di S. Simeone, 26,27, 00186 Roma RM, Italy). Photography Credit: Sarah DiPietra

In summary:

Gricia: guanciale, pecorino romano, black pepper.

Amatriciana: guanciale, pecorino romano, black pepper, tomato.

Cacio e Pepe: pecorino romano, black pepper.

Carbonara: guanciale, pecorino romano, black pepper, egg. 

If you are ever in Rome, you have to try at least one of these fundamental dishes. Don’t hesitate to use this as your bible for differentiating between them, because often the subtleties get lost. I hope you enjoyed learning a little about the histories and subtle differences in these 4 classic Roman pastas as much as I love eating them. 


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