My inspiration for writing about food comes from the things that surround me and that I come into contact with every day. It could be a comment of a friend, a picture that someone texts me from Italy, or a conversation I strike with a coworker or restaurant guest-something that opens up a memory and sparks an interest. Once an idea is in my head, it’s not long before I’m in the kitchen cooking my favorite classic recipe, recreating what resides in my memory, adding a new twist to a forgotten favorite or drawing upon what inspired me and concocting something new.
A few days ago I was talking over the phone to my brother Tullio who lives in Rome with my sister-in-law, Federica, and my two nephews, Tommaso and Filippo. Since it was dinner time, he was about to prepare pasta alla Gricia.
Here’s a brief history on Gricia. The Gricia originated in the town of Amatrice somewhere in the 19th century. There are a lot of theories and legends about the invention of the dish. Some say that it was created by local bread sellers who the Romans called “Grici.” Others say that shepherds from the small village of Grisciano in the mountains around the town of Amatrice were making this pasta because pecorino cheese, cured pork cheek and black pepper were non-perishable ingredients that the shepherds could carry around with them for days while in the pastures.
This dish is considered the ancestor of Bucatini all’amatriciana, the famous Roman dish which happens to be the first dish I learned how to cook when I was a kid in Rome. I love this dish and feel emotional when I talk about it. It also touches a special place in my heart because of the earthquake that affected central Italy and especially the town of Amatrice and the surrounding areas few years ago.
The main difference between Gricia and Amatriciana is that the latter has tomatoes and onions. Some purists of both dishes dispute that onion was present in either original recipes. I personally enjoy the addition of onion in both dishes, and my brother makes a mean Gricia with white onion, guanciale (cured pork jawl), pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper.
Gricia falls into the category of what I like to call the mother sauces of Roman pasta. Just like the five classical French cuisine mother sauces-five leading sauces considered the starting points for making the secondary small or compound sauces-classified by Chef Auguste Escoffier in the early 20th century, it is mandatory for a Roman chef to master these basic sauces before he or she proceed to work with more elaborate pasta dishes.
So these are my five Roman mother sauces:
1. Gricia. Guanciale, Pecorino Romano, black pepper, onion (optional). This is the base for the secondary sauce, Amatriciana.
2. Cacio e Pepe. Pecorino Romano cheese, pasta water and black pepper.
3. Burro e Parmigiano. Butter, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. This is the original Alfredo without the cream.
4. Carbonara. Egg, Pecorino Romano, onion (optional), guanciale (or pancetta), and black pepper.
5. Aglio Olio e Peperoncino. Extra virgin olive oil, parsley, garlic and peperoncino (dry, red chili flakes). This is pronounced in Roman dialect as almost one word “ aio e oio.” It is a late night staple of many midnight spaghettatas and is considered to be originally from Naples but is often prepared in Roma as well, so I “borrowed” and “adopted”.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting recipes for all the five Roman Mother Sauces. Here is my take on Gricia:
Rigatoni alla Gricia
1 lb of rigatoni pasta
10 oz of guanciale
1 small onion chopped fine
3 ounces grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Black pepper to taste
Shaved Pecorino for garnish
Set a large pot of well salted water to boil, add pasta and let cook until it is al dente. Meanwhile, slice the guanciale into 1/16 of an inch thick and 1 inch wide strips and place in a cold sauté pan. Bring the heat up to medium/high making sure not to burn the guanciale by stirring often. Once the pork is crispy, you can add the onions and let them slowly cook on medium heat for about ten minutes until translucent and soft but not quite caramelized. At this point remove pan from heat and add the black pepper. If you like, you can sprinkle some crushed red pepper flakes. Once pasta is ready, drain it, but make sure to save about a cup of pasta water. Add the pasta to the sauté pan and over low heat alternate the pecorino cheese and the starchy pasta water a little at the time. DO NOTADD SALT!!! Pecorino and guanciale are quite salty and so is the pasta water. The dish is now ready. Spoon it onto a plate and garnish with shaved pecorino ribbons.