Pasta alla Romana: Rome's Famous First Coures - Rick's Rome
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Pasta alla Romana

Second courses in Rome often feature various frattaglie (innards) and scarti (scraps) and other parts of the quinto quarto (the so-called “fifth quarter,” or in other words, whatever the butcher scrapes off the floor after he’s done properly quartering the animal). While delicious when prepared properly, these dishes don’t necessarily translate well on the written menu. Especially in English.

But if you’re up for it, go someplace like Agustarello a Testaccio and have a go at the traditional main dishes. Look for coda alla vaccinara (stewed oxtail), trippa alla romana (tripe, a.k.a. cow’s stomach), and the infamous pajata (suckling lamb’s intestines).

Not interested? Well, luckily there’s always pasta, and Rome’s first course dishes (primi piatti) are among the most familiar and well-liked around the world.

Pasta alla Romana


I’m not sure if there’s such a dish as pasta alla romana. I might have made that up; it’s meant to be a play on words referring to the adage of dining out “alla romana,” meaning that everyone splits the bill evenly.

But pasta is not expensive in Italy, so go ahead and reach for the check, and offer to treat. As for the real Roman pasta dishes, most folks are usually ready, willing, and eager to dive into the typical primi piatti like carbonara and cacio e pepe. Actually there are four dishes in this discussion, and they’re all related by recipes. Let’s meet The Family, cousins all of them. Here’s a recent family portrait:

Pasta alla Romana

Cacio e Pepe


Cacio e pepe would appear to be one of the simplest preparations in Italian cuisine. But like many things in Italy, there is subtle complexity just beneath the surface. Although it only consists of pasta, black pepper and cheese, if done improperly, you can easily wind up with a big, heavy glob in the middle of your plate. The trick is to find the perfect balance between the cheese and the moisture of the pasta. Tonnarelli is the pasta of choice, which is often called spaghetti alla chitarra outside of Rome. (Chitarra = Guitar, so the pasta represents the guitar strings, I suppose. Coarse so that they hold more sauce!)


Here’s ​how you make it just right:


Boil the tonnarelli in plenty of boiling salted water. Meanwhile grate the pecorino cheese ​and set it aside. Grind a generous amount of pepper in a serving bowl, where you will then season the pasta.


Drain the tonnarelli and pour them in the bowl, away from the heat, with two ladles of the cooking water (it will be used to melt and to mix the seasoning). Then add, a little at a time, the grated pecorino, stirring continuously as the starch releases and until the cheese is completely melted, giving you a thick, glossy sauce. Serve it immediately (if not sooner), adding more grated pecorino.

pasta in rome
roman pasta dishes

Gricia


Yes, the recipe for pasta alla gricia is essentially cacio e pepe plus guanciale, which are the fatty cheeks of the pig. (In a pinch, I guess it’s OK to use bacon. Unless you're a Roman.) So obviously the pork fat makes this tastier than its simpler cousin, mentioned above.


There are two versions of the origin story. ​One says that the Grici were people coming down from Switzerland (Cantone dei Grigioni) to work in Rome as panettieri (bakers), and since they were workaholic northerners, they had little time to cook and so they invented this dish, which is quick and easy. ​Others say ​gricia was invented in Grisciano in the Castelli Romani. Either version seems plausible.


​More importantly, how do you make it? First cook down the guanciale with a ​dash of dry white wine and/or a spoon of olive oil so it renders and emulsifies into ​a sauce. Once ​the meat becomes sort of transparent, raise the heat slightly and continue to cook until crisp.


When your pasta (usually spaghetti or rigatoni) is about two minutes away from al dente, toss it into the pan with the guanciale. Add a few splashes of your pasta water and stir continuously to coat the pasta, and then finish with Pecorino Romano.


There is also a variation of this dish where you can add onion and/or chili to taste.

Amatriciana


Pasta ​Amatriciana is the “descendant” of gricia, appearing at the end of the 18th century when tomato sauce was invented. It was brought into The Eternal City by the Amatriciani (from Amatrice, province of Rieti in northwestern Lazio) who, during the 17th and 18th centuries, would travel to Rome from the neighboring hills to sell their products.


The first mention of this dish is from Chef Francesco Leonardi in his modern Apicius of 1790, who served Amatriciana during a banquet at the Quirinale Palace in honor of Emperor Francis I of Austria, organized by Pope Pius VII in 1816. He was the first chef to use tomatoes to transform Gricia into Amatriciana. His version includes ​maccheroni, Amatrice guanciale, tomatoes, onion and pecorino.


In Amatrice, the dish is always made with spaghetti, while Romans prefer bucatini. Vermicelli and rigatoni are also common choices.

pasta amatriciana
carbonara

​Carbonara


As legend goes, spaghetti alla carbonara first appeared in Rome after the Allies pushed out the German forces and distributed rations to the starving Italians. These included large amounts of bacon and powdered eggs, which the locals used to dress their pasta. When American G.I.s returned home from Italy, they brought this recipe with them, and it quickly became popular in the U.S. (Except among Italian-Americans, whose nonne never heard of this crazy way to make pasta!)


This seems like a plausible explanation since pasta alla carbonara was notably absent from Ada Boni's seminal 1930 recipe book, La Cucina Romana. In fact, the term carbonara first appears in Italian print in 1950, when it was described by the Italian newspaper La Stampa as “a dish sought by the American officers after the Allied liberation of Rome in 1944.”

The term "carbonara" first appears in Italian print in 1950, when described by the #Italian newspaper La Stampa as “a dish sought by the American officers after the Allied liberation of #Rome in 1944.” #pasta #mediterraneandiet #foodie

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There is a restaurant in Campo dei Fiori called Carbonara, which pre-dates the Allied liberation of Rome, but they deny “inventing” the dish (although the do serve it). It may have earned its name because the flakes of black pepper, which look like carbone (coal) dust against the light-colored eggs, cheese, and pasta.


And it can be tricky to prepare. Like its cousin dishes, you risk turning it into a giant glop o​f egg​, cheese, and pork fat. But basically it’s this: make Gricia, as mentioned above, then beat a couple of egg yolks and pour them on the cooked spaghetti and stir. Let it harden just ever-so-slightly, without making lumps. Serve immediately, adding more pecorino to taste and freshly ground pepper.


So there you have it: four "simple" and closely related dishes of "pasta alla romana." And if you split the check equally among your dining companions, then you'll have the full Roman restaurant experience. Ahò abbello! ‘Nnamo a magnà!


If you'd like to enjoy these fabulous dishes with me in situ, sign up for my tour next September, and I promise that you'll see taste for yourself what all of the fuss is about!

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Rick
 

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Love all these pastas, Rick, but also love tripe, liver, and – when in Sicily – I have even been know to eat a spleen sandwich or two. Bring it on! Happy New Year!

    • Rick says:

      David, you’ve tried the famous “il pani ca’ meusa” in Sicily?!? Bravo! I once went to the Holy Land of spleen sandwiches in Palermo, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, but stopped short of entering the temple. I ordered un arancino instead. Alas.

  • Janet says:

    Always love your posts, Rick. Thanks for your research & love of everything Italian❣️

  • Toni says:

    Very interesting article. There are several ways to prepare so it is not a glob on the plate.

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