Oh, the Hamletic doubt strikes again! Is pancetta (or bacon) and guanciale the same thing? Well, if you want to cook authentic Italian dishes, please make no mistakes about it. Guanciale and pancetta, (or bacon) are two completely different cuts of meat. While bacon (or pancetta, belly, in Italian) comes from the belly meat, streaked with fat, normally smoked, soft and sweet, guanciale comes directly from the jowl (or cheek) of the pig. Guanciale is always cured, harder, fattier and much saltier than bacon, plus it is uncooked and not always smoked. In simple words, there are no substitutes for guanciale as its unique intense flavor is simply irreplaceable. At this point you have your options: either enter a culinary debate where you have to defend your choice with fork and knife or just surrender to an Italian tradition. Famous for its use in historic pasta dishes such as Carbonara, Gricia, Amatriciana, guanciale is also used wrapped around jumbo shrimp, quails and pheasants, draped on hot focaccia and pizza, pureed and smeared on hot crostini bread, baked until crunchy and crumbled on soups, crisped up and pulverized on fish. The list is long. This is what I like about guanciale as an ingredient, it traps the essence of a very distinctive succulent flavor and can literally enhance any dish. Historically, guanciale comes from central Italy and more precisely from Abruzzo. Due to its popularity, it started to be made in other regions of Italy and mostly celebrated in pasta dishes in Lazio. Just to make all those who use bacon in its place feel better, know that I still remember my mother making Carbonara using bacon. Using bacon was quite common anywhere in Italy until the 1990’s as guanciale was not that commonly used. In the US, guanciale is not an easy find and it is quite expensive. Pillow is the Italian translation for it, but please, do not ask me why, as guanciale it is a pretty hard and compact cured meat, surely firmer than bacon. Many people prefer using bacon as guanciale, because once cooked, it basically disappears. But that is the way to use it. Its rendered fat is the secret. Without it, forget that silky consistency which reveals what cured meat was used. The evidence is inevitable. Cooking with guanciale typically means using a very poor ingredient that does not require the addition of any other type of fat. So why is it so preferable? Like I always preach, there is no better or worse when it comes to taste, rather there is tradition, history, culture.
Making Carbonara using guanciale is undoubtedly an experience of palate, and the moment you taste it you will feel like you are being propelled to one of those dark, old trattorie in Trastevere. Making Amatriciana using guanciale beams you up to Amatrice where you’ll probably sit in a cozy Osteria, sipping local red wine, legs under a table layered with a red and white checkered tablecloth. These are just some of the side effects caused by this robustly, delectable ingredient. Am I titillating your taste buds yet? Shaped like a triangle, guanciale requires a skilled curing method which consists of 5 days spent under pure sea salt. During this period, it gets massaged in order to make sure the salt is consistent on every part of it. Then the salt gets washed and at this point the guanciale gets conciato, which in the Italian slang, means cured. Black pepper and salt are the simple common ingredients used for it. In certain parts of Italy, like Calabria, Umbria, Campania or Sardina, garlic and herbs are frequently used. The Abruzzese recipe also calls for chili pepper and a light oak smoking. The resting period goes from 3 to 4 months. Sliced and served together with other cured meats, diced and cooked in sauces or vegetables, wrapped around quails, shrimps or even cheese, guanciale is a wonderful flavor enhancer.
The Myths behind Carbonara
Carbonara: cream or no cream, whole eggs or just egg yolks, Parmigiano Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, bacon or guanciale? So many questions to an easy answer: guanciale, egg yolks, freshly ground black pepper, Pecorino Romano. Punto! But when did Carbonara appear in the Italian menu? This is not an ancient recipe like many people believe. It was actually created during WWII, when the US soldiers were stationed in Rome. Knowing that bacon and eggs were a favorite, Roman mothers were cooking for them pasta with eggs and guanciale which was the closest thing to bacon. But there is also another version of how this dish was invented. Carbonara means Coal miners style. Apparently the coal miners were cooking this rich dish grinding a lot of pepper on it as it reminded the dust from the coal that was covering their faces and hair. You pick the version you like better depending on if you are romantic or matter of fact! At our cooking school, chef Alessio JM Da Prato has taught thousands and thousands of students how to make it perfect. And we proudly know that they will teach other people how to make it.
SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA
12 ounces thinly sliced guanciale cut into stamp size pieces
4 egg yolks
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pinch of sea salt
3 tablespoons freshly grated sharp Pecorino Romano
1 lb thick spaghetti
Place the guanciale in a large skillet and cook on a low heat until all the fat has been rendered. In the meantime, in a pourable container, whisk egg yolks, pepper, salt, cheese until creamy. Pour in 3 tbs hot pasta water, mix fast and set aside. Cook your spaghetti in salted boiling water and drain them when al dente. Sauté the spaghetti with the guanciale and its fat, adding 2 tbs hot water and then, off heat, quickly pour in the egg mixture, mixing very fast in order to prevent the eggs from cooking. Serve immediately with extra grated cheese on top and freshly ground black pepper.
Amatrice is the ancient town where this recipe originates from. During the Dark Ages, Amatrice was part of Abruzzo, then in 1927, it became officially part of the province of Rieti, Lazio. The new situation gave birth to a huge controversy: Is Amatriciana from Abruzzo or from Lazio? I want to make you feel better: know that Italians have the same doubt. In 2016 the heart of Amatrice was completely devastated by one of the most destructive earthquakes which frequently hit the area, and due to this inauspicious event, its name finally matched this famous recipe. In fact, many people ignore that the recipe name comes from a town. The original recipe made by the shepherds was actually what we now call Gricia, a sauce made with just guanciale, pecorino, lots of cracked black pepper and cooking water. Then in the 1700, the dish was enriched with tomatoes, the fruit of the New World that people in Campania were just starting to use. The onion was not part of the recipe in those days but very often you find it in many versions. It confers sweetness to the dish and I personally like it. Same for the wine, it was not part of the original recipe despite I think its acidity makes the sauce just perfect. This sauce was originally served with the Gnocchi Ricci, (curled gnocchi) a type of local gnocchi simply made with flour, warm water and eggs and curled with the use of three fingers. Subsequently it started to be used with dry pasta and bucatini is what makes the dish authentic and complete nowadays. The legacy of Amatrice will forever live thanks to this humble but incredible sauce. Follow the recipe!
1lb guanciale, thinly sliced and then cut into stamp size pieces
1 large red onion, finely sliced
red chili pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 cup dry white wine ( optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups canned San Marzano Mutti tomatoes with their liquid, crushed by hand
Sharp Pecorino Romano, grated
1 lb bucatini
In a large skillet, place the guanciale and start cooking it on a low heat until all the fat has been rendered. Remove the meaty part and leave the fat. Add the sliced onion and cook until very soft, stirring very often and adding a tbs of hot water in case the onion starts sticking to the pan. Return the guanciale to the skillet. Increase the heat to medium and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add a splash of dry white wine. let it evaporate. Season with salt and pepper and chili pepper. Lower the heat and mix in the tomatoes. Keep cooking until the sauce has reduced, about 10 -15 minutes. Stir very frequently. Meanwhile cook the bucatini in salted boiling water until al dente. Strain and add to the sauce, cooking for one minute. Serve with a generous dust of grated pecorino Romano and freshly ground black pepper.