I have visited Italy once in my entire life. And I only visited one place – Rome. I was there as a student on holiday, which meant I was broke. I also hadn’t yet come to appreciate food and cooking as much as I soon would. So the food I remember the most from my very brief time in Rome is gelato.
Just to give you an idea where this story is going, there’s been an explosion in gelato joints here in the last year or two, including one in my neighborhood. And I’m not denying, gelato is delicious. But in these last couple of years, it just so happens that I’ve been way more interested in actual food and learning about actual food – Italian and otherwise – than in jumping in the hipster, gelato-flavored bandwagon.
You may remember a post I wrote a while ago on the classic Roman dish, cacio e pepe. The more I have researched and read about Italian cooking, the more I’m drawn to traditional Roman fare. I love its simplicity, and the fact that it relies on so few ingredients, yet demands such high-quality. I love that it’s been truly “traditional” for centuries – it seems like the meaning of “traditional” changes a lot depending on how much food the restaurant is trying to sell.
Personally, I have no claims to any real, substantial Italian heritage. I come from a family of storytellers, and there is a story or two among some of us about some distant connection to Italy. I’ve never been able to really believe it. But maybe there’s something to be said for the fact that I seem to be drawn to Italian food and Italian cooking and Italian dishes. I didn’t learn to make gnocchi from an Italian grandma, or grow up eating simple peasant soups – nothing so dramatic. But when I think about my favorite ingredients, such as the ones I cooked with this evening, I have to wonder.
Pasta alla gricia is, like cacio e pepe, a classic, traditional Roman dish, and like its cousin, it’s ridiculously simple (and ridiculously good). I read up on it before I got ready to cook it, even though I knew I didn’t have the ingredients on hand to make it authentically. I learned that it’s actually not traditionally made with pancetta, but with guanciale, but I wouldn’t have the faintest idea where to even ask for guanciale around here, not because I’m snobby, but because I’ve never had it, never seen it, and I’m pretty sure my go-to “butchers” (one of which is Harris Teeter, y’all) haven’t either.
You should cook this dish because the base is pancetta and olive oil. Seriously, what could be better? How can you go wrong? You start with pancetta and olive oil and you add pasta and cheese. Do I need to keep trying to explain why this dish is amazingly delicious??
Someday I’ll go back to Rome and eat in an actual trattoria and order this. But for tonight, a crazy-cold night in January, with a nice cold craft beer (Bell’s Amber Ale, in case you’re wondering) … this’ll do nicely.