Behind the Bite: Roman Pasta

This post is part of our Behind the Bite series: deep dives into the dishes that we can’t stop thinking about.

There’s something comforting about the dependable, the quotidian, the downright normal.

Roman pasta is just that. Amatriciana, carbonara, gricia and cacio e pepe are the main pastas of Rome, and most restaurants have at least two of them on the menu at any given time. They are, by and large, the things Romans love about their food.

Experience the best of the best Roman pasta with our handy guide to the dishes you definitely need to try.

So what are they?

Amatriciana, carbonara, gricia and cacio e pepe are four pasta dishes, but they’re more than that. They’re intimately connected to the history and terroir of Rome.

All of them are based on Rome’s indigenous cheese, Pecorino Romano. A strong sheep’s-milk cheese, pecorino can be eaten young and fresh, or aged longer until it becomes firm enough to grate.

In Roman dialect, cacio means cheese (i.e., pecorino), and so cacio e pepe is simply pasta with grated pecorino and black pepper. The variety of techniques is endless. Some chefs toast the pepper in butter or oil, others leave it raw. Some toss the pasta in a pan with the cheese, others mix them in a bowl. The essential ingredient, always, is some of the pasta cooking water, the heat of which helps to melt the cheese. Any type of long pasta will do, but Romans prefer tonnarelli—thick, fresh, square-ended spaghetti.

Gricia takes those ingredients, and adds another classic Roman one: guanciale. A cured pork jowl, guanciale is cubed and rendered in a pan, so that the fat becomes a sauce and the chunks of meats crisp. Funnily enough, gricia is often lighter-tasting than cacio e pepe, as the cheese quantity is usually lessened and the guanciale gives flavor contrast. Gricia has a variety in pasta shapes, from short mezze maniche to fresh tonnarelli.

Pasta alla gricia is among the best Roman pasta dishes.
Pasta alla gricia couldn’t be any simpler—or more delicious. Photo credit: T.Tseng

With carbonara, you up the richness even more with eggs. There’s plenty up for debate though: whole eggs versus just yolks. All pecorino or a mix with Parmigiano. Yes or no to deglazing the guanciale with some white wine.

Carbonara generates, by far, the most strident opinions. Some like it rich and creamy with lots of egg and rendered fat. Others prefer it asciutta, “dry,” with just enough egg to dress the pasta. And, of course, the debate extends to the pasta shapes, with some preferring tube-like rigatoni and others opting for classic spaghetti.

Amatriciana departs from the previous three’s pecorino-focus. Instead, the base here is tomato sauce, cooked with plenty of rendered guanciale and fat, with pecorino sprinkled on at the end. The biggest controversy with amatriciana is the inclusion of onions. The original recipe (see below) excludes them, but many Romans like some chopped red onion sautéed in the guanciale fat. The most common pasta shape here is bucatini, a long noodle with a small hole in the center, but rigatoni are common in restaurants, as their shape and durability make them ideal for cooking in large batches in a small kitchen.

Bucatini all'amatriciana is one of the quintessential Roman pasta dishes you need to try.
Bucatini all’amatriciana is one of Rome’s most iconic dishes. Photo credit: Joy

So where do they come from?

The “Big Four” Roman pastas’ simplicity makes identifying their origins difficult. They can’t be traced back to a single restaurant or creative individual. It takes a hungry person, not a genius chef, to realize that pasta enriched with cheese and egg and meat fills you up. However, there are some hints here and there as to how these dishes came to be.

Cacio e pepe was probably invented by shepherds in the Roman countryside. They had abundant sheep’s-milk cheese, high-energy and easily storable in a knapsack, ready to be mixed with pasta and a dry spice (pepper) in a single pot.

Gricia is a natural elaboration, as a cured meat like guanciale keeps well while on the move, and doesn’t require another cooking vessel. Why it’s called gricia, though, is unclear.

Some claim in comes from the pastoral village of Grisciano, in the province of Rieti. Others say it was the favored repast of bakers in Rome, originating from the Grison area of Switzerland. Whatever the origins, it’s clear these were dishes meant for workers, as they are both hearty and quick to make.

Cacio e pepe, one of the most popular Roman pasta dishes, likely began as a humble shepherds' dish.
Despite its popularity in metropolitan Rome, cacio e pepe likely stems from humble roots. Photo credit: Whitney in Chicago

The search for carbonara‘s origins have become nearly as famous as the dish itself. This probably has to do with its recent entry into the Roman food pantheon (after World War II), and the fact that carbonara is seen as an urban dish—it’s more popular in Rome than in the surrounding countryside. The widely-held myth is that city-dwellers invented it after WWII, when they were eating bacon and eggs gifted by American GI’s. This is highly unlikely. It could have been invented by miners (carbone means “coal”), or could merely be a version of southern Italian pasta with cheese, egg and melted lard. Whatever the origins, it’s by far the most famous Roman pasta, now made around the world.

Amatriciana, on the other hand, has fairly clear origins. It hails from Amatrice, a town near Rieti. Like others, it seems to have been an easy-to-prepare meal for shepherds, who could carry cheese, cured pork, dried pasta and tinned tomato around. The original recipe (if such a thing can actually exist) has just these ingredients; no onion, no red pepper, spaghetti instead of bucatini, and no olive oil, which used to be quite expensive and saved for raw preparations.

So where can I eat them?

I could recommend fifty different places with a good version of one of these pastas. If I had to choose, I’d say my favorites are: The cacio e pepe at Lo’steria, the amatriciana at La Matriciana, the carbonara at Da Enzo and the gricia at La Tavernaccia.

But Roman pasta’s simplicity is itself a challenge. All of these dishes need to be prepared à la minute, and involve delicate steps like emulsifying cheese and cooking egg. They can’t be prepared in advance (you’d never say that you prepared a big batch of carbonara for the week). So, recommending the pasta at a Roman trattoria isn’t like recommending the ragù or braised beef at a Florentine one. Everything depends on the skill and attentiveness of the cook, and even the best ones occasionally mess up and send out a plate of cacio e pepe in which the cheese has curdled into big, chewy clumps.

Carbonara, like many other Roman pasta dishes, tastes better when fresh.
As tempting as it may be to whip up a batch of carbonara to last you the week, don’t—it needs to be prepared in the moment. Photo credit: Kimberly Vardeman

I decided to ask someone who runs a restaurant where, in all the years I’ve eaten there, I’ve never had anything less than a perfect plate of gricia. Giuseppe Ruzzettu is the chef at La Tavernaccia, and he of course has his ingredient preferences: thick, fresh spaghettoni for richness, pancetta instead of guanciale, deglazed with white wine for both moisture and flavor.

But, as he told me, “this isn’t a recipe, it’s a technique. You must mantecare the pasta before adding the cheese.” Mantecare is the Italian word for finishing something, usually a starch, in a sauce. The pasta must swim in the pan with the fat and wine and pasta water until it releases some starch and forms an emulsion. Only then, off the heat, do you add the cheese.

And what if you want more than one portion? “Pay attention to quantities,” he warned. “Once you add more pasta, it’s a chain reaction, and the ingredients and heat will react differently.” He knows this all too well—sometimes he gets an order for one plate of gricia, other times it’s ten for the same table.

What does the future hold?

These pastas ain’t going anywhere. Restaurants, school caffeterias, bars and countless home kitchens serve them every day.

Everyone has their version, sometimes tweaked. For example, Roman-Jewish MeAT keeps it kosher by replacing the guanciale in their carbonara. Some chefs try to perfect the base recipes, others transform them. This is a great video which shows three different chefs’ interpretations of carbonara, with recipes.

However, these dishes have also become classic flavor combinations, ready to be riffed on. At Da Danilo, you can get meatballs all’amatriciana. At VyTA, you can get a steak tartare with a “cream” of carbonara. And cacio e pepe is on everything from potato chips to pizza.

Rome is not known for having a particularly innovative food scene. But these little homages show what kind of city it is—rooted in the past but with the confidence to face the future.

Ready to try these essential Roman pastas in person? Join us on our Testaccio Neighborhood Food & Market Tour where we’ll try three of the four at a typical Roman fraschetta.

Wondering which three? There’s only one way to find out…

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