This blog post was originally posted on March 18, 2019 and was updated on January 26, 2021.
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.
What are the four main Roman pasta dishes?
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.
Cacio e pepe
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.
SEE ALSO: Classic Roman Cacio e Pepe Recipe
Pasta alla gricia
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.
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 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.
The origins of Rome’s four classic pasta dishes
The “Big Four” Roman pastas’ simplicity makes identifying their origins difficult. Nobody has been able to trace them back to a single restaurant or creative individual. It takes a hungry person, not a genius chef, to realize that pasta enriched with cheese, egg, and meat fills you up. However, there are some hints here and there as to how these dishes came to be.
Shepherds in the Roman countryside probably invented cacio e pepe. They had abundant sheep’s milk cheese—high in protein and easily storable in a knapsack—ready to mix 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.
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 says that city dwellers invented it after WWII, when eating bacon and eggs gifted by American GI’s. This is highly unlikely. Miners could have invented it (carbone means “coal”), or could merely be a version of southern Italian pasta with cheese, egg and melted lard.
Whatever the origins, carbonara is now 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. There’s no onion, no red pepper, no bucatini (spaghetti is used instead), and no olive oil, which in the past was quite expensive and saved for raw preparations.
The “fifth” Roman pasta dish
While not as strongly associated with Rome as the above four Roman pasta dishes, we have to give a shout out to the local Thursday favorite: gnocchi.
There’s a famous Roman saying: “Gnocchi on Thursday, fish on Friday, tripe on Saturday.” The tradition of eating these specific foods on these specific days came about during World War II and is still commonly practiced in Rome today.
Making gnocchi is a laborious process, so many restaurants in Rome will only serve them once a week—traditionally Thursday. If you happen to find yourself in Rome on a Thursday, do yourself a favor and enjoy a delicious plate of homemade gnocchi at a local trattoria.
Where to eat Roman pasta in Rome
I could recommend 50 different places in Rome 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
- 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. You can’t prepare them in advance—you’d never say that you prepared a big batch of carbonara for the week.
As a result, 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.
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. 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.
The future of Roman pasta
These pastas aren’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 with artichokes. Some chefs try to perfect the base recipes, while others transform them.
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 some of these essential Roman pastas in person? Join us on our Testaccio Neighborhood Food & Market Tour, where we’ll try a few of the above at a typical Roman trattoria.
Wondering which ones? There’s only one way to find out…
Despite the name, Giancarlo was actually born and raised in Boston. He now lives in Rome, where he works as a freelance journalist. Passionate about Rome’s food, history and culture, he can usually be found with a good book and, depending on the time of day, an espresso or an Aperol Spritz. Never Campari.