Long may you Rome: four days in the Eternal City, the inspiration for homemade guanciale
With days of feasting on rare regional delicacies behind us and the prospect of a transcontinental flight and the accompanying return to "the usual" ahead, it's no wonder Rachel and I approach the final meal of our trips to Rome with a hint of dread. But after four visits to the Eternal City, including one this past fall, we've learned to deal with the pain of the "last supper" by curing our depression with a bowl of carbonara at Pommidoro (Piazza dei Sanniti, 44). Rome's greatest contribution to comfort food is simplicity itself: strands of al dente spaghetti dressed in a luscious sauce of egg yolks, grated pecorino cheese, lots of ground black pepper, and cubes of succulently salty and crispy guanciale.
Ah, guanciale. For some, prosciutto or jamon represent the pinnacle of porcine pleasure, for others, that means bacon. For me, pig nirvana is the remarkable guanciale at Pommidoro. Guanciale is pig's jowl, a rich, fatty, full-flavoured cut of meat, cured in salt and spices. Romans use it in much the same way we use bacon or some other Italians use pancetta. The key difference between bacon and guanciale is that the former is usually salt-cured and smoked, while the latter is just salt-cured with herbs and spices. I adore the spaghetti alla carbonara at Pommidoro because their guanciale has a crispy exterior, meaty interior, and a taste that reminds me strongly of the Colonel's secret blend of herbs and spices. Say what you will, I love that flavour.
And guanciale is just one of many specialties that distinguish Roman cuisine. Our first task after an early morning arrival was to set out for a breakfast featuring one of the world's great breads. Pizza bianca isn't that much different from any other leavened yeast bread -- it's nothing more than flour, a little sugar, water, yeast, olive oil and salt -- but good pizza bianca is an experience not soon forgotten. This flatbread features a light, pillowy crumb under a crispy, olive oil and sea salt gilded crust. There's an article in Jeffrey Steingarten's book, It Must've Been Something I Ate, in which he froths over the pizza bianca at Antico Forno in the Campo de' Fiori, an enthusiasm he apparently shares with another notable food writer, Amanda Hesser. Rachel and I enjoy its pizza bianca. It's exceptionally light and has a wonderfully delicate texture, but we prefer the pizza bianca from the bakery just steps from our hotel. Panificio Fagiani Ubaldo (Via Varese, 36) makes a far denser bread, but it features more olive oil and flakes of wonderfully crunchy salt, and it has a noticeably mineralized taste that we love. Both dazzle, but a bread that combines the texture of the pizza of the Antico Forno with the flavour of the Panificio Fagiani Ubaldo would be transcendent.
Rome in the fall also means puntarelle, a crunchy, slightly bitter variety of chicory that is a regional, seasonal delicacy. Romans typically serve them as a salad dressed with anchovy, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar. Rachel and I tried our first and best bowl at Dal Cavalier Gino (Vicolo Rosini, 4). The mixture of anchovy, garlic, oil and the crunchy texture of this bitter green call to mind a classic Caesar salad. I would kill to get my hands on some, but I've never seen them in Toronto. Not only are they hard to find, they're a pain in the ass to prepare. We watched teams of greengrocers in the Campo de' Fiori labour over a time-consuming process that involves cleaning, cutting, shredding, and soaking a plant that resembles an asparagus-producing weed.
The most pleasant surprise of our trip was a dazzling lunch at Palatium, a stylish enoteca run by the regional government to showcase Latium's remarkable food and wine. We started with a selection of local salumi, such as finnochiona, a peppery sausage with a noticeable dose of fennel seed. But the star of the meal was a stupendous cacio e pepe pasta featuring fresh, golden tonnarelli (square-cut spaghetti) made with locally sourced organic flour and caciocavallo cheese, a southern-Italian specialty, that, when aged, adds a salty, parmesan-like bite to dishes. Rachel took one bite of my perfect pasta, then asked me to trade it straight up for her less than perfect, but still excellent, amatriciana. I did it, but the words "cacio e pepe" have now become a convenient shorthand for "you owe me" around our house. Dessert was an orange and ricotta tart with a little drizzle of melted dark chocolate and some diced peaches. Surprise, surprise, this was no ordinary ricotta. This was ricotta romana, a sheep's milk cheese so precious it's been given a protected DOP status. It also makes one hell of a tart -- light and creamy, with a subtle but noticeable orange taste. The only problem with Palatium is the service, which is maddeningly slow even by Italian standards.
Pizza bianca, puntarelle, Palatium. We miss them all, so we don't want to add our favourite Roman delight, guanciale, to that list. But despite the growing popularity of traditional Roman dishes that require it, like carbonara and amatriciana, guanciale remains scarce in North America. Quality bacon or pancetta make a decent substitute, but after finding Mario Batali's recipe for homemade guanciale in The Babbo Cookbook and motivated by our recent visit, I decided it was time to make some myself.
The biggest obstacle was sourcing the pig cheeks. After several weeks, I finally managed to get my hands on some from Cumbrae's (the same butcher who helped us find lamb brains), one of Toronto's finest butchers. Floppy and fatty, and still covered with a layer of whisker-dappled skin, uncured cheeks bear little resemblance to the marvelous epicurean delight they eventually become. After a week covered in kosher salt, thyme, and black pepper, followed by three weeks dangling from pieces of string in the fridge, our two cheeks metamorphosed into a marvelous treat. The skin had hardened into a leathery carapace, but the flesh beneath had darkened and firmed until it resembled the fattiest of bacons.
We used it first in a delicious risotto, sautéing lardons of guanciale until they were crisp outside but still supple inside, then using the drippings in the pan to wilt dandelion greens. This guanciale astonishes. Without the often overbearing smokiness of some bacon, Batali's cured pig cheeks taste overwhelmingly porky, but with a marvelous saltiness and mild peppery and herbal notes. Texturally, guanciale dominates bacon, which, especially when sliced, is only ever crispy or soft; guanciale offers both at once, popping under your teeth.
Though delightful in risotto, the pinnacle of guanciale achievement remains spaghetti alla carbonara. Despite the simplicity of the ingredients, carbonara is actually a remarkably difficult dish to execute well. The trick, as I see it, lies in the sauce. North American recipes often call for the addition of cream. This is a form of culinary heresy I detest. The sauce requires nothing more than raw egg yolks, which add plenty of richness on their own, and the magic of pasta water. Of course, adding hot water to raw eggs demands some skill, unless the desired outcome is scrambled eggs carbonara. I posted our first carbonara recipe two years ago, but I've updated it here. The only real change is that I now use a bit more pasta water, both in the egg yolks and in the pan with the fat leftover from cooking the guanciale.
And though it's not that last meal at Pommidoro on a chilly fall day after strolling through the Eternal City, our spaghetti alla carbonara with homemade guanciale is a delicious way to rekindle fond memories -- the Bernini sculptures at the Galleria Borghese, the awe-inspiring dome of the Pantheon, and the Baroque splendour of the Trevi Fountain -- from a kitchen many thousands of kilometres away.
Spaghetti alla carbonara
There are a couple of keys to producing a creamy sauce, not scrambled eggs:
1. Use room temperature eggs
2. Temper the beaten eggs with a bit of the pasta water
3. Try to add the egg mixture to a warm, not hot, pan.
500 grams spaghetti or bucatini
4 room temperature egg yolks plus one whole egg, beaten
200 grams guanciale, pancetta, or best bacon cut into 1.5 cm (approx 3/4 inch) lardons
30 grams (approx. 3/4 cup), finely grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano
pepper to taste
1 tbsp olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When water boils, add a generous amount of salt.
Heat a sauté pan over medium heat. Add olive oil and guanciale, and sauté until outside is crispy but inside remains slightly chewy, approximately 5-7 minutes. Drain desired amount of fat from pan (guanciale fat tastes good, so I try to leave it all in the pan).
Place spaghetti in boiling water. Prepare as per package instructions.
When there are five minutes remaining in the pasta cooking time, add 125 mL (approx. 1/2 cup) of the starchy pasta cooking water to the guanciale fat in the sauté pan. Return pan to medium-high heat. Reduce the mixture by at least half, stirring occasionally until the mixture has emulsified.
Add pepper to taste to beaten eggs. Slowly add 70 mL (a generous 1/4 cup) of the pasta water to the egg mixture. Do not add quickly or the eggs will scramble.
When spaghetti is al dente, lower the heat under the sauté pan to low. Drain the spaghetti and add it to the sauté pan. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the noodles, tossing constantly (I find a good set of tongs work best) and adding more pasta water, if necessary, to loosen the sauce. Add pecorino and more pepper, if desired.
Serve promptly with additional pecorino and pepper.