Italy’s ultimate answer to bacon: Guanciale

Imagine the flavor of prosciutto but in silky fat form. It's the soul of bucatini all'amatriciana, Rome's favorite

Topics: Guest Chef, International cuisine, Food,

Italy's ultimate answer to bacon: GuancialeBucatini all'amatriciana

A recent year in Italy taught me that the pig is the king of its gastronomic jungle. Italians heart hogs. They prepare every imaginable part in every imaginable manner: cured and roasted and braised, even slow-poached in olive oil. One terrifying morning, in the back of a butcher shop, I ate it raw, slathered on a slice of rustic bread. Surviving the sushi-sausage experience would have been the most memorable encounter with the noble swine had it not been for an introduction to guanciale. At a sleepy trattoria, somewhere in the middle of Italy, I had a plate of pasta steeped in such succulence that I had to ask the owner the secret. “Semplice,” he said, pinching my face, “guancia.”

“Guancia” in Italian means pillow, which is synonymous with cheek. And it’s the facial aspect of the word, and the animal, that found its way into the kitchens of central Italy. Apparently pancetta, the familiar smoked and cured pork belly, simply wasn’t bold enough for rendering purposes, so they went to the face and found a far more profound flavor. To produce guanciale, the jowls of a hog are short-cured (three to four weeks) in salt and sugar and spices. The abbreviated process works well with the jowls’ combination of streaked meat and thick fat. And it’s that fat/meat quotient (as opposed to pancetta, which is meatier) that makes guanciale such a solid base. The fat melts in a hot pan, leaving the tender meat and a silky lipid of smoke and salt that informs but doesn’t overwhelm any soup or sauce.

Guanciale is best as the base of a pasta dish. And the most famous pasta using guanciale is the central Italian wonder known as amatriciana. Not surprisingly, there’s some controversy among the Italians as to the origins of amatriciana. Towns from regions of Abruzzo, Umbria and Lazio claim the superior preparation with appropriate noodle, but (with all due respect to the namesake Lazian town of Amatri) the king versions reign in the trattorias of Rome using the bucatini noodle — a thick spaghetti with a little hole (or “buco”) that runs through it. And, of course, within Rome, there are various versions, each the ultimo.

Regardless, a standard version begins with the guanciale, rendered slowly before taking in slow succession: thin red onions, a touch of red pepper flakes, plum tomatoes, torn basil leaves, and, for the finish, some grated pecorino with a swirl of olive oil and a confetti of basil. What you have is a broad balance of flavors with the guanciale holding it all together. Like most Italian dishes, this is simple to prepare. The challenge is coming up with the same quality of ingredients that are abundant in Italy.

You Might Also Like

For years, American cooks and chefs have used pancetta for dishes that traditionally call for guanciale, since it’s easier to find. But true, imported guanciale can be found in some big town specialty shops and major markets. The local butcher is always the best place to inquire. Guanciale can also be mail ordered from importers and a few national producers.

Bucatini all’amatriciana

There are a number of ways to use guanciale, but it seems appropriate to start with the classic

Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as a starter

Ingredients

  • 1 pound bucatini (a thick, dry spaghetti can be substituted)
  • ½ pound of guanciale sliced into long, thin strips (make matchsticks)
  • 1 medium red onion, halved and sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 1½ teaspoons of red pepper flakes
  • 1 large can of whole San Marzano tomatoes (crushed by hand)
  • ½ cup of torn basil leaves plus a handful julienned and reserved for garnish
  • ½ cup of grated Pecorino Romano plus ¼ cup for sprinkling
  • salt and sugar, to taste
  • Extra virgin olive oil, as needed

Directions

  1. Put a large pot of water on to boil.
  2. In a large saucepan with a thin coat of olive oil, render the guanciale over low heat, turning the cheeks occasionally until the fat has nearly dissolved and the meat slightly crisps.
  3. Add the onions and red pepper flakes to the pan and soften over medium heat until the onions are translucent.
  4. Raise the heat to medium-high and add the tomatoes. Season them with salt and a pinch of sugar. Bring to a boil and turn down to simmer while the pasta cooks.
  5. Salt the boiling water aggressively and add the bucatini. Stir until the boil returns and stir occasionally until two minutes short of package-instructed cooking time.
  6. Transfer the noodles to the saucepan. Raise the heat and coat the noodles with sauce, simmer until al dente (two minutes more).
  7. Off the heat, add ½ cup of Pecorino and toss.
  8. Plate the pasta and give each a swirl of extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of the remaining cheese, and top with the julienned basil. Enjoy with a simple red wine of central Italy, and say arrivederci to pancetta.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>