Cooks who love Italian food must have great patience. They know it could be years before that spaghetti alla carbonara they had in a trattoria in Rome can be made properly in their own kitchens because they await the arrival of the essential guanciale. But, wait, you might be thinking, spaghetti alla carbonara is a staple on the menu of every Italian restaurant in the U.S., right? Isn’t it made with bacon and cream? Actually, no. Traditionally, it is not made with bacon or even pancetta (cured Italian pork belly). The real thing is made with guanciale (and god forbid, cream.) Luckily, guanciale, although difficult to procure, is not impossible to find.
What is guanciale? Very simply, it’s cured pork jowl, usually produced in Lazio, the Italian region of which Rome is the capital. Guanciale is not cheek, as some writers suggest, but jowl, the fleshy part under the lower jaw. Curiously, guanciale goes unmentioned in classic books on Italian cuisine, from Waverly Root to Elizabeth David to Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book, but it is an ingredient intimately linked with the cooking of Lazio.
A labor-intensive process
The best-known locale for its production is the town of Amatrice, a community tucked into the hilly section of the province of Rieti, in the region of Lazio near Abruzzo. Here, guanciale is carefully cut and trimmed from the throat into a characteristic triangle shape. The jowl is salted for four or five days, washed and then partially dried. At this point, the jowl is seasoned with salt, very coarsely ground black pepper and sprinkled with dried chile. The jowl is placed in a curing room made of oak for one month at a temperature of 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. After this period, the jowl is cured another two months in the open air, acquiring its distinctive smoky and slightly spicy taste. The finished guanciale is reddish and marbled white with fat.
Guanciale is the essential ingredient in four famous dishes of Lazio (also called Latium): spaghetti alla carbonara, pasta alla grícia, pasta all’amatriciana and spaghetti alla carrettiera.
The first, spaghetti alla carbonara, is probably the most famous. It is spaghetti tossed together with eggs and crispy cooked guanciale. It’s the eggs, not cream, which give it its creamy texture. The origin of carbonara is much discussed, yet no one really know because there are several competing origin stories and all are anecdotal.
The storied history of carbonara
First, although thought of as a typical Roman dish, the name is said to come from a dish made in the Appenine Mountains of the Abruzzo by woodcutters who made charcoal for fuel. They would cook the dish over a hardwood charcoal fire and use penne rather than spaghetti because it is easier to toss with the eggs and cheese. The second theory is the obvious one, given that the meaning of alla carbonara is “coal worker’s style.” This story holds that the dish was eaten by coal workers or that the abundant use of coarsely ground black pepper resembles coal flakes. Another story is that food shortages after the liberation of Rome in 1944 were so severe that Allied troops distributed military rations consisting of powdered egg and bacon which the local populace mixed with water to season the easily stored dried pasta.
There is also a theory that during World War II, middle-class Roman families escaped the oppressiveness of Nazi occupation by moving to Ciociaria, about halfway between Rome and Benevento. There they learned of a Neapolitan style pasta made with eggs, lard and pecorino cheese. They adopted the dish as their own, called it carbonara, and it became famous, piggybacking on the popularity of post-War Roman cooking thoughout Italy.
Another story suggests that La Carbonara, the famous restaurant in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, was named after its specialty. Although the restaurant has been open since the early part of the 20th century,and does in fact have carbonara on its menu, the restaurant itself denies any such connection and says that the name came about for other reasons. A highly unlikely story told in Italy’s bestselling culinary bible, Il nuovo cucchiaio d’argento (translated recently into English as “The Silver Spoon”), is that the dish was originally made with black squid ink and acquired its name because it was as black as coal. The simplest story, and therefore the most likely (I subscribe to the principle of Occam’s razor here), is that the dish had always existed at the family level and in local osterie before traditional Roman cuisine got its stamp of fame.
Other famous guanciale dishes
But although carbonara is perhaps the best known of the four, guanciale plays an important role in three other famous dishes in Lazio. Pasta alla grícia is a dish of bucatini or spaghetti seasoned with guanciale and crumbled sausage. Simply add tomatoes and you have pasta all’amatriciana. (In a sense, grícia is amatriciana in bianco.) As Amatrice was once part of the Abruzzo, pasta all’amatriciana is often thought of a classic Abruzzese dish. The dish is also sometimes called spaghetti all’ amatriciana, which simply means “in the style of Amatrice.”
Spaghetti alla carrettiera (cart-driver’s sauce) is popular throughout Italy today, though it is made in a variety of styles and not necessarily solely with guanciale. (Some recipes call for tuna in oil and dried porcini mushrooms in addition to guanciale.) When it is made with guanciale, it is usually described as a dish from Lazio or Abruzzo. The pasta is tossed with a sauce made of ground meat cooked with red wine, onion and tomatoes and lightly seasoned with black pepper and chile. It got its name after World War II, when much of the local commerce in war-ravaged Italy had to be conducted by horse-drawn cart. The cart drivers, in the imagination of the populace, were robust good eaters who found their sustenance in the osterie and trattorie along these central Italian byways.
It’s definitely worth the effort to procure guanciale, if only to taste the flavor of spaghetti alla carbonara made the traditional way (recipe here). I think you’ll be surprised. Guanciale can be ordered via Zingerman’s, La Quercia, or Salumeria Italiana and is occasionally available at Whole Foods markets.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.
Photos, from top: Spaghetti all carbonara. Credit: Clifford A. Wright; Sliced guanciale.