This ancient, iconic, but very simple Lazio dish, ‘pasta alla gricia‘, has been one of our favorite pastas, for many reasons, for decades. Thursday night we enjoyed one of the best ever, thanks to some guanciale I had been keeping in the freezer, an excellent Neapolitan rigatoni, which is a wine from outside that great city, and a German opera about an 8th century Asturian king (it’s okay, it’s a Schubert opera).
“Comfort food”, as Barry calls it.
- It was everything we needed for a complete dinner, and a very good one: a few ounces of very juicy cured pork cheek, 9 ounces of an artisanal dried pasta, lots of fresh New York water, a bit of Portuguese olive oil, tons of good freshly-ground black pepper, and a grating of a good cheese, also from Lazio
- the wine was an Italian (Campania) white, Feudi di San Gregorio Falanghina 2017, from Garnet Wines
- the music was Schubert’s 1823 grand Romantic opera, ‘Alfonso und Estrella’, Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting the Berlin Philharmonic
It’s still 1989. Or even once upon a time.
This dish is a classic in Italy [cf. ‘pasta alla gricia‘]. In a way, it was already a classic to me before I had even tasted it: Because it included a recipe, for a pasta preparation called ‘la Gricia’, that looked so genuine and uncomplicated, and the photograph that accompanied it so seductive, I had cut out a newspaper article describing a very simple peasant dish many years before Barry and I sat down to it in a Trastevere trattoria in the Vicolo del Mattonato. “da Lucia” serves, in Roman dialect, la cucina de na vorta (the cooking of once upon a time), and it was the same place featured in that 1989 New York Times article); I began reproducing it as soon as we returned to New York, and the dish is now a classic in our kitchen.
We’ve returned to da Lucia many times. We actually always sat at a table outside (no fancy umbrellas back then, only laundry overhead, and one evening the sound of crockery being thrown in anger, but these are images of the inside, which has its own charms.
- nine ounces of Pastificio Fratelli Setaro Torre Annunziata Napoli Rigatoni [a long pasta can be substituted, but it must always be a very good artisanal pasta] from Buon Italia in the Chelsea Market boiled until (barely) al dente, while reserving some of the liquid, in many quarts of water inside a large vintage stainless steel pot [provenance: the Warren-and-Wetmore-designed-Providence-hotel-gone-out-of-business-1975-liquidation-sale], to which at least 2 tablespoons of sea salt had been added once the water had come to a boil, the pasta drained and tossed into a large enameled cast iron pot in which 5.5 ounces [the amount is variable] of “aged guanciale“, also from Buon Italia, cut in half-inch square pieces, had been heated, stirring with 2 tablespoons of Whole Foods Market Portuguese house olive oil, but for little more than about a minute, most of a cup of reserved pasta water added and everything stirred over high heat until the liquid had emulsified, then several tablespoons [yes, several tablespoons] of very good freshly-ground Whole Foods house black pepper stirred in, the pot removed from the heat and about 3 or 4 tablespoons of roughly-shredded pecorino cheese (Romano Sini Fulvi, again from Buon Italia), tossed in and stirred, the now finished pasta left standing for 30 seconds or more before it was served in shallow bowls, with more cheese and black pepper placed in containers on the table
- the wine was a Portuguese (Vinho Verde) white, Antonio Lopes Ribeiro 2017 (Casa de Mouraz) Vinho Verde ‘Biotite’, from Chambers Street Wines
- the music was the album, ‘Hamburger Ratsmusik, consort music c. 1600’, works by the peripatetic English expatriate violinist, violist, and composer Henry Brade, Jordi Savall conducting the ensemble Hesperion XX (my favorite citation in his Wikipedia entry is this: “All of Brade’s surviving music is for string instruments, and most is for dancing.”)
“la cucina de na vorta”
We’ve been enjoying this simple pasta from Lazio for decades, and I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates a delicious, genuinely honest dish, dalla cucina dei poveri, with a surprising sophistication but a simplicity that allows it to be fully assembled and on the table in only about 15 minutes.
There are only 6 ingredients (4 if you discount salt and pepper), and the only one most people may not have lying around at home might be pancetta or, better, guanciale, to which I’d add for those who aren’t vegetarian, ‘and why isn’t it there’? It’s so easy to keep a chunk of guanciale in the freezer, and if it’s hard to find, pancetta is almost as good, but it must be in chunk form. On Sunday I had some ‘pancetta pepato‘ for the first time ever; I don’t know where it fits on the beautiful scale that stretches between regular pancetta and guanciale, but it was pretty awesome,
My relationship with this dish started in 1989, with a newspaper article by Fred Plotkin published in the New York Times, and Barry and I have shared it many times since, both at home in New York, and in Rome, dining outside the piccola trattoria, ‘da Lucia‘, the Trastevere restaurant featured in Fred’s article, where Lucia Antonangeli began serving “la cucina de na vorta” (the cooking of once upon a time) at her family’s restaurant in 1938.
It’s one of the very few recipes I use to which I never add or subtract a thing; it’s perfect, and it’s a classic in the classic sense. The only variation that will ever be found in our home is the type of pasta used: Will it be long or short, and which long, which short? From what I have learned the choice seems to be debatable anyway.
- last night I cooked 10 ounces of Setaro spaghetti from Buon Italia in a large stainless steel pot of water, to which almost 2 tablespoons of sea salt had first been added, until the pasta was barely al dente, reserving some of the liquid, drained it and and tossed it into a large enameled cast iron pot in which (while the spaghetti was boiling) 5 ounces of ‘pancetta pepato’ from Buon Italia, cut in 1/2 to 1 inch square pieces, had been heated and stirred with 2 tablespoons of Whole Foods Market Portuguese house olive oil for only about a minute, then, once guanciale and pasta had been mixed together, a bit of pasta water added to the pot and everything stirred for a minute to emulsify the sauce; several tablespoons [yes!] of very good freshly-ground Whole Foods house black pepper added and stirred into the mix, which was then removed from the heat and about 3 or 4 tablespoons of roughly-shredded pecorino Romano Sini Fulvi, also from Buon Italia, tossed into the pot and stirred, the pasta left standing for 30 seconds or so before it was served in shallow bowls, with more cheese and black pepper on the side
- the wine was a California (Lodi) white, F. Stephen Millier Angels Reserve White Blend Lodi 2016 (“..insane amounts of peach and ripe apricot flavors inside thanks [to] Stephen’s Pinot Grigio, Moscato, Chard, Viognier and Symphony grapes..”), from Naked Wines
- the music was Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 2 ‘Lobgesang’, Sir John Eliot Gardiner conducting the London Symphony Orchestra
Years ago we used to enjoy this, what I will call ‘perfect meal’, very often, but, maybe because it’s been so long since we were in Italy, or maybe because I’ve become obsessed with cooking local fish, La Gricia seems to have made only one appearance on this blog before tonight.
It’s usually described as a traditional dish of the shepherds in the hills of Lazio. We first enjoyed it in 1996 while sitting at a table in the little street outside Piccola Trattoria da Lucia, in Trastevere, served by the founder’s grandson, Renato Bizzarri (the address of the restaurant is Vicolo del Mattonato 2).
This is Fred’s recipe. Note that the proportions are for only one serving, I assume in tribute to the setting in which the dish was traditionally prepared, that is, solitary, by one shepherd, for one shepherd.
- 500 grams (eight+ ounces) of Rigorosa di Gragnano Penne Rigate from Eataly, boiled until barely al dente, some of the liquid reserved and the pasta drained and tossed into a large enameled cast iron pot in which 4 ounces of guanciale from Buon Italia, cut in 1/4 to 1/2 inch square pieces, had been heated with 2 tablespoons of olive oil for about a minute, a bit of reserved pasta water then added to the pot, everything stirred for a minute to emulsify the sauce; several tablespoons of freshly-ground black pepper added and stirred into the mix, which was then removed from the heat and allowed to cool just a bit before 3 or 4 tablespoons of roughly-shredded pecorino, also from Buon Italia, was tossed in, the pot left standing for 30 seconds or so, the dish then served in shallow bowls, with more cheese and black pepper on the side
- the wine was an Italian (Umbria) white, Arnaldo Caprai Grecante Grechetto dei Colli Martani 2015, from Chelsea Wine Vault
We finished the meal with two ‘Pixie tangerines’ from Whole Foods.
- the music throughout was Beethoven’s 1804-1814 opera, ‘Fidelio’, a 1981 (before the fall of the wall) performance, Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, with Theo Adam, Siegfried Jerusalem, Carola Nossek, Jeanine Altmeyer, Rüdiger Wohlers, Siegmund Nimsgern, and Peter Meven
This was a pretty modest two-course dinner composed almost exclusively of leftovers; it was simple, quick, easy, relaxing for the cook, and delicious. I’m thinking, home economy, even though the phrase might seem an aberration today.
- The first course was smoked bluefish pâté on toast. The bluefish was from the same smoked fillet we had first enjoyed late in December. The portion used last night had been frozen for three weeks or so and defrosted overnight, and the remaining ingredients of the spread (using the same recipe, with the addition of scissored chives from Whole Foods) were new. The bread was the same kind used last month.
- The second course was basically the La Gricia remaining from a few days ago, divided between two casuelas and heated in the oven while we sat down to the first course. The pasta was finished, first, and totally inauthentically, with part of the abundance of parsley which had to go unused two nights ago, then topped with some additional shredded pecorino.
- The wine was an Italian white, Taburno Falanchina del Sannion 2013