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in the kitchen with: jonathan gold’s spaghetti alla gricia

by Kristina Gill

It’s not every day you get to wheedle a recipe out of a Pulitzer Prize winning food writer, but Jonathan Gold gave me the chance.  The result was today’s recipe for Spaghetti alla Gricia, a traditional and typical pasta dish from the Lazio region of Italy.  Those of you who listen to his restaurant reviews each week on the KCRW Good Food podcast with Evan Kleiman, or follow him on Twitter, will recognize this recipe as quite tame for Jonathan’s usual culinary adventures.  However, it is absolutely not a compromise on taste (I won’t tell you what he proposed before we agreed on this one), in fact, it has rekindled my taste for Roman pasta dishes!  –Kristina

CLICK HERE for the full recipe (and more about Jonathan) after the jump!

About Jonathan: Jonathan Gold is the LA Weekly’s restaurant critic and the author of “Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles.” He began to write about food for the LA Weekly in 1984, when the paper’s former owner admired a piece he’d written about health insurance and invited him to edit the biannual restaurant guide, and the “Counter Intelligence” column first appeared in the Weekly in 1986.

He has been restaurant critic for California, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles magazine and Gourmet, where he was the first food writer ever to be nominated for the ASME award in criticism, and he has five times won the James Beard Award for his restaurant reviews.

Gold also wrote frequently about music and popular culture for Spin, Rolling Stone, Details and Vanity Fair, and contributes to the radio shows Good Food, All Things Considered and This American Life. In 2007, he was the first food writer to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in the Criticism category in 2007.

Spaghetti alla Gricia

It’s pretty orthodox, I guess: diced guanciale cooked just until the flesh tightens (stagionato if I can get it), grated pecorino, lots of black pepper, a spoonful of olive oil, and a splash of white wine reduced with the rendered fat if I’m of a mind to include it, a splash of pasta water if I’m not. Pasta shape, in order of preference, is mezze maniche, bucatini or spaghetti. (Here I often substitute a shape called calamarata for the mezze maniche; rigatoni are too long and narrow to my taste.) Red pepper flakes? Sometimes!  Parmesan has absolutely no business anywhere near this dish!!

(Translating Jonathan’s idea into quantifiable terms:  For two people:  7 oz (150-200g) pasta, 4-4.5 ounces of guanciale (hog jowl) cut into strips (pancetta, or thickly sliced smoked bacon if you can’t get guanciale), 3.5 ounces of freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese (or more or less depending on your tastes), lots of fresh black pepper.  Optional:  2 tables spoons (30ml) white wine, red pepper flakes.  You will need a separate bowl to mix the final ingredients in.

If you know how to make spaghetti alla carbonara, you already know how to make this dish, with the liquid in the pan and the cheese working together.  It’s so simple, but I will be explicit, just in case!

Grate the pecorino and set it aside.  While the pasta boils, brown the guanciale until its cooked to your liking.

If you are using white wine:   Add the wine to the rendered fat in the frying pan and heat the mixture thickens a bit, and sprinkle in a few spoonfuls of cheese.    Once it has thickened, add the pasta to the pan and toss it to coat it well.  If you don’t have a large enough frying pan to toss the pasta in, the step of coating the pasta can also be done in the separate bowl, adding the remaining grated cheese, black pepper, and red pepper flakes if you are using them.

If you’re not using white wine, drain the pasta when it is still al dente, setting aside half a cup of the cooking water.  Add the pasta to the separate bowl, along with the guanciale and rendered fat, grated cheese, black pepper, and red pepper flakes if you are using them.  Gradually add a bit of the pasta water until the pasta is well coated creamy, Jonathan uses a couple of tablespoons of water in his.  If the pasta still is too dry for your taste, add a bit more water.

Serve immediately, with extra cheese and black pepper on the side.

Why Jonathan chose this recipe

I admire the lush fresh-pasta dishes of Emilia, and wish that I knew how to make them better than I do, but I have always loved the strong, funky Roman pastas best: the broken spaghetti with skate; the linguine with vongole veraci and handfuls of garlic, a cacio e pepe lashed with eye-watering quantities of black pepper; and of course spaghetti carbonara, gilded with the yolks of the best country eggs you can find.  Of these, the one I like best may be spaghetti alla gricia, which I tasted for the first time at the frightfully expensive but fantastic trattoria Checchino dal 1887, dug into an ancient Roman trashheap alongside the nightclubs in the Testaccio district. When properly done, and it’s a lot harder than it looks, no pasta displays the supple, animal qualities of guanciale with anywhere near the elegance, and it’s an easy dish to slam together for a quick lunch or a 2 a.m. supper. Does the weird, watery, almost gray appearance of spaghetti alla gricia freak some people out? Yes, and that’s part of its charm.

Recipe images: Kristina Gill.  Olive wood cutting board, and olive branch salt cellar (with pecorino cheese inside) by Andrea Brugi; cheese grater promotional piece from Locatelli and Pecorino Romano cheese Association (1997); round white dish by Sabon; plate vintage English porcelain; guanciale stagionato from the farm up the street.  Thanks Fabio!!

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  • its 10am on the west coast but i could ate a whole bowl of this for breakfast..looks amazing.

  • wow, in the south we have a tradition of eating hog jowls (also called fatback) (and oh my gosh, that sounds terrible to everyone else probably, i promise we are not fat) on New Year’s day (with collards and black eyed peas), but it’s very exciting to see a recipe that I can use it in and it looks amazing!

  • Mmmm. reminds me of the good ol’ days in Rome! My favorite (even more so than that old Roman staple, l’amatriciana).

  • This looks absolutely delicious! I love that the ingredients are so earthy and simple. Will definitely have to try this soon!

  • I love pasta dishes made of simple ingredients and delicious fresh pasta. I’ll definietely try this one, it looks and sounds fantastic.

  • One of my family’s favorite dishes acquired when we lived in Rome where my husband was a visiting artist at the American Academy. Editor’s note: I’m the Managing Editor of The Valley Table magazine–it’s Pasta alla Grecia as in Greek not Gricia.

  • Hi Michele,

    The dish which Jonathan has shared with us, “La Gricia” has its origins in the Lazio region of Italy, and is an item you will find on many restaurants which serve typical Roman dishes, as it has been adopted into Roman cuisine. “La Gricia” is considered to be an “Amatriciana” (from the town Amatrice near Rieti) without the tomato sauce. So while I’m sure somewhere someone has made a “Pasta alla Grecia”, perhaps with black olives, this one from Rome/Lazio is most certainly pasta alla gricia.

  • @Kristina Gill, it may actually not be correct and I may be confusing fatback with the term “streak of lean”. Hog jowl, is something separate like you have said I think. So my previous comment is now totally irrelevant! haha I think my family has always interchanged the terms incorrectly.

  • Husband made this with “Kasier Fleisch” as it was the best looking at our deli. Fantastic. He promises to make it again often, for as many people as he can fit around the table. Raved about it for a week.

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  • This was my new favorite dish in Italy this trip, your recipe looks amazing. I can’t wait to try it.