Rome has four iconic—and outrageously good—pasta dishes: cacio e pepe, amatriciana, carbonara, and gricia. I’ve long been a huge fan of the more well‑known first three but had never tried gricia, which features guanciale (cured hog jowls), ground black pepper, and tangy, salty Pecorino Romano. So when my colleague Sasha Marx, who grew up in Rome, offered to make it for lunch on a quiet day in the test kitchen, I couldn’t refuse.
Sasha put a pot of rigatoni on to boil while he sautéed chopped guanciale in a skillet. When the pork was deeply browned but still retained a tender chew, he removed it, leaving behind its rendered fat. In went the drained rigatoni, which was only halfway cooked (also known as al chiodo, or “to the nail”), along with a lot of pasta water—roughly 2 cups. As he let the rigatoni simmer until it was al dente, he stirred it with the starchy water and pork fat to form a creamy sauce, a technique known as mantecare. Finally, he returned the browned guanciale to the mix, along with a few more splashes of pasta water, lots of pepper, and grated Pecorino.
It was a memorable lunch: The porky guanciale was at the forefront, followed by the heat of the pepper and the tang of the cheese; it all formed a rich yet delicately creamy sauce to coat the rigatoni.
But when I made the dish (using pancetta since guanciale can be hard to find), it became clear that the technique was more art than science: As the al chiodo pasta cooks through, it absorbs some of the pasta water and releases starch to help emulsify the water and fat into a creamy sauce. How much pasta water to add depends on knowing how much more cooking the pasta needs and how much water it will absorb. And if there isn’t enough pasta water to maintain the emulsion, the sauce will be broken and greasy. I wanted to remove the guesswork for those times when I can’t give dinner my undivided attention.
That would mean using the more straightforward approach of adding al dente pasta to a finished sauce. But rather than use the standard 4 quarts of water to boil the pasta, I scaled the water to 2 quarts (unsalted since the pancetta and Pecorino contributed plenty of salt). This way, the water would have double the starch, which would help ensure emulsification.
I added 2 cups of the starchy pasta water to the rendered fat and boiled the mixture for a few minutes. This not only caused some evaporation to further concentrate the starch but also broke the fat into smaller, more numerous droplets. I stirred in the al dente pasta and the browned pancetta, followed by the Pecorino, transforming the liquid from thin and brothy to nicely emulsified.
This method was nearly foolproof, but I made a final tweak to guarantee consistent results. I boiled the fat-water mixture not for a specified time but to a specified volume: 1½ cups. This way, I’d always use the same amount of liquid to coat the pasta.
With this recipe for gricia at the ready, I couldn’t wait until it was my turn to make lunch.