I wish I could say that my first introduction to guanciale was in Rome, perhaps at one of those little family restaurants in a tiny alley just off the Campo dei Fiori…
The Pasta alla Carbonara was so amazing I just had to ask what
was in it. They explained to me that the secret ingredient
that makes carbonara better in Italy was guanciale.
Even after years of culinary school and more years of working in restaurants, I didn’t know what guanciale was until I saw it in the meat case during my first week at Formaggio Kitchen South End. Our guanciale was a lovely little slab of cured meat that looked a little like bacon, but smaller, flatter and not so square. Although it is cured like bacon or pancetta, guanciale is made from the jowl or cheek of the pig, rather than the pork belly — hence its odd shape.
Guancia is the Italian word for cheek, no surprise there. Like pancetta, guanciale is not usually smoked, making smoked bacon an inappropriate substitute. Pancetta is not an ideal substitute either, however. Though salty and fatty like pancetta, guanciale is stronger in flavor and somewhat sweeter. It also seems to have a more buttery texture and is beautifully translucent after cooking, thanks to the high fat to meat ratio. (Our Formaggio Kitchen charcutière, Julie, regularly makes guanciale, bacon and pancetta at our Cambridge store, and we recommend trying all three.)
The two most famous recipes using guanciale in Italian cooking are Pasta alla Carbonara and Pasta al’Amatriciana. (I use the word “pasta” because although spaghetti is traditionally used for Carbonara, and bucatini is the typical choice for Amatriciana, the pastas are interchangable and, in a pinch, other cuts can be substituted.)
Pasta alla Carbonara is one of the simplest but easiest-to-ruin recipes I’ve ever made. A classic Carbonara is made by beating super-fresh eggs with grated Pecorino Romano, some cooked guanciale and lots of ground black pepper in a bowl, and then tossing in hot cooked pasta fresh from the boiling water (with just a splash of that pasta water to make it saucy). The hot pasta cooks the eggs as you toss and if all goes according to plan, the eggs cook quickly but smoothly, melding with the melting grated cheese and creating a gorgeous sauce. If all does not go according to plan, you end up with pasta with little bits of scrambled eggs stuck all over it. Then you eat it anyway with an air of humiliation and disappointment, because you can’t throw away perfectly good pasta and eggs.
Amatriciana sauce, on the other hand, is nice and easy. Italians didn’t start using tomatoes until the 18th century when they were brought from the Americas, so originally Amatriciana was thought to have been a simple sauce of guanciale, grated cheese and pepper. Nowadays, it also contains ripe tomatoes and a bit of hot pepper, which makes it a great summer pasta.
We often use guanciale in place of pancetta to give food a flavor boost. Little bits of cooked guanciale are great with peas, beans, green beans, or greens; or use as a fat to sauté onions for a soup base. (I also like to put bits of it into mac and cheese – decadent!) I keep a small hunk in my freezer at all times in case of flavor emergencies, because a little slice, even when hacked off a frozen chunk, goes a long way in adding complexity and flavor to any dish.
Julie Cappellano is the general manager and wine buyer at Formaggio Kitchen South End, Boston.