How to make pasta alla gricia, Italian cuisine before tomatoes

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How to make pasta alla gricia, Italian cuisine before tomatoes
How can just three ingredients taste so good? Photo: Pasta alla gricia by Luca Nebuloni - CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia

If you think pasta needs tomato sauce, let this Roman classic prove you wrong. Pasta expert Silvana Lanzetta shares her recipe for a simple but delicious meal.


Pasta alla gricia is an ancient way of preparing pasta, before tomatoes took over Italian cuisine.

Born in the Apennine region north of Rome, it was created by the local shepherds, who didn’t have much to feed themselves with: only sheep's cheese and pork cheeks. But they made it count.


Delicious in its simplicity, pasta alla gricia might be a challenge for whoever thinks that to create amazing Italian dishes you need a lot of ingredients and herbs: but you don't!

Choose your ingredients with care, especially the meat, as it is paramount for this dish: guanciale has a delicate and particular flavour that cannot be substituted for bacon. More and more butchers now sell it, and usually it is not any more expensive than bacon. If you’re unable to get guanciale, then go for pancetta or smoked lardons.

For the cheese, it has to be Pecorino Romano, no substitutions allowed. But it is very easy to find, even outside Italy.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about shopping at Italian food markets

Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

Ingredients (4 servings)

400 g rigatoni, tortiglioni or penne pasta
200 g guanciale (if you can't find it, pancetta will do), diced
150 g grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste


1. Start by boiling a large pot of water. Stir in some salt (not too much, the sauce is very savoury), let it melt, then add the pasta and boil on high heat for about 8 minutes: the pasta has to be slightly undercooked.

2. While the pasta is cooking, add the guanciale to a non-stick pan and cook at medium heat until it has formed a light golden crust. No need to add any oil to the pan, the guanciale will cook in its own fat.

3. Drain the pasta and reserve one cup of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan with the guanciale, add half the cooking water, season with pepper, and sautée for a couple of minutes until the water has been absorbed.

Stir in the pecorino, and check whether the pasta is cooked to your taste: if still too hard, add more of the reserved water, and sautée until the water has been absorbed. Do not add any salt, as the cheese and meat are already very salty.

4. Once the pasta is cooked, remove from the heat and serve your pasta alla gricia immediately, sprinkled with more grated Pecorino cheese and accompanied by a bottle of Chianti Classico DOCG.

Silvana Lanzetta. Photo: Private

Silvana Lanzetta was born into a family of pasta makers from Naples and spent 17 years as a part-time apprentice in her grandmother’s pasta factory. She specializes in making pasta entirely by hand and runs regular classes and workshops in London.

Find out more at her website,, including this recipe and others.


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