In 14 hundred and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Most of us remember reciting that in grade school. That’s when Columbus Day was a real holiday and was celebrated on October 12th. St. Patrick’s Cathedral had a 10:00am mass said in Italian that I took my Little Nonna to. Later that day there was a parade up 5th Avenue. There was no school. Columbus Day, unfortunately is much less revered now except with mature Italian who are not willing to let go of tradition and history. It is now celebrated, mostly for convenience, on the second Monday in October. It is a celebration of Italian-American cultural heritage.
A LITTLE HUMOR: How do you know you are Italian-American… waking up to the aroma of garlic in the morning to wearing an Italian horn, to dodging slippers, shoes and the wooden spoon means you grew up in an Italian-American household and you are either Italian by birth or Italian-American. Here are some signs that you and all Italians can relate to!
1. Your last name ends in a vowel.
2. You can’t have a conversation without using hand gestures.
3. You know when you say goodbye it’s going to be a few more hours…
(and this is very true in our house. As our family is saying our goodbyes, our grandson Carson and I always joke that we should have started saying good bye as soon as we started saying hello!)
4. Waking up to the smell of garlic and basil is normal to you.
5. You know what “agita” is and you don’t want to be someone who gives people it!
6. You have an Uncle Joe, Frank, Jimmy, or Anthony.
7. You are never greet Nonni or other elders without getting two kisses and a pinched cheek.
PASTA ALLA GRICIA
(Pasta with Guanciale and cheese)
In Rome, this dish will be made with guanciale, an Italian bacon that is made from the pig’s jowl, or cheek. It’s an ingredient that many may find difficult to find, so substituting pancetta, which is Italian bacon made from the pig’s belly, is fine. They are very similar and some people will say they can’t tell much of a difference. However, if you secure good imported guanciale you will immediately notice the difference in flavor and fragrance. Most importantly, this dish recommends that you do not overcook the pasta. In Rome, this dish will be very al dente – to many people, pasta in Rome is firmer than any pasta they’ve ever had. You should learn to cook it this way, also. Err on the side of cooking it less, not more.
This dish works best with a pasta like Rigatoni or any hearty pasta such as Fidelini or Linguini that you can pick up the sauce with as you are eating. You want the cheese and little bits of guanciale clinging with each bite. But, of course, you can choose to use any type of pasta you prefer. This is such a simple dish but one that will always impress and satisfy.
NOTE: Because of the saltiness of the meat and the cheese just salt the water very slightly.
- 5 ounces guanciale or pancetta, cubed
- 1½ teaspoons coarsely ground pepper, divided
- 8 ounces pasta
- ¾ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese, divided, about 2½ ounces (and more for passing)
Start a large pot of water on the stove to boil. At the same time, fry the diced meat in a large fry pan over medium heat until the edges are a bit crispy. Remove meat with a slotted spoon and set aside. Do not wipe out pan.
After the water has come to a boil, cook the pasta until about halfway done – you want the pasta to still be firm (the pasta will continue to cook later in the recipe).
If you are using spaghetti, for instance, this will only take a couple of minutes.
Add about ¾ cup of the pasta water and the ground pepper to the skillet with the fat from the meat and cook over medium high heat, whisking, to thicken, for about a minute.
Remove pasta with a spider, tongs or some other kind of strainer and place in the skillet. Vigorously stir the pasta with the sauce and add more pasta water if it’s too dry.
Add ½ cup of the cheese and stir, over the medium heat. The cheese will melt into the sauce – add more hot pasta water if needed, but the sauce should not be thin or runny. You want it to adhere firmly to the pasta. Keep cooking and stirring until the sauce is creamy and the pasta is cooked, but still al dente.
Add the guanciale or pancetta and stir to blend.
Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with more cheese and, if you like, more pepper. This dish calls for the pasta to be well covered, almost sotered, with cheese and pepper.
Serve with a simple salad for a great meal.