Marvel’s most recent film chronicling the supernatural, close-knit foursome is proving to be a colossal flop in the US, surely causing major turmoil for its producers. But if they’re crying in Hollywood, we’re still smiling happily in Rome, or at least consoling ourselves with four of the most celebrated traditional pasta dishes – those so typically Roman that they alone are worth a visit to the city, just as much as the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain. Without wanting to sound irreverent towards the Capital’s most historical monuments, our more gluttonous side can’t keep our thoughts from a Roman kitchen’s most winning primi. Listed in alphabetical order, so as not to play favorites, they are: amatriciana, cacio e pepe, carbonara and gricia.
Amatriciana was born in the town of Amatrice, found in the province of Rieti. But Rome is this pasta’s adopted city, where the every day the populous downs tons of spaghetti (or better yet–rigatoni or bucatini) topped with a sauce made of tomatoes, guanciale or pork jowl (no bacon, heresy!), olive oil, garlic and pecorino cheese. This is the recipe used by the most orthodox of purists. There are also other different takes on the dish that see the addition of onions and/or chili peppers. Fun fact: in 2009, a stamp was dedicated to the ingredients of spaghetti all’amatriciana, issued by the Italian Republic.
Cacio e pepe needs little introduction as it is one of Rome’s most symbolic primi and is readily consumed all throughout Lazio. As with many Italian dishes, this recipe’s origins are rural: rich in calories, its heartiness fueled the men who worked tirelessly in the fields. It is a simple but tasty dish, calling only for vermicelli or tonnarelli pasta dressed with starchy pasta water mixed with black pepper and pecorino cheese. Despite its seeming simplicity, this is a “technical” dish, as it’s challenging to find the right balance of ingredients to create a creamy sauce that is not too thick or too liquid-y.
Another characteristic first course dish is carbonara, also prepared with popular ingredients born from the efforts of farming: eggs, fried bacon, and grated pecorino cheese. Its origins are controversial, with at least a couple of versions out there, but one of the most substantiated stories is that the dish was created by coal miners, who prepared it using comestibles that would keep during the long hours in the mine. Another more suggestive hypothesis attributes the carbonara’s “copyright” to U.S. soldiers stationed in Italy during World War II, whose combination of classic American breakfast staples bacon and eggs inspired Italian cooks to invent the recipe. Wherever it came from, carbonara is certainly the most international of the four, often found on restaurant menus around the world. The optimal type of pasta to use continues to be spaghetti, but the carbonara marries happily with rigatoni or shorter pasta like penne.
Lastly, there is the ancestor of amatriciana, known as gricia. Prepared with a sauce of guanciale and pecorino, this pasta dish forgoes the tomato entirely, as it was prepared and consumed by shepherds long before the tomato arrived in Europe. It also differs from amatriciana in its use of lard instead of oil and black pepper. The name could derive from gricio, an old term for food-vendors, or perhaps from the small village of Grisciano, not far from Amatrice. With this type of sauce, your best choices are spaghetti, bucatini, tonnarelli and rigatoni.
Luckily, you can find all of the fantastic 4 pastas at any local trattoria or osteria.