Rigatoni alla Gricia. Photo: William Meppem
Romans would have to be among the most fastidious custodians of the authenticity of their food. Leave an ingredient out or add one in and there'll be hell to pay. Just try putting cream into carbonara anywhere within sight of my Roman sister-in-law.
There is, however, method to the madness. Roman food is simple, and dishes usually contain just a few ingredients each. Romans are sticklers because they have to be: change one ingredient of a dish that only contains two to start with, and you're making a completely different dish.
Straccetti of Beef and rocket Photo: William Meppem
There is some room for expression. Pasta alla gricia can use any number of shapes of pasta, and the guanciale can be cut any number of ways.
I like rigatoni with matchsticks of crispy guanciale that tuck themselves inside the pasta as it's stirred.
The last time I cooked straccetti (literally, "little rags") of beef with my sister-in-law, she begrudgingly accepted the addition of garlic to flavour the oil. "Can we scatter over some parmesan, too?" I asked, as it seemed like a nice addition. "No," she replied. "Never."
Rigatoni alla gricia
SERVES 4 AS AN ENTRÉE
I combine all the ingredients in the pasta pot rather than a frying pan: the shape of a deeper pot makes it easier to stir to emulsify the oil, cheese and pasta water.
• 100g guanciale (or pancetta)
• 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 200g dried rigatoni
• ¼ cup finely grated pecorino cheese (or parmesan)
• freshly ground black pepper
Slice the guanciale into thin matchsticks.
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat, add the oil and sauté the guanciale slowly for around 8 minutes, until the fat is rendered and the guanciale crisp.
While the guanciale is cooking, bring a large pot of water to the boil and add a good punch of salt. Boil the pasta according to the packet directions, and just as it is cooked to your liking, take an espresso cup and scoop out a cup of the pasta water.
Drain the pasta and return it to the warm pot. Add the guanciale and all the rendered oil, the pecorino and the reserved pasta water. Stir briskly until the oil, cheese and water combine to create a creamy sauce that coats the pasta. Grind through a little pepper and serve immediately.
Straccetti of beef and rocket leaves
The secret to great straccetti is using good olive oil, very thin slices of beef and just the right amount of salt and pepper. The juices from the beef and the oil create a flavourful sauce perfect for mopping up with hunks of bread.
• 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed but still intact
• 500g beef rump, very thinly sliced
• ¼ tsp sea salt
• freshly ground black pepper
• 6 cups baby rocket leaves
• fresh crusty bread, to serve
Place a large frying pan over a high heat and add the oil and garlic. When the oil is hot and the garlic starts to brown, scatter in the slices of beef. Season well with salt and black pepper. Allow the beef slices to sit for a minute until they start to brown, then toss the pan to flip and mix the slices. Scatter the rocket leaves on top. As soon as the rocket leaves start to wilt, remove the pan from the heat.
Serve immediately with lots of crusty bread.
Very thinly sliced beef is available frozen from Asian grocery stores or fresh from Korean butchers. If you're slicing the beef yourself, put it in the freezer for an hour to firm, then use a very sharp knife to cut strips that are paper thin.