Rome is on my list of places to visit sooner than later for many reasons (but then again the same could be said for Barcelona, Madrid, and San Juan), in part because I have this recurring wistful yearning to sit in a charming cafe, preferably outside in some piazza and have the perfect plate of any of the four basic Roman pasta dishes: alla gricia, amatriciana, carbornara or cacio e pepe. I credit this to too many viewings of The Talented Mr. Ripley and the season 3 episode of Mad Men that finds Don and Betty spending a sexy night in Rome. As much as I’d like to give my passport a workout and go to all of those places whenever I want to–those times often being when I’m in the midst of my commute and see ads for those destinations all over buses, taxis and trains–real life doesn’t always permit those whims, so I content myself with a nice plate or bowl of food that can at least take me there in my imagination.
I credit Gina de Palma for helping me appreciate the nuances in making basic Roman pasta dishes, thanks to her step-by-step tutorial on Serious Eats some time ago that walks you through the precise cooking method of pasta alla gricia. It’s a delicate dance of a dish, and we followed her instructions to the letter, even to the point of pulling out the scale and measuring the cheese and pasta based on the amount of guanciale we had at our disposal. It was an exercise in precision, to be sure, but it was useful in understanding the basics of Roman pasta-cooking because only when the fundamentals are strong can experimentation really take place.
When I saw a riff on the classic when first flipping through our Rome cookbook that called for some red onion, sugar and a little white wine vinegar I was intrigued, and when I showed it to Michael on a sunny, if cold Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago he joined me in my enthusiasm. We thought we’d be making this with guanciale since we knew that Fairway stocked it, but alas–the 74th St. store was out of stock and we were far to north to even think of hitting up Eataly, so I went with the pancetta that looked the most appealing instead. I knew it would make the dish a little heavier as pancetta is much more robust in flavor compared to guanciale, but then I knew that we wouldn’t have to treat it quite as delicately as we would the hog jowl, and it paired nicely with the sweet, slightly acidic onions.
My favorite aspect of this approach to making pasta is that since you’re not making a sauce it doesn’t take much time to bring the dish together–most of the cooking can be done as the water is brought to a boil and the pasta cooks (well, as long as you’re cooking something like rigatoni rather than capellini, of course) and still have time to bring together a simple salad to lessen the guilt of enjoying so much bacon. As much as I like to sing the praises of meals that take hours to come together, it is important to have a nice battery of recipes that are easy to make after commuting for far too long and still have dinner on the table by 7:30ish. If they also happen to help you fancy yourself in Rome (or Barcelona, or Madrid, or on the beach) while you eat it, so much the better.
Especially if it’s 7:30 on a dreary Tuesday evening.
Rigaoni with Pancetta and Red Onion
adapted from Rome
- 1 red onion sliced thinly
- 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
- 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 lb pancetta (or guanciale, if you’re so lucky) cut into slices that is 1/4 ” thick
- 1 lb rigatoni
- 6 tablespoons of Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bring two quarts of water to a boil, keeping covered to not lose too much water. Once you’ve gotten the pancetta going, season the water well and then add the rigatoni and cook until about a minute less than package directions (reserve a half-cup of cooking water just in case you need it); drain and return to the pot until ready to combine with the pancetta and onions.
While the water comes to a boil, use a small frying pan (note: not the one you will be cooking the pancetta in) and combine the onion, vinegar, olive oil, sugar and a pinch of salt. Cook over low heat, stirring now and then, until the onion wilts (about 5 minutes or so) and then set aside.
While the onion cooks and the water heats take out your big saute pan and bring to medium-low heat and fry the pancetta until crisp, about 15 minutes. Reserve half of the pancetta and set aside but keep the pan on the lowest heat setting possible. Add the pasta to the pan with the pancetta and onions, toss well to coat, add the cheese and toss some more. Season with pepper.
Spoon into serving bowls and add the remaining pancetta as garnish.