Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Guanciale - Trio of Classic Italian Dishes

Guanciale (gwan-chee-awl-ay) has been called the Roman magical bacon. It is Italian bacon that is dry-cured from pig jowls. Salted and spiced and left hung to dry for weeks to months, the unsmoked pig jowl has a unique flavor that sets itself apart from other cured and smoked meats.

It is very different from pancetta or bacon where it has a more intense pork flavor. The cheeks have a unique taste and it lends that flavor to the dry curing process. The guanciale is washed in wine before salting and spicing. After a month, it is ready to eat.

The guanciale has buttery dense layers of fat. It melts go easily on a even-tempered pan and cooks quickly. It is best to cut thin strips and fry on a low temp to not overburn. Right away you can smell the intense porkiness. And as you can suspect, the rendered fat also packs huge flavor upon anything fried in it.

Guanciale can be used like you would use pancetta or bacon, however, pancetta and bacon are not worthy substitutes when a recipe calls for guanciale. I emphasize, there is no substitute for guanciale!

There are three classic Italian dishes that are linked to guanciale. Matched with long, tubular pasta and aged cheese, these dishes are simple in ingredients but loom large on the plate and palate.

Bucatini al’Amatriciana

I've seen recipes that have pancetta or bacon but the classic enforces the use of guanciale. Bucatini pasta also makes it more classical. Bucatini, a long, thick pasta with a hole running through the center, comes from Lazio. It is also called perciatelli. 

For all recipes, the amount of ingredients vary for how many servings you are preparing. I cooked for one so amounts are small.

  • thin slices of guanciale
  • 1 onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Pecorino-Romano cheese
  • homemade or store bought tomato sauce
  • bucatini
Cook guanciale on pan for a few minutes each side. Heat on a low-medium temperature and try not to overburn. When done, set aside and reserve the rendered fat.

Thinly slice onions and slow cook them in the rendered fat for 15-20 minutes. The slow-sweating process really brings out the sweetness of the onions. Stir once in awhile.

Start boiling salted water and add your bucatini. Cook for 8-9 minutes.Once the onions are almost done, thinly slice the garlic and add to the onions.

When guanicale has cooled, cut into a smaller dice and add the guanciale to the pan cook for a few minutes. Add a few spoonfuls of the pasta sauce and stir combining all the flavors and cook for a minute or two.

Drain the pasta and add it to the pan and swirl together. Cook for a minute then grate some Pecorino-Romano cheese and add cut fresh Italian parsley.

Bucatini alla Gricia

This is another Roman classic. Created with simple ingredients, only four, it is a delightful and flavorful meal. This is where aged cheese meets aged pork, pig meets sheep.

Pecorino is derived from the Italian word "pecora" which means sheep. It is made from sheep's milk and aged for months to years.

  • guanciale
  • bucatini
  • Pecorino-Romano cheese
  • cracked black pepper
Cook pasta in boiling salted water for 8-9 minutes. Drain and reserve a tablespoon of pasta water.

Slice the guanciale in strips and cook on each side for a few minutes.Slowly cook the guanciale to soften the fat, keeping it translucent, to not overburn it. Add a few drips from the pasta water to keep the guanciale moist. The starchy water combines with the rendered fat to somewhat create a sauce for the dish.

Toss the pasta into the pan and cook until it sizzles. Add a few turns of cracked black pepper and grated some Pecorino-Romano cheese. Avoid adding too much cheese. The cheese helps bind the pasta and guanciale together.

Bucatini alla Carbonara

This dish is very similar to Bucatini alla Gricia with the addition of adding an egg at the end of the cooking process. The beated egg adds a creaminess to the dish.

  • guanciale
  • bucatini
  • 1 egg, beated
  • freshly grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
  • Italian parsley, chopped
  • salt and ground black pepper
Slice the guanciale into strips and slowly cook in the pan. Set aside and when cool, cut into dice. Save the rendered fat.

Cook bucatini in boiling salted water for about 8-9 minutes.

Beat egg and set aside. Add a few grated slices of cheese to egg mixture.

Drain pasta and add it to the pan with rendered fat, cook until al dente. Remove from heat and add the egg/cheese mixture. Season with salt/pepper. The heat of the pasta will cook the egg when you toss the ingredients together.

Chop some parsley and grate some more cheese and add to dish along with the guanciale.

All three dishes were fantastic. I am not Italian but while preparing and partaking in these classics, I felt a little closer to the Italian people and understood more about the care into making good food and the culture of the food.

With all respect to bacon or pancetta, Guanciale is better, tastier, at least to my palate. Maybe it is more refined in my mind. Sure, you could fry up a slice of guanciale and add it to a lettuce and tomato sandwich or serve it alongside pancakes. Those would taste just great. But guanciale to me, is an Italian thing. It celebrates the pig in a different way, it takes me to land and culture generations old.

To me, a pig's heart is in his jowls.

Try some guanciale. I purchased my 100% genuine Berkshire pork guanciale from Bolzano's Artisans Meats in Milwaukee, WI. It used to be hard to find in America but with more meat markets doing the dry-curing process, it should be available in your local area.


  1. Now THAT looks good! Wow... ;]

  2. Guanciale is actually pronounced gwan-chyah-lay. The "ia" is a diphthong.
    A couple helpful suggestions, though: you're missing a key ingredient - peperoncino (the crushed red pepper that you can buy in most supermarkets is fine). The pecorino should always be finely grated and applied quite liberally (especially in spaghetti alla gricia, where you need the sharpness of the cheese and the crushed red to stand up to the guanciale). The origins of spaghetti all'amatriciana is argued, but most say it was created in Amatrice, where they use spaghetti instead of bucatini, and they don't use onion or garlic in the sauce. The Romans make it with onion, but even in Rome it is rare to use garlic. Hope you find this helpful.

  3. Three GREAT pasta dishes!

    That Guanciale from Bolzano is the bomb. We made a traditional Carbonara with homemade pasta, and it was positively out of this world.

  4. and it keeps getting better...Great Stuff. You got a favorite Old Italian Market in Milwaukee that you use?