Italy has some of the finest food in Europe. (Sorry, France.) And when you’re twirling that bucatini all’amatriciana while sitting in a little Roman trattoria, it’s easy for one thought to cross your mind: This is so delicious I’ll never be able to re-create it at home.
Yet, some of Italy’s most beloved pasta dishes are the simplest. How do I know? Because I’m someone usually so confused by kitchens, my shameful Google history attests to the fact that I’ve looked up things like “how to poach eggs” and “how much water should you use to cook rice” … in the last year. But even I’ve figured out how to re-create some of the dishes I miss the most.
Of course, there’s a big caveat: It is much easier to find certain ingredients in Italy than back in the U.S. When each dish calls for only four or five, that makes a big difference. Still, you can get pretty close to the real thing. Here’s how I manage to make three of my favorite Roman pastas at home (and to track down the ingredients or substitutions). If I can do it, anyone can.
And all of these recipes serve two — because you have to show off your newfound skills to someone else, right? Buon appetito!
Cacio e pepe
Think of this pasta as a simpler, less fattening, and more grown-up version of macaroni and cheese. The “sauce” requires just two ingredients. One is fresh black pepper. The second is Pecorino Romano. Because Pecorino is Rome’s traditional hard cheese, all three of the Roman pastas I’m writing about here call for it; if you’re feeling dedicated, therefore, it’s worth tracking down at a specialty food store. If you really want to do it up, look for the label D.O.P., which stands for denominazione d’origine protetta; it’s the European Union–regulated stamp of authentication. Without this, in the U.S., there’s no guarantee what you’re getting is really Pecorino.
Pecorino Romano (one cup, finely grated)
Fresh black pepper
Spaghetti (4 oz dry)
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente, or “to the tooth” – meaning still very firm. That often takes a little less time than what the instructions for al dente on the box tell you: A box of Barilla’s No. 7 thick spaghetti sold in the U.S., for example, recommends 11 to 12 minutes; my count is closer to 10.5.
Drain the pasta, setting a little pasta water aside. Meanwhile, melt the cheese and pepper in a skillet over heat. Add some of the reserved pasta water if it’s not quite creamy enough. You want the mixture to be gooey, though, not thin.
Swirl in the spaghetti; grate more Pecorino Romano on top and add a zesty portion of fresh-ground black pepper, and salt (to taste), if needed. Serve immediately.
Two ingredients for a proper carbonara, made in the traditional Roman way — no cream, and, dear God, no peas — are a little tricky. One is the Pecorino Romano. Luckily, you already tracked this down for your cacio e pepe. The second is guanciale. This is smoked pork jowl, which is widely available in Italy, but a tougher find in the U.S. Although it’s often translated as “bacon” on English menus in Italy, bacon is too smoky and salty; pancetta isn’t quite right, either, as it’s usually not fatty enough. In a pinch, though, pancetta makes a better substitution, and it’s what I usually use at home.
Guanciale or pancetta (about 3 oz)
Rigatoni or spaghetti (4 oz dry)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 eggs, at room temperature
Fresh-grated Pecorino Romano (1/2 cup)
Fresh black pepper
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add just a dash of salt — you don’t need to go as crazy here, because the guanciale, on top of the Pecorino Romano, adds a good kick of salt on its own. Add pasta.
While the pasta is cooking, whisk eggs together with the Pecorino Romano in a separate bowl; meanwhile, if the guanciale isn’t cut up already, slice it into small strips; throw your guanciale or pancetta in a hot pan with just a drop of oil. Cook until crisp, when the fat is a kind of transparent golden-yellow, about 3 or 4 minutes, then remove from heat.
Drain the pasta, reserving about a quarter cup of the pasta water. Add it to the pan with the guanciale.
Here’s the tricky(-ish) part: adding the egg-and-cheese mixture. You don’t want the eggs to set and look like you dumped scrambled eggs on your spaghetti. But you don’t want the eggs to be raw and soupy, either. The trick is keeping the still-warm pan off the heat, but getting the sauce on the hot pasta immediately. Keep stirring everything together to make sure that the pasta is coated (and cooking) the egg-and-cheese mix. If it’s a little dry, add a splash of the reserved pasta water.
Once the mixture is creamy, not cooked, serve immediately, adding more grated Pecorino Romano and fresh-ground black pepper to taste. You can add salt, too, but you’ll probably find it unnecessary.
The original recipe from the town of Amatrice, which claims to have invented it, has an even simpler version than this one, without any wine or onions, which are often used in the Roman versions. But this is the take that I prefer. Aside from the guanciale, the new ingredient you have to track down here is the tomato. The tomatoes don’t need to be fresh, and if it’s not tomato season, it’s actually better if they aren’t. But they do need to be, if at all possible, San Marzano. San Marzano have a strong, sweet taste and aren’t nearly as acidic as most homegrown varieties. (That’s why you’ll often hear that you need to put a pinch of sugar in when making sauce with American tomatoes, but why Italians don’t do the same with their tomatoes in Italy).
The difficulty is that most of the canned tomatoes sold as San Marzano in the U.S. aren’t San Marzano at all. Instead, they’re grown in the U.S. — often not even from San Marzano seeds, but hybrids or Roma seeds instead. Ideally, you want to go with the real deal. Which brings us back to D.O.P.: To be sure that tomatoes are the San Marzano variety from San Marzano, the little town outside of Naples, look for the label “Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese Nocerino D.O.P.” It should also have a symbol for the cosorzio (consortium) of San Marzano.
Can’t find a can of real San Marzano? It’s okay — just be prepared to toss in a pinch of sugar while your sauce is simmering, which helps counteract that acidity. And whatever you buy, try to get the version that just has the tomatoes — no salt, no herbs, no seasonings.
Either spaghetti, rigatoni or — if you can find it, and really want to do it up Italian-style — bucatini (that’s a thick, long pasta with a hole running through it) (4 oz dry)
Crushed red-chili pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil
Canned, peeled San Marzano tomatoes (I like my amatriciana pretty saucy, so I usually use 14 oz for two people, or half of a 28-oz can. Freeze the rest, or use the whole can, changing other quantities accordingly, and save it for later, since it will keep in the fridge for a couple of days)
Guanciale or pancetta, cut into small strips (about 3 oz)
Dry white wine (about 1/4 cup, or to taste)
Pecorino Romano (optional)
Heat a pan over the stove, add a splash of olive oil, and put in the guanciale. Meanwhile, set a pot of water to boil.
Once the guanciale’s fat starts to turn clear, add the white wine. Let it cook for a minute; in the meantime, crush up the canned tomatoes with your hands and add them to the pan, along with the pinch of red pepper.
Let the sauce simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, tasting and adding salt as needed (as well as more white wine or red pepper, to taste). You don’t want it to be too thin — this should be a nice, thick sauce — so if you have to wait longer for more of the liquid to boil off, that’s okay.
Drain the pasta off (but don't rinse it; the starchy water is what sticks the sauce to the pasta). Swirl it with the sauce in the pan, serve with grated Pecorino Romano on top, and enjoy with a dry red, like a good Montepulciano or Sangiovese. Sunbaked terrazza and sexy Roman lover preferable, but not included.