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Episode #181: A Tale of Roman Pastas – Part One

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While we often proclaim that Italian food is more than just pasta, there’s no getting away from the fact that the pasta you’ll eat on any trip to Italy is usually incredibly delicious and unforgettable. And Rome’s four main pasta dishes are definitely something to seek out on a trip to the Eternal City. With a cross-over of techniques and ingredients, we’ll discover how you can try to re-create these amazing dishes at home as well as the fascinating, yet varied stories behind the dishes’ creation. 

Show notes
We are joined by food tour host, chef, sommelier, and all-round food and drink guru Nesim Bekalti of Full Belly Tours. Nesim grew up in the Testaccio district which is known as the kitchen of Rome. Having lived and worked all over the world as a chef he has now returned to his old neighborhood and is keen to share its treasures with others. He not only has a wealth of knowledge but an infectious passion for the cuisine of Rome and Italy. Nesim offers immersive tours in the Testaccio neighborhood: Experience Testaccio includes a delicious breakfast as well as tasting your way around the famous Testaccio Market, with a local. Testaccio Full Immersion includes 12 or more tastings of many of Rome’s traditional delicacies and can be enjoyed in the daytime or as an evening tour, both ending with a trip to Nesim’s favorite childhood (and the neighborhood’s oldest) gelateria. Nesim can also do private and custom tours for you. Untold Italy can attest to how great Nesim’s tour is – how much he can teach you and how mind-blowingly good the food he finds for you is. In this episode, Nesim shares the history, stories, ingredients, techniques and tips around Rome’s pasta famous four – Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana. We learn that pasta is not all down to Marco Polo and that whilst the sauce can wait for the pasta, the pasta cannot wait for the sauce. 

Listen to part 2 here

Meet Nesim…

What you’ll learn in this episode

  1. Nesim is Roman but not Italian. His father is from Tunisia, his mother is French though brought up in the US. He was born in Washington DC but raised in Rome. He’s always worked in hospitality and food is his true passion. He spent many years bouncing around the world working in kitchens. He moved back to Rome 7 years ago and having fallen into doing food tours – he ended up loving it so much that he started his own food tour company called Full Belly Tours. He gets to talk all day long about food and drink, which keeps him very happy
  2. Having grown up in Rome and worked in food, Nesim knows pretty much all there is to know about the four most famous Roman pastas – Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana. There is a link between these four pastas – if you start with the ingredients for Cacio e pepe – Pecorino Romano cheese, pasta, the cooking water from the pasta, and black pepper, you can add just one ingredient to get Gricia. Then depending on what you add to Gricia, you get either Carbonara or Amatriciana
  3. Pasta is, of course, synonymous with Italy but there are some big misconceptions about its origins – namely that it is credited to he famous explorer Marco Polo bringing it back from China in the late 1200s. However, the first written record of pasta in Italy actually dates back to over 3,000 years ago, with the Greek and Etruscan’s marking large flat sheets of unleavened dough, laganon, that were then boiled, dressed, and stacked. 1200 years later, in ancient Roman times, they referred to a similar dish called lagana – a lavish version of this layered pasta dish that contained stews made from both meat and fish. Lagana is one letter away from lasagna, so it is thought to be the ancestor of the modern lasagna la bolognese, which is similarly layered but then baked again in an oven
  4. The first actual record of a noodle-like pasta in Itlay dates back to around 1154 – so before Marco Polo came back. This appears in the writings of the Arab geographer Idrisi, who mentions the tria, which was a thread shape dough in Sicily. Nowadays in Palermo, there is still a famous type of pasta called Vermicelli di Tria
  5. Pasta, as we know it today, with semolina and water, is thought to have been invented by the Arabs – in particular by nomadic tribes of the desert who made the first bucatini by drying the dough around very thin strands of straw. It’s believed that the Arabs then introduced pasta to the island of Sicily when they occupied the island. It then spread through the rest of Italy. Marco Polo no doubt did introduce different versions of the long noodles that were popular in China, but it was not the starting point for pasta in Italy
  6. The popularizing of pasta on a massive scale is credited to Naples in the 1600s. A famine occurred which coincided with both a boom in population and an increase in taxation from Spain (who controlled the area), so the consumption of meat and bread decreased dramatically and was replaced by pasta. This led to the invention of the now-modern machinery that creates pasta from the bronze dies that made it easier to mass produce and therefore even cheaper
  7. The best dried pasta still comes from the region around Naples. Gragnano is the town that’s most famous for its pasta production 
  8. Coincidentally, despite tomatoes being the ingredient most associated with Italian food, it was only during this same period that tomato sauce came to be – when tomatoes were only brought into Italy from the Americas in the mid-1500s

Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana

The two most important ingredients of all these pasta dishes are Pecorino Romano and Guanciale.

Pecorino Romano

  • Pecorino Romano is a sheep’s milk cheese, with pecora in Italian meaning sheep. There are many, many types of pecorino in Italy ranging from young melting cheeses to dry, aged cheeses like Pecorino Romano
  • Pecorino Romano has been made for over 2,000 years and in ancient Roman times, it was such an important source of nutrition that Roman soldiers were given 27 grams a day (roughly an ounce) in their rations
  • Sheep’s milk is saltier and more acidic than cow’s milk, so Pecorino Romano is considered salty. Italians talk about savory food in terms of sweet and savory. Sweet has nothing to do with the sugar content of the food, it just means it’s the more delicate of the two options
  • Pecorino Romano is considered salty, whereas Parmigiano Reggiano, made from cows’ milk, is considered sweet
  • Depending on what you are cooking, you would use one or the other to highlight either the sweet or savory notes in the dish
  • Pecorino is the one used in Roman pastas, as they like their flavors to be punchy – there’s nothing subtle about Roman cuisine

The Guanciale

  • The other most important ingredient in 3 of the dishes (Gricia, Carbonara and Amatriciana), is guanciale. This is the cured pork from the jaw/cheek of the pig. A perfect example of a cheap, throwaway cut of the animal, that the nobles did not care about
  • Someone discovered that you get an amazing product if you take the cheek and treat it with the same love and care as pancetta (which comes from the belly). In Rome, they value guanciale more than these fancier cuts. It has a more intense flavor than pancetta and contains a lot more fat
  • One of the keys to making these dishes correctly is to render out the guanciale on the lowest possible flame. You want the fat that it gives off to render very slowly
  • Do not turn the heat up! If ever you eat one of these pastas with guanciale and it tastes a little acrid or burnt, it’s because they rendered out the guanciale too quickly. If you cook it off in the way you would bacon, the fat burns and starts to smoke which means it’s breaking down and will become bitter. If you’re cooking bacon you’re maybe going to maybe take it out and pat dry with a paper towel, so you’re not going to taste that bitterness – but since the fat that the guanciale gives off is just as important an ingredient as the little crispy bits, if you cook the guanciale on too high a flame it will ruin the taste
  • Every fat has a smoke point, which is the temperature at which a fat starts to burn and break down. It’s very easy to see if you’ve reached that point – look at your pan – if the guanciale is frying very intensely and you see smoke coming off of the oil, then you’ve passed the smoke point (and you should probably start again)
  • It’s similar to extra virgin olive oil and butter having low smoke points, so you cook with them differently to a vegetable or peanut oil – which you’d use for a dish with a high heat
  • When you chop the guanciale up, it’s down to personal preference whether you like it sliced thinner or whether you like it sliced chunkier, although generally in Rome they prefer it on the chunkier side. After chopping, you toss it in the pan, start it on a medium flame, and  once it starts to become a little translucent and you see a little fat start to give off, lower it to the absolute minimum and be patient
  • The rendering can take anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes if you’re not doing a large amount. Nesim has had a couple of full pots of guanciale on the go before which took nearly 2 hours. But rest assured your patience will be rewarded in the flavor and deliciousness of the dish
  • Nesim cannot stress enough that the quality of each ingredient that you buy is so important. Because the dishes are so simple, there’s nowhere to hide with low-quality ingredients. If you make these dishes with some random non-Italian supermarket brand of pasta and cheap, overly salty Pecorino Romano and pre-ground pepper, it’s not going to taste particularly good
  • Unfortunately, it’s hard to find proper Italian food outside of Italy. If you can’t find guanciale, then you can use pancetta. If you can’t find pancetta, it’s also okay to use bacon – but the best quality and most natural kind you can find – nothing glazed or twice smoked is going to work here

The Pecorino Romano

  • The most important ingredient for all four of these pastas is the Pecorino Romano
  • The Italians are sneaky and like to keep all the good stuff for ourselves and they export the inferior goods like the Pecorino you’ll often find abroad – which in the US is often simply called Romano cheese
  • A lot of Pecorino Romano, which is supposed to be made from the milk of sheep that are raised locally is actually made from sheep that are raised in Sardinia. The landscape in Sardinia is drier and more arid, so the resulting milk is going to be saltier and more acidic which throws off the balance of the dish
  • In Rome, they say that to judge Pecorino Romano, you judge it on how sweet it eat. Cut off a chunk, eat it and if it’s not too salty, it’s good. There is a trick that you can use – which is to mix a little bit of Parmigiano or grana padano (a cheaper version of Parmigiano) to add a little sweetness to balance out that overly strong pecorino
  • Definitely avoid buying pre-ground cheeses. They tend to add anti-caking agents like corn starch or some kinds of thickener which will throw the balance of the dish completely off
  • The grind counts! This was one of the tips that Katy learned from Nesim that was an aha! moment. To achieve the correct texture of the sauce, the cheese has to be ground in a specific way – very finely. You can get cheese ground in any store in Italy – if you ask for grated Parmigiano or Pecorino – they have a machine that grinds it into a very fine powder which in Italian they describe as snow
  • You don’t want the shavings and you don’t want to use a micro plane which is used a lot in professional kitchens and gives you the nice ribbons of grated cheese. This is great on cold things because you’ll get these beautiful, pillowy clouds on top. But if you use a micro plane to put it on top of something that’s hot, the steam from the dish is going to mean that nice fluffy mound collapses on itself and it’ll become this stringy mass of plasticy cheese that won’t incorporate into the sauce
  • If you can’t get your hands on some pre-grated, you can use your food processor or blender and pulse the cheese until you get the desired consistency
  • It is one of the most important things – because if you don’t have the cheese in the right form, the dish simply won’t come out properly

The Mantecatura

  • There is a step in proper pasta cookery called mantecatura, which is the step of dressing the pasta with the sauce and is normally done by the cook in the kitchen. You take the pasta out of the cooking water a couple of minutes before it reaches al dente because the pasta will keep cooking as you do the mantecatura. You would normally toss it directly into the pan with the sauce and sauté it a couple of times so it starts to absorb the sauce. The first thing that a starch wants to do when it comes out of a boiling cooking medium is to absorb the next liquid it comes into contact with, which is why you should always go from the pot directly into the pan with the sauce and not rinse it with cold water and set it aside
  • One of the cardinal rules of pasta is that the sauce can wait for the pasta. The pasta cannot wait for the sauce. If you rinse or set aside your waterlogging pasta, it won’t absorb as much sauce. You’re also diluting the flavor of the pasta itself because you’re rinsing it with bland water which is killing the pasta’s flavor

Cacio e Pepe

  • From the finely treated cheese, you want to make a thick paste like a cheese paste. In an Italian restaurant kitchen, they have big double boilers where they continuously cook the pasta that has starchy pasta water, in your kitchen you need to take it from the pasta you are cooking
  • You get some of that starchy pasta water and put it into a large bowl, add a lot of the cracked black pepper (you can even toast that pepper before grinding it for even more flavor from the pepper). The hot starchy pasta water extracts the flavor from the pepper. When it’s cooled to room temperature, you start adding handfuls of this thinly grated Pecorino Romano, stirring until it forms a thick paste
  • When the pasta is about two-thirds of the way through the cooking process, you would traditionally take some of the cooking water, put it in a pan, take the pasta out, put it into the pan with the cooking water, and you’ll finish the cooking in that pan – cooking it for a couple more minutes
  • As an example – if you’re doing spaghetti, it will take between 9 and 11 minutes, depending on the thickness. About 6 minutes in, you would put some cooking water into the pan. This is separate from the cooking water that you made the cheese paste out of. You take the pasta out of the cooking water, put it into the pan, and you start cooking it down in the pasta water. As the pasta water reduces, the starches that the pasta has given off are going to thicken it. When you get this creamy, thicker consistency, you then add the cheese paste, stir, and it’ll turn into the sauce
  • Traditionally, you wouldn’t even have to use the cheese paste – you could just put the grated cheese directly into the pasta and the thicker sauce at that point, but that takes some experience and doing the cheese sauce first is a trick that should help things go better, because if you just add the cheese directly to the pan, you risk having the cheese congeal.  The first time Nesim tried to make Cacio e pepe, this happened. So if it happens to you, don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal even in skilled hands!
  • The easiest way to do it is to make that cheese paste in a bowl that’s larger than the amount of pasta you’re going to cook. When the pasta is maybe one minute away from being cooked, you take it out of the cooking water from the pasta and you put it into that cheese paste and stir like a lunatic for 20, 30 seconds, which is why you would need a really big bowl so the pasta doesn’t fly everywhere. the heat from the pasta will melt the cheese and it will keep giving off a little more starch as you stir. This will then turn into a creamy, luscious sauce without the addition of any other ingredients
  • Get into the habit, whenever you drain your pasta, of filling a coffee cup with that pasta water. Starchy pasta water can help you in a variety of situations. For example, if you do get the clumpy cheese mixture, add another couple of handfuls of cheese, a little more pasta water, and stir, and it should turn things back into a sauce. It won’t be quite as successful as if the cheese had not congealed, but it’ll be easier than starting over and taste good
  • For this pasta Nesim find that long noodles tend to work very well because of their slipperiness and because they’re constantly twirling in and out of each other which makes the mantecatura easier
  • Things will likely not go according to plan the first time (or 3) you try making these dishes, but just try and try again. With the tips that Nesim is giving you – you will achieve perfection in the end

La Gricia

  • Gricia is the four ingredients of Cacio e pepe plus your guanciale that has been rendered out. It’s the same process as the cacio pepe but when you add the pasta to the black pepper cheese paste, you also add the guanciale. Nesim likes to add all of the fat that it gives off, though some people will use it a little more sparingly. That is completely down to personal preference
  • Then you do the same thing a super Cacio e pepe – start stirring like a lunatic. The extra fat from the guanciale actually makes the sauce emulsify more easily, so it’s easier to achieve a Gricia than it is to achieve a Cacio e pepe
  • With lots of Italian cooking, the simpler the dish, the harder it is to get the perfect dish because there’s nowhere to hide. With Gricia –  there’s delicious pork fat to make everything okay, even if you do get the clunky strings of cheese
  • The Gricia recipe is then the jump-off point for the next two recipes. Gricia is often referred to as a tomatoless Amatriciana or an eggless Carbonara and predates both of those recipes

The history of Cacio e pepe and Gricia

  • Cacio e pepe was the first of these recipes to have been invented
  • Most Romans will tell you that the origin of this dish is normally tied to the transhumanca, which is the traditional twice-yearly migration of sheep and cows from the mountains in summer, to the plains in winter. During this journey, the shepherds needed preserved foods that were easily transportable. So dried spaghetti, aged pecorino, black pepper (and guanciale) were all perfect candidates for traveling with and keeping well
  • The copious amounts of black pepper the recipe calls for are unusual in Rome – where they don’t often use black pepper – is believed to have been used to keep the shepherds warm. Pepperdine, the active ingredient in black pepper, is similar to capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilies, which being an irritant to human beings triggers a mild heat experience when consumed
  • Others say that the first to create this dish were noblemen who to differentiate the dish from peasant food – added foreign spices, which until the 1700s were hard to come by and more expensive – so implied wealth and status
  • The Gricia is thought to have been born in a town called Grisciano, which is very close to Amatrice – the town that gave birth to the dish Amatriciana. It’s also been said to refer to the bread and food retailers in Rome that were called il Grigio. However, in the town of Grisciano, every 18th of August, they have a Sagra de la Gricia, a local celebration for that dish – which gives credence to the dish having been created there

The many tales of Carbonara

  • Carbonara is probably the most famous Roman dish – especially internationally, but it also happens to be the most butchered dish. Many places make it as a cream sauce with bacon. If you want to anger a Roman, just tell them that you put cream in your carbonara!
  • The addition of cream is actually a trick so that the eggs don’t scramble – so it has been assumed it was just lazy cooks making the dish this way, however when researching the origins of the Carbonara, it is actually the most disputed.  Even up until the 1990s many famous Italian chefs, that were considered to be like the forefathers of Italian cuisine as we know it today,  would add cream to La Carbonara.  Nesim himself was very surprised to read this
  • The first written recipe for the Carbonara was actually in an American cookbook. They wrote about an Italian trattoria, somewhere in the US that was making the dish as we know it now – with pancetta, eggs, black pepper, and pecorino cheese
  • The first Italian-written recipe that’s found was found in 1954 and called for pancetta, gruyere cheese, and garlic!?!?! So Carbonara, as we know it, has a very disputed origin
  • The most credited story these days has to do with the American Army and their rations of bacon and powdered egg yolks. Apparently, at the end of the war when they took over the town of Rimini, north of Rome, they hired a cook from Bologna to make a celebratory meal for them. He got the good quality bacon from the Americans and powdered egg yolk. They had really good quality heavy cream and so he mixed these together – added some local cheese and finishing it with black pepper to add depth of flavor. He was then hired to become the official cook for the joint Allied forces who then went to Rome. He was in Rome for a couple of years, and that’s how the dish was popularized in Rome and it’s thought of as a Roman dish. A lot of locals aren’t very happy with this explanation because it means that Rome’s most famous pasta dish was made by a Bolognese cook with ingredients from the American Army!
  • Another origin story Nesim was recently told to him by a very good friend of his, whose family has owned dozens of restaurants. This put Carbonara originating as a work contract between the farmer that needed his wood to be turned into coal and the carbonaro, the person that would turn it into coal (Carbone in Italian means coal). This is a very lengthy process that involves making a big pile of wood, setting fire to it then covering it with a tarp – with someone sitting with it for up to a week. The Carbonaro had to be on premises at all times to not start wildfires and to make sure that the wood burned properly, so at the start, the farmer would give them a dozen eggs, guanciale, a big piece of Pecorino Romano, some black pepper, and a big bowl to mix it in and a pot to cook it in. Nesim’s friend assured him that his grandmother was doing this way before World War II
  • It’s a fun part of Italian food history that it’s often hard to pin down a definite explanation for where a lot of food comes from. Often there is a romanticized explanation – whereas the truth might actually be a little less interesting and more factual

A lasagna diversion

Carbonara is not the only (potential) Bolognese dish that has been taken and changed so that it will horrify any Bolognese local

  • The traditional Bolognese lasagna is made with layers of ragu (the meat sauce), pasta, and bechamel with grated parmesan cheese on top. In Rome, they omit the bechamel and put on a ton of Mozzarella. Having grown up in Rome, Nesim is more partial to the Roman version
  • One of the most delicious lasagna that Nesim ever had though, was actually in Naples. There they make lasagna with dried sheets of pasta, their version of ragu, (which Nesim things probably gave birth to the American Sunday gravy) of ribs, sausages, chunks of beef, pork, pork skin, and tiny meatballs -braised for 10 hours in tomato sauce. They take all of that meat and layer it into a lasagne with little bits of hard-boiled eggs and cheese and other bits and pieces
  • This sounds similar to Katy – to the lasagna that her mother-in-law, who is from that region, makes – with sliced, hard-boiled eggs, meatballs and peas
  • Katy’s favorite lasagna experience was last year on the Sorrento Peninsula. This lasagna only had a tiny bit of meat, most likely pork. It was made with smoked buffalo Mozzarella cheese and had very finely graded lemon on top

Carbonara and Amatriciana continued

Listen to Episode 182 – Part 2 of our chat with Nesim which goes into how to make the best Carbonara and the fourth of the key Roman pasta dishes – Amatriciana.

Join one of Nesim’s tours and check out his collaborations with local food businesses

You can follow Nesim’s food adventures on his Instagram account @fullbellytours. His website fullbellytours.com has details of his tours, Experience Testaccio and Testaccio Full Immersion and he also offers private and custom tours. With food being Nesim’s true passion, he’s experimenting with branching out and collaborating with local businesses. Join Nesim for a fascinating and delicious food-packed tour with the added bonuses of his wealth of food knowledge, local connections, and fun company!

About our guest – Nesim Bekalti

Nesim was born in Washington DC to a French-American mother and Tunisian father. At the age of 9 months, his parents went back to Rome, where they’d previously been living for 4 years as conference interpreters for the UN.

He grew up (and currently lives) in Testaccio, the neighborhood that gave birth to traditional Roman cuisine.  It is known as the culinary heart of Rome, and it’s where Romans from all around the city come to eat.

After graduating high school he realized his passions in life were cooking and traveling.  To him, this meant that if he became a cook it would pay him to travel the world, and he ended up spending over fifteen years working in restaurants around the globe.

He has a degree in Hotel and Tourism Management from New York University and has lived in Brussels, Madrid, Barcelona, Oaxaca, San Francisco, and New York City. He is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and English. He also obtained a sommelier certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers while living in California.

His passion for cooking came from being raised in Italy, where absolutely everything revolves around eating.  He moved back here 7 years ago where he’s been working ever since as a food tour guide.

Being raised in Italy by multicultural parents makes him both a foreigner and true Roman simultaneously. His background and travel experience allow him to entertainingly bridge the gap between guests and locals, easily explaining their cultural quirks and intricacies to you, and yours to them!

Ultimately, his passion lies in taking care of people (especially in relation to food), and ensuring their experiences are truly memorable and lots of fun!

You can find Nesim on these channels:

Places mentioned in the show

  • Gragnano – a town located near Naples, most famous for its dried pasta
  • Grisciano – town thought to be the original home of guanciale
  • Amatrice – where the Amatriciana pasta dish originated

Food & Drink

  • Tonnarelli – a Roman egg pasta a bit like spaghetti but thicker and squared off (originally from Abruzzo)
  • Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana – the 4 famous pasta dishes of Rome
  • Guanciale – a cured meat made from pork jowl or cheeks and used in many Roman dishes
  • vermicelli di Tria – a kind of thin noodle from Sicily
  • Bucatini – a long, thick spaghetti-like pasta with a hole running down the center
  • mantecatura – the step of mixing a sauce or ingredients in for a creamy consistency

Resources

  • Laganon – sometimes known as Tracta, appears frequently in both Greek and Roman sources referring to a flattened-out dough made with water and white wheat flour
  • Idrisi – Arab geographer
  • Transhumance – the traditional nomadic moving of livestock between summer and winter pastures
  • Joe Banana Tours and Limos – tour company offering Amalfi Coast transfers, driving and boat tours, Naples and Pompeii tours and private tours of Italy

Resources from Untold Italy

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