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Episode #182: A Tale of Roman Pastas – Part Two

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Rome’s mouth-watering pasta dishes induce such passionate discussion that this is part two of our chat with Roman local, food tour host and former chef Nesim where he shares the tales, techniques, and tips for Carbonara and Amatriciana. Find out where to taste the best of the famous four pasta dishes and other pastas to try on a trip to Rome.

Show notes
We are joined by food tour guide, chef and general food enthusiast Nesim Bekalti of Full Belly Tours. Nesim grew up in the foodie Testaccio district 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 food and drink treasures with others. Every time you hear from him, you hear new gems of wisdom and his passion for food is infectious. Nesim offers amazing food tours in the Testaccio. We at Untold Italy have first-hand experience with how great Nesim’s tours are. In this episode, we continue our discussion with Nesim on the pastas of Rome, including getting in-depth on techniques for the perfect carbonara, where to try the famous 4, and alternative pasta dishes to try (but definitely not Fettucine Alfredo!). Listen to part 1 here.

Meet Nesim…

What you’ll learn in this episode

Carbonara 

  • The carbonara is probably the trickiest dish to achieve because eggs cook at a very low temperature. Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius (about 212 F). Eggs start cooking at about 60 degrees Celsius (about 150 F), so the heat from the pasta is enough to scramble your eggs and is why so many people get scrambled eggs when trying to make carbonara. There are a couple of tricks that will help you avoid getting scrambled eggs without the use of cream:
    • Use a short pasta that has a hole running through it, like rigatoni, mezze maniche or penne. Even though it’s not so traditional, when you use any short pasta it will allow for air to go through it as you’re doing the mantecatura – stirring the pasta with the sauce. That extra air will drop the temperature and lower your chances of the eggs scrambling
    • Use a different pot. The mistake people tend to make is that they put everything back into the pot where they boiled the pasta. That pot is of course hot and has high walls trapping steam, which increases the chances of the eggs scrambling. Instead, mix the cheese, egg, black pepper mixture like you would for the Cacio e pepe or Gricia (see the previous episode for more on that) in a very large bowl. This will allow for steam to escape and as the bowl is cold it will decrease your chances of getting scrambled eggs
    • Move fast. People just don’t move fast enough which can cause the failure of the dish as it keeps cooking
    • Cook for fewer people. The larger the nuclear core of cooked pasta that’s going to be at the very middle, the higher the chances of you getting scrambled eggs, so it’s more difficult the more people you’re cooking for. Start by making if for two people at a time, and you can then later upgrade to four and so on, the more experienced you get. Even Nesim, who has cooked professionally for most of his life, does not make carbonara if he’s cooking for more than 6-8 people. It’s too much of a risk – the pasta will sit for too long so may very well turn into scrambled eggs – even if you do all the steps properly
  • For the amounts of the ingredients per person, it’s a handful of pecorino cheese that’s been graded (to snow), 1 egg per person, and then 1 of each for the pot
  • So if you’re cooking for 10 people, use 11 eggs and 11 handfuls of Pecorino Romano (four heaped soup spoons equates to a handful) and Nesim likes to use one egg plus one egg yolk as restaurants do – to make the dish richer
  • If you find your Pecorino Romano is very salty – not such great stuff, do 3 heaped soup spoons of Pecorino Romano and 1 of Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano – the cheaper version of Parmigiano. You’ll be adding a little sweetness that will balance out the overt saltiness that Pecorino can sometimes have
  • While we talk about Grana Padano being the cheaper version – we don’t want to infer that it’s an inferior product. They are very proud of their Grana Padano in the North, but Parmigiano Reggiano is such incredible quality, it is just in comparison to this. Parmigiano Reggiano can only be made from the milk of 3 specific breeds of cattle in a very specific area around the city of Parma and to strict standards. The exact same cheese made from the milk of any other local cattle in a much larger area up – Padania is Grana Padano. It’s like the difference between brandy and Cognac. Cognac is brandy from the region of cognac
  • Nesim uses Grana Padano all the time, especially so when he was living abroad, because Parmigiano Reggiano is already very expensive in Italy, so is so much more when you live outside of Italy
  • A lot of the sneakier/touristy restaurants in Rome buy the inferior quality Pecorino and then add a little bit of Grana Padano to sweeten the mix, so you think they’re using the good quality stuff
  • Make sure that like with the Cacio e pepe, when you mix the cheese and the eggs, it forms a thick paste. The thickness will largely depend on how fresh your eggs are, because the fresher the egg, the more solid the white. If you don’t have the freshest eggs, maybe just add more cheese until it tightens up into a thick paste
  • You then add your black pepper to taste. In Rome, they rarely use black pepper, so when they do, it becomes an active ingredient and we use it a lot. Nesim believes that if you don’t use a ton of black pepper, the balance of the dish is off because you need the spiciness and the mild heat to make the dish
  • Another story of the origins of Carbonara (and the most romantic one) is that the pepper came to be included due to La Carbonara, the wife of the Carbonaro (who would make the coal from wood) – who was always covered in soot because her husband was always covered in soot. So the black pepper represents the soot that would come off as she was cooking. It’s probably the least probable of the origin stories but we like it!
  • Saving the dish! If you do get scrambled eggs, which may very well happen the first few times you’re doing this, do not panic. Remember to fill a coffee cup with pasta water before you drain your pasta. If you do get scrambled eggs, you can then add a little bit of that cooking water – maybe a couple of tablespoons at a time, depending on how much pasta you’ve made. Add another handful of cheese, stir, and it’ll turn back into a sauce. It won’t be as good as if the eggs hadn’t scrambled, but it’ll be better than having scrambled egg pasta and will still taste good
  • You can tell if the eggs have scrambled but the chef has saved it.  Because sometimes restaurants get sneaky and if it scrambles, they try to send it out anyway. Carbonara should have a very smooth, very yellow texture. It’s technically a savory custard because the heat of the pasta actually sets the eggs. If pasta sauce is grainy in any way and is a little lighter in color – you know this has happened and feel free to send it back (nicely!)
  • If you forget to set aside the cooking water from the pasta (which Nesim admits he does fairly regularly) – just use some warm tap water. It’ll serve much the same purpose because as you stir the pasta, the pasta will continue to leach a little bit of starch out

Amatriciana

  • Amatriciana is credited as coming from the town of Amatrice, famous for producing guanciale
  • The first recipe dated back to 1927 to a Roman cookbook called the Il Talismano della Felicita’ (the Talisman of Happiness). It called for ground guanciale cooked in extra virgin olive oil, lard, onions and fresh peeled tomatoes. Once you cook that sauce down, you would finish it with grated Pecorino. They do say you can use Parmigiano instead and lots of black pepper
  • The use of onions is not preferred by traditionalists but onion was present in most recipes for Amatriciana well into the 90s. But the purists, (including Nesim in this instance) think that you do not need onion if you have good quality tomatoes and good quality guanciale. The onion would add some sweetness to the dish
  • You can use fresh tomatoes, but it’s more common nowadays when making pasta sauces in general to use canned tomatoes
  • There are two schools of thought on how to make Amatriciana:
    • The old-school way – is that you render out the guanciale and add the canned tomatoes. You let it cook for 1 to 3 hours, depending on how big a batch you’re making. When it’s finished, the fat will separate out to the top of the sauce. You dust a generous layer of grated Pecorino on top which will absorb into that fatty layer, turning a beautiful bright orange color. You let it sit for about a half hour then you just cook your pasta and you do the mantecatura with the sauce. This is the method to get the most flavorful sauce, but the bits of guanciale become soft and braised and have lost most of their flavor to the sauce
    • The common way – that most restaurants do these days, is to render out the guanciale, remove the little crispy bits, they use the rendered fat to cook the tomato sauce, which will impart a good amount of flavor, and then they add the little crunchy bits at the end.
    • Nesim’s favorite way – Nesim believes – why choose? Start with one and a half times the amount of guanciale the recipe calls for, render it out, remove half that you’re going to add back in at the end (as the little crispy bits), and then leave the other half in with the tomatoes. This way you’ll get both the most flavorful sauce and the lovely little crispy bits at the end
  • One of the things that Nesim likes to add, which is acceptable, yet optional, is either chili flakes or whole dried chilies. He’s not a big fan of adding black pepper to his Amatriciana, but that is also an acceptable option

Where to try great pasta in Rome

You probably need to book with all these places – possibly a few weeks ahead.

Nesim’s restaurant pick for Cacio e pepe – Felice a Testaccio, in Testaccio
  • Felice is probably the most famous trattoria in the Testaccio neighborhood
  • Ordering the cacio e pepe is a great experience here because they finish it table side for you. The mantecatura, the step of dressing the pasta with the sauce, is normally done in the kitchen, but here the waiter will do it for you – coming out with a big bowl of Tonnarelli (a fresh egg pasta like a squared, thick spaghetti), a lot of grated Pecorino, some cracked black pepper, and a little bit of cooking water. The waiter sets this bowl down in front of you, grabs your fork and spoon, and starts mixing it really quickly. It comes together from these four disjointed ingredients into a luscious, creamy sauce right before your eyes
  • Felice is a special occasion kind of place
  • Another specialty dish at Felice is Burro e Sugo, – an offshoot of a main called Involtini alla Romana. They take a thin slice of a tough cut of beef, put a slice of prosciutto down, a stock of celery and carrot, roll it up and then braise it in tomato sauce for 2-3 hours until tender. They take that tomato sauce, a pad of butter and some Parmigiano, and they do the same tableside mantecatura. The name Burro e Sugo means butter and sauce
Nesim’s restaurant pick for la Gricia – Da Enzo a 29, in Trastevere
  • Gricia is the one that Nesim tends to order less and you generally find least often. The best one he’s had recently was at a very famous place in Trastevere called Da Enzo al 29. It’s a little traditional trattoria that’s tucked away in a little alley in Trastevere, a neighborhood where it’s getting harder to find good traditional places to eat nowadays. This restaurant is very popular and there are often really long lines to eat there
Nesim’s restaurant pick for Carbonara – Roscioli, near Campo di Fiore
  • He’s had an amazing version of Carbonara at Roscioli – the little family restaurant part of the food empire in the center of town near Campo de Fiori. They have excellent versions of all of the Roman pastas
Nesim’s restaurant pick for Amatriciana – Checco er carettiere, in Trastevere
  • The place that Nesim has gone to eat ever since he was a child is a trattoria in Trastevere called Checco er Carettiere. They do the more old-school version of the amatriciana, where they braise the guanciale in with the sauce and you get a super flavorful sauce that they serve with Paccheri, which are these very big, smooth rigatoni. They are perfect for catching all the little bits of guanciale inside

Other Roman pasta dishes

Pagliata
  • Pagliata is a dish made by braising the intestine of the milk-fed veal or lamb that contains rennet. Not an enticing-sounding dish for some, but it’s loved by the Romans. Rennet is the enzyme that coagulates milk proteins into cheese, so there’s some naturally occurring ricotta in there, and it’s simply braised in tomato sauce. When made properly, it’s not too strong or gamy
  • Pagliata is a super traditional dish, often served as a main, or used as a pasta sauce
La coda alla Vaccinara
  • La coda alla Vaccinara is the most famous Roman oxtail preparation, where it’s braised in tomato sauce with lots of celery. They’ll sometimes add cocoa, sometimes also adding pine nuts and/or raisins. This can be a main or is also used as a tomato sauce to dress pasta with
  • It would normally be Rigatoni con sugo di coda. Sugo is the Roman term for the tomato braising liquid that the meat was cooked in
Arrabbiata
  • The name of this famous dish means angry, to describe the spicy in this tomato sauce.
  • It’s a garlic-tomato sauce spiced with lots of chilies
La pasta alla Zozzona
  • Zazzona (or Zotzo in Roman dialect) means dirty. This dish is basically a combination of the 4 traditional pastas – Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana, with the addition of sausage
  • You render out the guanciale and sausage together, and then in a bowl you mix the egg, pecorino, and black pepper. You cook the guanciale, sausage and tomato sauce, and then you combine everything together
  • You’ll probably need to take a nap after eating this rich dish – but it is quite spectacular

When to eat these pastas

  • The Roman diet does not vary much between winter and summer. Though they may be considered heavy – they’ll eat all of the pasta dishes throughout the summer months
  • Many other areas in Italy will have dishes that are seasonal, whilst the Roman diet tends to stay pretty heavy year-round
  • They’ll maybe have them more often for dinner than for lunch during the summer
  • Seafood tends to come in more prevalent in the summer months because seafood pasta dishes tend to be lighter, especially when you’re comparing them to the ones we just spoke about that are laden with cheese and pork fat, sometimes eggs
  • They’ll also maybe have more white wine instead of red in the winter months to keep things lighter

Pimping up your pasta

  • There are little tweaks that you can make to make them a little different or special:
    • Experiment with the type of pepper you use. You can use traditional black peppercorns, but there are dozens of varieties – white and pink peppercorns, green peppercorns even picked peppercorns to try
    • Some like to use other types of Pecorino, although it wouldn’t be super traditional
    • You could also play around with where the guanciale is from and what it’s cured with. Guanciale always has one side covered by the skin, which protects it. On the other side that was the exposed flesh, they will dust in spices after having salted them. That spice layer adds an extra layer of protection against spoilage, bugs, etc. Most traditionally, they just dust it in black pepper or as many places do  – with black pepper and chili flake. Some places do just chili flake and the ones that Nesim really likes have cinnamon in the curing mix, adding a wonderful complexity of flavor

Where does Fettucine alla Alfredo come into it (hint – it doesn’t)

  • Nesim (& Untold Italy) had always thought that Alfredo’s sauce was an American invention because he’d only ever seen it when he moved to the US and he grew up in Rome. However, it turns out that Alfredo was invented theoretically in Rome. When Nesim was in the US, he would explain that it was as if an American came to Rome and found the Thomas Burger. It’s just a name and a food
  • There are two restaurants that have claimed to have invented the Fettucine alla Alfredo. One is called Alfredo alla Scrofa, which is on Via della Scrofa, and the other one also called Alfredo, is right off Villa del Corso. These are both in the tourist center of town, which isn’t the best sign for a dining establishment in this city
  • Nesim di go to one of these because people kept asking him about it on his tours and he’d never tried the dish. So he and his wife went to the more famous one of the two and has rarely been more disappointed with a plate of pasta in Italy
  • It was a bowl of really thin, overcooked fettuccine dressed with a ton of butter and Parmigiano. Adding butter and Parmigiano to stuff will always make something taste good, but at €20, and didn’t seem much to do with what Alfredo is in the rest of the world – which is a cream sauce. Feel free to check it out – but Nesim will not be returning
  • The first sauces that you get given as kids are just pasta with butter and cheese – especially when you’re not feeling well. Nesim tends to associate butter and cheese with being little and having a tummy ache. His mom would make him a little white rice and with a little bit of butter and Parmigiano
  • Despite it not being invented by Americans, as was thought – it was popularised there and Fettucine Alfredo is not something that the Romans eat and is not considered Roman

Follow Nesim on his food adventures

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.

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

Food & Drink

  • Guanciale – a cured meat made from pork jowl or cheeks and used in many Roman dishes
  • Mezze Maniche – a tube-like pasta, grooved like rigatoni but about half the size
  • Grana Padano – a cow’s milk cheese from the Po River Valley in northern Italy. Similar to Parmigiano Reggiano but with less strict regulations governing its production
  • Tonnarelli – a Roman egg pasta a bit like spaghetti but thicker and squared off (originally from Abruzzo)
  • Paccheri – large, smooth tubular pasta
  • Involtini alla romana – a stuffed veal or beef dish
  • Pagliata – a sauce made braising intestine, often served with pasta
  • La coda alla vaccinara – a Roman oxtail stew
  • Arrabbiata – the classic tomato sauce
  • La pasta alla zozzona – a dish that combines Cacio e pepe, Gricia, Carbonara, and Amatriciana with the addition of sausage.

Resources

  • Il Talismano della Felicita‘ – meaning the Talisman of Happiness, is a cookbook by Ada Boni from the 1920s

Resources from Untold Italy

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