In pursuit of pasta alla gricia in Testaccio, Rome

The history of pasta alla gricia is entangled with tales and traditions. Recipes for the classic Roman dish may vary, but as a wander through the trattorias of Testaccio can prove, nothing can unify quite like a good bowl of pasta.

This article was adapted from National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Paolo is standing proudly in the doorway of Da Bucatino. Inside, waiters chat and polish glasses. Outside, a couple more smooth cloths and lay the tables that run to the corner of the street. For 16 years, I’ve shared an internal courtyard with this traditional, family-run trattoria, its boisterous kitchen clatter and scents escaping through the extractor vents and travelling up the three floors to my front door. It was in one of Da Bucatino’s wood-panelled dining rooms that I learned the menu of a traditional Roman trattoria is a concentrated history of the city: a near-3,000-year-old story told by means of chickpea soup, roast lamb, wild chicory, cherry crostata and — the reason I’m standing here with Paolo — pasta alla gricia.

Although it’s often overshadowed by its close cousin amatriciana, gricia was the original iteration of the dish. The story goes that shepherds high in the mountainous hinterland between Abruzzo and Lazio fried guanciale (cured pig’s jowl), tossed it with pasta and pecorino cheese and called it gricia. Centuries later, tomatoes found their way into the Roman larder, and gricia went from bianca (white) to rossa (red). This new variation became known as amatriciana, named for the town of Amatrice, and was brought to Rome — along with gricia — by the Abruzzesi, who migrated to the city in search of work. It has become particularly popular in Testaccio, the city’s 19th-century, grid-like working quarter, whose disproportionately high number of trattorias means the smell of cooking and the promise of a good lunch are all around.

“At Da Bucatino, we have two gricia options,” explains Paolo, while overseeing a delivery of water, the green glass bottles clinking within plastic crates. The first option is traditional: guanciale, grated pecorino romano and black pepper, tossed with stout tubes of a pasta called mezze maniche (meaning ‘short sleeves’). The second version is gricia con carciofi, which sees artichokes cut into slender wedges and fried with the guanciale before being tossed with irregular strings of pici pasta and topped with pecorino. “With both dishes, the key is to have the guanciale cut thickly and fried carefully, so as to render its plentiful fat,” explains Paolo.

But his way isn’t the only way. At Flavio al Velavevodetto, a smart trattoria built into the base of Monte di Testaccio (an ancient, artificial hill of broken terracotta), the chefs opt to use rigatoni pasta and to add the pecorino in two stages. Some is melted into the hot pan with the guanciale and starchy pasta water; more is added at the end, showered over the dish like a snowstorm.

While the methods for gricia may vary, Testaccio is clearly defined. Once the ancient port of Rome, the wedge-shaped district is delineated by the busy Via Marmorata, a section of ancient city wall and the curve of the River Tiber. And sitting right beside the river is Lo Scopettaro, once a broom-making workshop and now a tempting trattoria. Hungry customers waiting to purchase their brooms were so tempted by the staff’s lunch bubbling in the corner that, eventually, the place transformed into its current iteration. Its broom-selling days are over, and it’s now more about the generous bowls of gricia. Here, the dish is made with mezzi rigatoni — tubes a little smaller than Paolo’s mezze maniche. Around me, the diners are a mixed crowd: families sit beside office workers, who sit beside builders. For some, it seems, the promise of a good lunch is too hard to resist. 

Four more places to eat in Rome

1. Maritozzi from Linari 
Legend has it that these cream-filled buns were traditionally given to girls by suitors (‘marito’ means ‘husband’ in Italian). A breakfast staple, they’re typically followed by an espresso. pasticcerialinari.com

2. Supplì from Trapizzino 
Don’t miss these balls of seasoned rice, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs then deep-fried. Take a bite to reveal an oozing heart of mozzarella. trapizzino.it

3. Pizza bianca from Panificio Passi 
Don’t be put out if you turn up and see no pizza bianca behind the counter — it simply means the two-metre lengths of dimpled pizza dough are being prepared for cooking. Join the queue and enjoy one fresh from the oven. Via Mastro Giorgio 87. 

4. Fried anchovies from La Torricella
Dusted with flour, deep-fried and served with a wedge of lemon. If you’re visiting in winter, follow them up with a warming bowl of bean and chestnut soup. la-torricella.com 

Published in the November 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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