“Guanciale” comes from guancia, the Italian word for cheek. Guancia also means pillow, for where do you rest your cheek at night? Guanciale, a strip of meat, comes from a pig’s cheek that has been cured. The cut is some 90% fat. I seldom eat meat, but in the hour before I do, something like guanciale arrives on my cutting board.
My favorite pasta calls for guanciale, spaghetti, onions, olive oil, tomato purée, and Parmesan cheese. Should you be unable to find guanciale, pancetta can substitute. But Guanciale gives the pasta a deeply animal flavor that takes you to a place out of time, to a sad barn in the hills, to the campfire of Stone Age hunters, to a savage and dirty place where tofu and cream-white chicken have never been tasted.
I learned to cook this pasta in Italy, from the owner of a farm near Bologna, where I worked a few summers ago. “A farmer’s pasta,” he often said while preparing the dish. (It appears on menus as spaghetti amatriciana.) Here’s his version:
And a recipe:
Spaghetti Amatriciana (“a farmer’s pasta”)
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 lb guanciale, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup tomato purée (or crushed tomatoes, etc.)
1/2 lb spaghetti
Parmesan cheese to taste
1) Put two paper towels on a plate beside your stove. Sauté guanciale in olive oil over medium heat, stirring often. After three or four minutes, when the guanciale is browned and a pool of grease coats the pan, transfer guanciale with a slotted spoon to the paper towels. Use paper towels to lazily wrap the guanciale.
2) Sauté onion in the guanciale’s grease for three minutes over medium-low heat. Pour in tomato purée. Let simmer, stirring occasionally.
3) Cook the spaghetti in salted water (about 1 tsp. salt) until al dente. Drain spaghetti. Add to simmering sauce. Add guanciale. Kill heat. Stir well. Sprinkle Parmesan onto the pasta. Eat.