GUANCIALE. Pronounced Gwahn-CHAHHH-lay. People fall in love with the name itself, even before they taste it. Much like its milder sister cut of cured pork, the well-known pancetta, this specialty piggy part called guanciale is named after the location on the pig from which it comes. "Pancia" is the Italian word for belly, hence pancetta = pork belly. "Guancia" means cheek, so guanciale is cured pork jowl. And while pancetta is widely used in dishes up and down the Italian peninsula, guanciale is a distinctly Roman cut of cured meat.
We're all pretty familiar with pork belly. It's a fatty cut that became popular in the aughts on restaurant menus in America and overseas alike, because it's inexpensive and can be manipulated in numerous ways to make it taste delicious. After all, fat IS flavor. Still, the consistency, if not prepared properly, can be a turn-off to many diners. But used as the Italians do -- that is, sparingly and to great effect -- the unsmoked, cured pancetta lends great flavor to otherwise meatless pasta dishes, to bolognese sauce, to soups and salads and stews of all kinds. But the pork cheek, that cured, spiced jowl prepared by the Romans for millennia...well, that's a different pork game altogether. It's dense and unctuous, it's strongly-flavored and unique, peppery and pungent, refusing to just melt into the background of any dish. You can find guanciale all over Rome and the Lazio region, with particularly good versions in Roman salumerie and norcinerie (cured meat specialty shops). I love Norcineria Viola in Campo de' Fiori, as they have a great selection of guanciale and they give samples of all their salumi, upon request, as well. Also great - and for much more than just guanciale - is Volpetti, in Testaccio. The place is legendary for all kinds of Italian alimentary wonders.
Of the four classic Roman pasta dishes, guanciale is a star ingredient in three: Amatriciana, Pasta Alla Gricia, and Carbonara (a true Roman carbonara, anyway). It lends a fatty richness to vignarola, the Roman spring vegetable stew. And crisped up in batons or cubes or slices, it's a great match for eggs in any form...for sturdier salad greens like escarole, kale, spinach, or arugula...it's a great addition to soups and stracotto (meat stew)...and you can even find spicy guanciale to add a kick to everyday pastas, or to produce candied guanciale for a sweet-savory-spicy end product that goes with pretty much everything. on. earth. Did I mention how much I love guanciale? It turns out that over the course of a decade and a half of teaching cooking classes, both in Rome and in the U.S., I've turned a lot of my students onto the fine salume that is guanciale.
Years ago I taught a Roman cuisine class with a market visit to an American couple, newlyweds honeymooning in Italy. Turns out they lived in New York City, and less than a year after their honeymoon, they got in touch with me wondering if I might be in New York the following month, as I had mentioned to them that I often returned to Manhattan at that time of year. They wanted me to cater a surprise birthday dinner for the husband's father, and they wanted the pasta all'amatriciana that I'd taught them to make, and a whole guanciale to gift the dad! So I smuggled an entire pork jowl, vacuum packed in my luggage, to use in this festive meal. But when I finally left my friends' apartment uptown to head to cater the dinner party, I'd forgotten the guanciale in my (vegetarian) friend's fridge! So my client and his brother ended up going on a "guanciale run" to get it from my friend's place while I cooked the meal. It was an insane series of events, but the look on the father's face when he walked into a dinner party cooked by his kids' "Roman chef" (me) with an entire bonus guanciale, was priceless. There were cheers and chants in guanciale's name, which was hilarious -- but gives you an indication of the pork lust and worshipful devotion this cured pork jowl elicits. "Long live guanciale!" they proclaimed. And I agree, whole hog-heartedly.
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