What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare.
I’d like to paraphrase that to say that pancetta by any other name would taste as delectable. That other name is “bacon.” My sixteen-volume Encyclopedia of Italian Cuisine describes pancetta as a “cut of meat, principally pork, but it can be beef or veal.” Usually it’s pork. The curing process, according to the encyclopedia, depends on the cuisine of the region where the curing is done.
Here in Rome, pancetta is sold in various guises. The round roll of pancetta, recognized most often in the U.S., is available at the salumeria (delicatessen) counters. It costs about nine dollars for a pound. You can also find slabs of pancetta ready to be sliced to order. Or you can just ask for a chunk. In my neighborhood supermarket, the delicatessen counter carries two varieties, one roll and one slab. You can have it cut to order or you can pick up pre-cut packages.
In the meat counter, you can find thick slices of pancetta packaged like steak or pork chops. These are intended for eating as a main course, or for cutting into squares for kebabs.
But the bulk of the bacon sold here comes in plastic tubs sold in the cold cut case. This pancetta is cut into small cubes, and it is either smoked or not. The cubed pancetta is the basis for two Italian pasta favorites: spaghetti alla carbonara (smoked) and bucatini all’amatriciana (sweet).
My advice to any American cook who wants to make these dishes: buy thick-sliced bacon and cut it into cubes. It’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s good.
Carbarnara is well-known in America, but Amatriciana, not so well. It’s easy to make, and while bucatini is the traditional pasta, you can serve the sauce on other types.
1 pound bucatini (or spaghetti)
4-5 slices of thick-sliced bacon (not smoked)
1 can crushed tomatoes
1/4 to 1/3 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more is desired)
1/4 cup grated pecorino romano (you can use parmesan, but it’s too delicate for the red pepper)
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Cut the bacon into 1/4-inch squares.
2. Place the bacon in a large frying pan and cook stirring to render out the fat and to brown lightly. Drain excess oil.
3. Add the tomatoes, red pepper, and salt and pepper to taste.
4. Cook for about 15 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, fill a large kettle with water and bring it to the boil. Cook the bucatini to the al dente stage. [NOTE: Al dente is reached when the pasta is completely cooked through. Test by biting into a piece. When there is no white, uncooked part in the center, the pasta is cooked. It should be chewy.]
6. Drain the pasta and place it in the frying pan with the sauce. Toss and cook for about two minutes.
7. Serve with the pecorino, and additional red pepper flakes, if desired.