Pancetta, Onion, and Parsley Pasta Sauce

Sugo di Pancetta, Cipolle, e Prezzemolo

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Medium

  • Enough sauce for 1 pound of pasta, making

    4

    large

Appears in

Pancetta is what Italians do with bacon. It is not smoked but cured with salt, black pepper, and such spices as nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, or juniper berries, varying in proportion and assortment according to individual formulas. In the most common version of pancetta, the one usually available abroad, the meat is tightly rolled up after 2 weeks of gradual seasoning. It used to be pressed between boards and sold thus, but that is done now solely for show, and as a pretext to charge a higher price. Everyday pancetta is now wrapped in a casing that in all but the homemade versions is made of synthetic material. It can also be left flat, without a casing. The former is known as pancetta arrotolata, the latter, pancetta stesa.

There is also smoked pancetta, known as pancetta affumicata, similar to American bacon, although less smoky in taste, prepared in slab form and sliced to order by the grocer. It is very popular throughout northeastern Italy, from Venice west to Verona, up north to Bolzano, and east to Udine and Trieste in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.

Pancetta arrotolata is fundamental to a wide variety of Italian dishes because it is an indispensable part of many a battuto, the chopped mixture of pancetta, onion, and sometimes other vegetables that, when it is sautéed in olive oil or butter, becomes soffritto, the flavor foundation of countless pasta sauces, soups, fricassees, and stews. It is fortunate for American cooks that quite satisfactory versions of pancetta have become broadly available, because bacon cannot be substituted for it, nor can it always be replaced by salt pork.

I had this sauce, in which pancetta is featured, many years ago at a trattoria near the Chiantigiana, the picturesque road that bisects the Chianti Classico zone between Florence and Siena. Their name for pancetta was rigatino, after righe, the word for stripes, because then it was made from free-range pigs whose bellies had discernible layers of lean meat alternating with narrower ones of fat.

It is the pancetta in this sauce that is responsible for the more forward show of flavor, but it benefits in balance from the submissively sweet foil of the onion. To achieve that balance, don’t caramelize the onion; it must be cooked down slowly until it is very soft but not at all colored.

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Ingredients

  • 3 ounces pancetta, cut into thin strips, about 1 cup
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 medium onions, sliced very thin, about 5 cups
  • Salt
  • Black pepper ground fresh
  • 3 tablespoons chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Method

Suggested Pasta

Boxed dry pasta such as bucatini or spaghetti or a short tubular shape such as penne.

  1. Put the pancetta and the olive oil in a medium skillet and turn on the heat to medium. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes, occasionally turning the pancetta, until it becomes lightly browned but not crisp.
  2. Add the onions, salt, and several grindings of pepper; turn over all ingredients a few times; then cover the pan and turn the heat down to low. Cook for about 40 minutes, turning the onion over from time to time, until it becomes very soft, but not colored. It should still be nearly white.
  3. Taste and correct for salt, stir in the parsley, and turn off the heat.
  4. Cook and drain the pasta and toss it immediately and thoroughly with the sauce, swirling into it the grated Parmesan.

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