QUESTION: Have you ever tasted guanciale? Its a kind of Italian cured hog jowl that comes from Abruzzi or somewhere, and it tastes sort of like bacon and sort of not, sort of like pancetta and sort of not, with a tenderness and a deep underlying sweetness that you wouldnt believe. Whenever I go to Rome, its guanciale with peas, guanciale with favas, guanciale pizza, bavette with guanciale and pecorino you get the idea. Is there anywhere in Los Angeles where one may obtain this wondrous substance?
Jacob, Playa del Rey
ANSWER: If guanciale were cocaine, I would be doing serious time in Leavenworth. Because while I am a law-abiding citizen in practically every regard, I cannot control my own guanciale addiction, and I have more than once risked imprisonment for the sake of a hairy, mold-covered pig cheek or two the real stuff, from Norcia, bought at the Volpetti delicatessen near the cemetery where Shelley and Keats are buried. Nothing makes a better spaghetti carbonara; nothing else is acceptable in bucatini Amatriciana or bucatini alla Gricia. And the domestic product commercially available from the ordinarily estimable Niman Ranch just doesnt have the right flavor.
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So you could either find some raw cheeks and cure guanciale yourself from the recipes in books by Mario Batali or Paul Bertolli. Or you could try one of the restaurants descended from Rex il Ristorante, the seminal Los Angeles Italian restaurant whose owner, Mauro Vicenti, was obsessed with the jowly gold. These restaurants would include Vicenti, run by his widow, and Angelini, run by Rexs last chef. Or you could go to Alto Palato, another Rex descendant, where the wispy, crispy, Roman-style pizza with housemade guanciale and sliced potatoes is crunchy, munchy, thoroughly funky and ready to go. Even at happy hour. Alto Palato, 755 N. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 657-9271.