[Photographs: Sasha Marx]
Amatriciana meets carbonara, with a sausage cameo. That’s the best way to describe rigatoni alla zozzona, the “dirty” Roman pasta collab you should get acquainted with. With crisp guanciale, juicy sausage, onion, and tomato simmered in rendered pork fat, this dish dials up the decadence, which is saying something for a cuisine that’s not exactly known for light fare. Tossed with al dente rigatoni, it all gets a glossy glow-up with an off-heat addition of egg yolks and Pecorino Romano. If you ever need proof that Italian cooking isn’t always about subtlety and restraint, pasta all zozzona is the ultimate receipt.
In the realm of Eternal City–primi, zozzona is not established canon like the big four (cacio e pepe, gricia, carbonara, and amatriciana). Unlike those dishes, you won’t find zozzona on the menu in every trattoria in the center of the capital, where less popular but equally fantastic pastas like rigatoni con la pajata (a tomato-based sauce featuring tender, milky intestines from un-weaned calves) are more likely to make an appearance, highlighting the city’s love of quinto-quarto (the butcher’s “fifth quarter” of an animal, or offal) cooking.
Zozzona isn’t a dish that I grew up eating in Rome; in fact, when I first posted a picture of an early in-development iteration of this recipe to Instagram, a few of my Roman friends sent me messages that amounted to, “Huh, interesting, I’ve never had that but it sounds pretty great.” So how could this supposedly Roman pasta be such an unknown to Romans? Well, it turns out that it’s a dish from the outskirts of town.
The Castelli Romani, referred to as just the Castelli (castles) by Romans, is a historically agrarian area a few miles southeast of Rome, in and around Lake Albano. It comprises towns known for wine production (Frascati) and pork (porchetta from Ariccia is the gold standard in the Lazio region). Pasta alla zozzona is the kind of dish you would find at a fraschetta, a no-frills tavern-style establishment even more casual than an hostaria* or trattoria, where kitchens turn out a handful of dishes to pair with the local wine. The main ingredients of zozzona—guanciale, sausage, eggs, Pecorino, and passata—are all pantry staples in the area, and ones that people often have left over from making batches of carbonara, cacio e pepe, and amatriciana. The spirit of zozzona is why not throw them all together and make something over-the-top delicious? In this way, it shares an ethos with Korean budae jjigae, or Mexican campechano tacos.
* This is the Roman dialect spelling of “osteria.” Both are used in and around the city.
While Italian cooking is famous for adhering to traditions and rules, there are plenty of dishes like pasta alla zozzona that joyously fly in the face of convention. The very term “zozzona” celebrates and embraces how outrageous this pasta is: In Roman dialect, “zozza/o” is a term for “dirty,” that can have a negative connotation, or be used as a backhanded compliment. In one of the most famous scenes from Alberto Sordi’s film Un Americano a Roma (An American in Rome), the Roman comedian, cosplaying as an American right after the city is liberated by the Allies, sits down to a meal of what he envisions as American fare: a slice of bread spread with yogurt, mustard, and jam, washed down with a glass of milk. He tries it and immediately spits it out, exclaiming “Ammazza che zozzeria” (jeez what a dirty mess), and then digs into a plate of leftover pasta instead. Rigatoni alla zozzona is a dirty mess, in the best possible way.
Why It Works
- Slowly cooking guanciale and sausage in stages yields crisp morsels of pork and plenty of flavorful fat to build an emulsified sauce.
- Finishing cooking the pasta in the sauce ensures that the noodles are well-coated and al dente.
- Stirring starchy pasta water into a mixture of egg yolks and Pecorino Romano tempers the eggs, keeping them creamy and smooth when they are folded into the pasta off-heat.
What’s New On Serious Eats
- 3 large egg yolks (45g)
- 2 ounces (60g) finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for serving
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces (115g) guanciale (cured pork jowl) or pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch-thick batons (see notes)
- 6 ounces (170g) sweet or hot Italian sausage (2 links), removed from casing
- 1 small onion (about 4 ounces; 115g), finely chopped
- Pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
- 2 cups (500g) tomato passata (see notes)
- 12 ounces (340g) rigatoni
In a small bowl, beat egg yolks and Pecorino Romano together with a fork until they form a homogeneous thick paste, about 1 minute. Season with a few grindings of black pepper. Set aside.
In a large skillet, cook guanciale over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until fat has rendered and guanciale is golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Using slotted spoon, transfer guanciale to a plate. Set aside.
Using clean hands, add sausage to skillet by pinching off 3/4- to 1-inch pieces and arranging in a single layer in the pan. Alternatively, add sausage to skillet all at once, then break up into pieces with a wooden spoon, spreading them out evenly in the pan. Cook over medium heat, undisturbed, until bottom side is light golden brown, about 1 minute. Add onion, season lightly with salt, and, using a thin metal spatula, turn sausage pieces onto uncooked side. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until sausage is cooked through, onion is softened, and fat in the pan is clear and no longer cloudy, 5 to 7 minutes; lower heat at any point if sausage or onion threaten to scorch.
Add pepper flakes (if using) and bloom in rendered fat until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add tomato passata, season lightly with salt, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce has thickened slightly and fat has emulsified into sauce, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a pot of lightly salted boiling water, cook pasta until softened on the exterior, but well shy of al dente, and still uncooked in the center (about 3 minutes less than the package directs). Using a spider skimmer, transfer pasta to sauce, along with 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta cooking water. Transfer an additional 1/4 cup (60ml) pasta cooking water to bowl with reserved egg yolk-Pecorino Romano paste, and stir with a rubber spatula until smooth and well-combined; set aside. Alternatively, if you don’t have a spider skimmer, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 1/2 cups (355ml) pasta cooking water, before proceeding with above instructions.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and sauce is thickened and coats noodles, about 2 minutes, adding more pasta cooking water in 1/4 cup (60ml) increments as needed.
Remove skillet from heat, add cooked guanciale and egg yolk mixture, and stir and toss rapidly until fully incorporated and pasta is glossy, 15 to 30 seconds. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese at the table.
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