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Rome’s Dirty Secret: Pasta alla Zozzona

An unorthodox union of carbonara and Amatriciana, this "dirty," lesser-known Roman pasta dish is peak decadence.

Published Feb. 6, 2023.

What would you get if Amatriciana, carbonara, and a whole bunch of sausage and onions eloped in the Roman countryside? Some might say you’d get a big mess—and they wouldn’t be wrong.

“Pasta alla zozzona means ‘dirty pasta,’” Luca Pappagallo, an Italian chef and author of the cookbook Benvenuti a Casa Pappagallo (2021), explained via a translator. “But in a nice way!”  

Born in the southeastern countryside just a few miles outside the city, zozzona is rustic tavern fare made for chasing with a glass of wine. The over-the-top dish defies nearly every convention of Roman pasta. While the recipes of the city’s signature quartet (carbonara, Amatriciana, cacio e pepe, and gricia) coax big flavor from minimal ingredients, their countryside cousin takes more of a kitchen sink approach, featuring Italian sausage, guanciale, onions, tomatoes, Pecorino, egg, and black pepper. “Sometimes you have a craving,” Pappagallo said. “You think: ‘Shall we do something dirty? Shall we do something super rich?’”

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I began my zozzona by browning guanciale, the cured pork jowl that brings salty savor to many Roman pasta dishes, in a skillet. Once the fat was partially rendered, I added the two elements that distinguish zozzona from the better-known Roman pastas: a finely chopped onion and Italian sausage, the ingredient Pappagallo calls “the main character,” as its spiced pork flavor dominates the finished dish. After I broke the sausage into pieces and browned it, in went the passata to form the base of the sauce. While the proteins rendered significant fat into the skillet, I resisted the urge to pour it off—the fat was crucial to infuse unctuous meatiness into the sauce, and zozzona is about unabashed indulgence, after all. 

I simmered the sauce to help the fat and passata incorporate, but kept the simmer brief, to preserve some of the fresh brightness of the tomato. In the meantime, I cooked 8 ounces of rigatoni, enough for four small portions, and reserved some cooking water.

As I tossed the al dente rigatoni with the meaty tomato sauce, the sauce clung beautifully to the pasta—but one more layer of richness was still to come. In a separate bowl, I whisked two egg yolks with black pepper and Pecorino Romano and then tempered the mixture with some of the cooking water. I poured the egg mixture into the pot of pasta, stirred, and watched as the dish became plush and creamy, the sauce thickening and taking on a glossy sheen. A dirty mess had never looked quite so good.

Pasta alla Zozzona

An unorthodox union of carbonara and Amatriciana, pasta alla zozzona is peak decadence.
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