Monday, December 3, 2012

A Punch in the Bread Basket -or- How Pancetta Got Its Name

It's Christmas season, and I'm sitting in Panera Bread, and I've just been to Capri Flavors  where my friends the Vuotto's run a wonderful Italian import business, and there the shelves were piled high with  a Christmas sweet-bread called Panettone and I began to think. I wondered if "Panera" was derived from "panare", the Italian word for bread... and then I wondered, does the "Pane" in Panettone" mean bread? And wait, Hayden Panettiere the actress, "panettiere" means baker, she must  be descended from Italian bakers... and Panzanella is a Tuscan Bread and Tomato Salad.  This odd stream of consciousness led me to wonder: "where in the world did pancetta, a sort of Italian bacon, get its name?"

Well before I answer that, let me tell you a little more about panettone and pancetta.

Panettone is the Italian version of fruitcake or stolen, it is more bread-like than fruitcake is, and lighter than either fruitcake or stolen, but it often has fruit in it (though less than either fruitcake or stolen). I can also tell you that panettone has no place in my memory as having anything to do with my family traditions, other than lining the shelves at the deli on the corner of the street I grew up on in Manhattan.

Though I called pancetta an Italian bacon, it has one major difference. Most American bacon is smoked. Italian bacon, on the other hand, is cured with salt, and sweet and savory spices, and then it is dried. My favorite use of pancetta is in pasta carbonara. Here is how I make pasta carbonara:


1 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 pound pancetta, diced
1-2 garlic cloves, minced, about 1 teaspoon (optional)
3-4 whole eggs
1 cup grated parmigiana cheese
1 pound fettuccine
Salt and black pepper to taste

While the pasta water is coming to a boil, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook on a low heat till crispy. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, then turn off the heat and put the pancetta and garlic into a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl, beat the eggs and mix in about half of the cheese.

Once the water has reached a rolling boil, add the pasta, and cook, uncovered. When the pasta is still a little firm (al dente - when it sticks to the wall you throw it at) , use a spagheti comb to move it to the bowl with the pancetta and garlic. Move the pasta quickly, so it stays hot; the heat of the pasta will cook the eggs sufficiently to create a creamy sauce. Toss the pasta like a salad to mix it, then add the egg and cheese mixture and toss quickly to combine once more. Add salt to taste.

Serve at once with the rest of the parmigiana and freshly ground black pepper.


As it turns out, the "pan" in pancetta has nothing to do with bread... or does it? Pancetta is an Italian cured meat made from pork belly, and the Italian word for belly is pancia, so pancetta means something like little belly, but wait a minute...  pancetta sounds like "pane cesta"  which means "bread basket" (though it would be rendered cesta de pane) and paniere, paniera the other forms of basket are very close to "panare" and "pancia". No wonder the belly has been nick-named "the bread basket" - it's Italian!

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