These two Italian meats have many similarities, but also many differences. Both come from pork and are cured to prevent bacteria growth and to achieve their distinct tastes. Both are salty and fatty but without the smokiness of American bacon. Both lend distinct flavors to classic Italian recipes.
Pancetta is made from pork belly, whereas guanciale is made from pork cheeks and is fattier. Besides salt, the curing spices for pancetta typically are pepper, fennel, allspice and nutmeg. Guanciale is traditionally cured using pepper, rosemary, thyme and garlic. The spice combination can change depending on the region of Italy where it is made. The curing process is similar: The meat is rubbed with generous amounts of salt and spices and then hung to dry in a cool, dry room. Pancetta cures for about four weeks; guanciale usually cures for a longer period, even up to six months.
The cured meats are naturally preserved thanks to a large amount of salt and to the removal of excess water. Microorganisms cannot breed in these conditions, allowing the meat to be stored safely in a cool room for months in the original packaging. However, they must be consumed within two weeks after they are opened.
Both pancetta and guanciale are among the fattiest meats you can find. Pancetta contains 426 calories and 39 grams of fat per 3.5 ounces…more than in an equivalent amount of chocolate. Guanciale contains 589 calories and 59 grams of fat per 3.5 ounces, nearly twice more than the same amount of whipped cream. However, the fat in both is non-saturated and can safely be consumed in servings of less than 1.5 ounces per day. Because of the high salt content, these meats are not recommended for people with kidney disease, chronic heart problems or diabetes.
Guanciale is primarily a central Italy specialty, whereas pancetta is widely used throughout the country. Pancetta is more readily available than guanciale in the United States and is sold thinly sliced, chopped into cubes and occasionally found in a slab. Because both meats are cured, they can be eaten on their own, served on a meat platter or consumed with bread. Usually, however, they are cooked with other ingredients.
Due to flavor and texture differences, pancetta and guanciale are traditionally used in different dishes. However, many recipes specify that each can be a substitute for the other. Both are used in pasta, soup, salad and numerous other dishes. Guanciale is famous in certain Roman dishes like bucatini all’amatriciana, spaghetti alla carbonara, and rigatoni alla zozzona. Pancetta appears in fettuccine all’abruzzese and more generally in risotto, vegetable and pasta dishes like pappardelle with peas, asparagus and pancetta.
Both pancetta and guanciale are beloved by non-vegetarians in Italy and in America, especially among Italophiles and foodies.