Lately, I've been in a state of homesickness. While I now live in my hometown of Atlanta, I feel heartsick for New York City. I lived there for 12 years, and as someone who loves food and thinks about it 24 hours a day, the Big Apple holds my whole entire heart. It’s home to my favorite restaurants and my most transformative dining experiences. And it's home to some of the best dishes I've ever eaten, including an out-of-this-world pasta with pancetta and peas dish served at Elio’s, a beloved Italian restaurant in my old neighborhood.
I spent the entirety of my time in New York living on the Upper East Side, and over the years, had the pleasure of trying so many incredible restaurants in that neighborhood alone. My favorites have always been the old-school Italian joints that have been around for years and that do things their own way. Elio’s is one of those restaurants.
At Elio’s, a tiny gem of a space, you’ll find a perfect Martini and a perfect plate of what my sister and I have dubbed “Elio’s Pasta.” Think house-made angel hair pasta, silky parmesan cream, salty, crisp pancetta, and bright, fresh peas. It’s not on the menu and you have to be in the know to ask for it, so it's automatically special on top of being downright delicious!
This recipe that I’ve created for pasta with pancetta and peas holds a giant place in my heart because it’s a recreation of that very dish at Elio’s. As a formally trained chef in both French technique and Italian cuisine, the time I spent living and learning to cook in Italy taught me that the very best dishes are the ones with few but excellent ingredients. And this pasta with pancetta and peas is no exception. While it's far from simple in flavor, it showcases what a handful of good quality ingredients plus a little bit of love and nostalgia can do!
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What is Pasta with Pancetta and Peas?
Pasta with peas and pancetta is a cream-based pasta dish that combines the rich flavor of pancetta and the sweet flavor of peas. This easy pasta recipe can be enjoyed as a main course or served as a side.
Creamy Pasta with pancetta and peas name
Unlike other well-known creamy pasta dishes such as cacio e pepe and carbonara, pasta with pancetta and peas doesn’t have a special name. That’s because in talking to the dean of my culinary school about it, the renowned Michelin-starred Chef Cesare Casella, it’s actually an American-Italian invention, not an authentically Italian one.
So given that I’m American-Italian myself, and basically wanted to marry each ingredient in this pasta at Elio’s, I feel completely justified in officially labeling it "Elio’s Pasta!"
What is Pancetta?
Affectionately known as “Italian bacon,” pancetta is cured Italian pork belly. It's similar to bacon, but unlike bacon, pancetta is not smoked. Instead, it's cured with salt (and sometimes various spices) and then air-dried to allow it to develop its distinct flavor.
The most surprising thing that most people don’t know about pancetta is you can eat it raw. I know, it blew my mind, too! Because of the degree to which it’s been cured, pancetta is safe to eat without cooking it. However, I’m big on texture, so for me personally, I like to cook pancetta to where it gets nice and crisp on the outside.
Because pancetta is on the fattier side, it lends itself well to things like soups, stews, sauces, and pastas where you want a richer depth of flavor. Which is why it’s the star of the show in this pasta with pancetta and peas recipe!
Pancetta vs Bacon
Pancetta and bacon have similar textures and flavors, but there's one giant difference between the two. While they’re both made from pork belly, pancetta is simply cured and bacon is smoked after it’s been cured. Therefore, bacon has a woodsier flavor.
Ingredients Needed to Make this Creamy pasta with pancetta and peas recipe
In this recipe for pasta with pancetta and peas, the fresher your ingredients, the better your dish. If you’ve got a great farmer’s market near you or a talented butcher, most definitely tap into those resources. You’ll need:
- PASTA: Although I use angel hair pasta in this recipe to keep it authentic to how Elio’s does it, I honestly find that this sauce lends itself better to a heartier noodle. A short noodle such as farfalle, cavatappi, rigatoni, or orecchiette pasta are great alternatives.
- PANCETTA: The star of the show! Look for thick cut pancetta that’s already been diced to make your life easier.
- PEAS: I use frozen peas for this Italian pasta with peas and pancetta, but fresh will work just as well – you just have to steam them first. Petite peas and sweet peas are also delicious options.
- SCALLIONS AND SHALLOTS: These aromatic ingredients are key players in this dish as they combine to give it both savoriness and freshness.
- HEAVY CREAM: The highlight of this pasta with pancetta, peas, and cream is its luscious sauce, which all begins with heavy cream.
- PARMESAN CHEESE: Thanks to its nuttiness and saltiness, parmesan cheese is the key to really making this pasta dish shine! You can also use grana padano or pecorino romano cheese if you prefer.
- EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: To sauté your pancetta, you’ll need a touch of olive oil.
- NUTMEG: No cream sauce is complete without a pinch of nutmeg! Nutmeg adds a bit of warmth, depth, and complexity to this simple pasta with pancetta.
- SALT, BLACK PEPPER, AND RED PEPPER FLAKES: Salt and pepper are essential for seasoning, while red pepper flakes add a touch of heat to elevate the dish.
How to Make Pasta with Pancetta and Peas with Cream Sauce
Creating a flavorful and creamy pea pasta with pancetta is simpler than you might think. You can find detailed instructions and cooking notes in the recipe card below, but simply follow these steps to prepare this easy pasta dish.
Cook the Pancetta and Veggies
In a large pan, cook the pancetta in a bit of olive oil over medium heat to medium-high heat until the fat renders and the pieces become crispy. This should take around 12-15 minutes.
Add the shallots and cook them in the rendered pancetta fat until they turn translucent.
Stir in the thawed peas and season with salt and pepper. Cook for a couple of minutes until the peas are warmed through. Sprinkle in a pinch of red pepper flakes, then transfer the pea mixture to a large bowl.
Make the Sauce
Using the same large skillet that you used to cook your pea mixture in, pour in the heavy cream.
Stir in the scallion whites and bring to a simmer while whisking constantly. Add nutmeg and season with salt.
Mix in the scallion greens and Parmesan cheese. Continue stirring until the cheese has melted.
Once the cheese has melted, incorporate the pea mixture back into the cream sauce. Keep the heat on low, stirring occasionally, while you prepare the pasta.
Boil the Pasta
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook your pasta until it is al dente.
Reserve a cup of pasta water and set aside. Drain pasta and immediately add it to the pea and cream mixture.
Bring it all together and Serve
Mix everything together until well-combined.
If your creamy sauce is too thick, add a bit more cream or some additional pasta water to thin it out until it reaches your desired consistency. Start with just a splash and add more in small increments as necessary. You don't want to add too much liquid or else your pancetta pasta sauce will get too thin and won't stick to your noodles!
Top your finished pea pancetta pasta with a fresh dusting of shredded or grated parmesan cheese and serve immediately.
With these straightforward instructions, you can enjoy this creamy and flavorful pasta with pancetta and peas in no time!
Expert Tips for Making this Pasta with Pancetta and Peas Recipe
When it comes to mastering the art of making pasta with pancetta and peas, a few expert tips can elevate your dish to a whole new level:
- The most important tip I could offer when making this recipe is to serve it immediately! It’s not a dish that reheats well, so plan to serve it right away when you make it.
- Another tip that’s really valuable when making this creamy pancetta pasta is that if you find that your pancetta is cooking too fast or anything begins to burn with your pea mixture, quickly add a splash of water straight to the pan to stop the cooking. This will deglaze the bottom of the pan so that all the tasty browned bits are still there, but they’re no longer burning to oblivion. You can repeat this trick as often as you need!
- Don’t overcook your pasta. This is one of those thick sauces that needs the cooked pasta to have a bit of structure, so use a slotted spoon to test your noodles as they cook and immediately drain them when they reach al dente. Otherwise, you may end up with a plate of mush!
- Let’s face it – this pancetta pasta recipe does not exactly make the list of “light” pasta recipes! So if you find that this dish has a bit too much fat for your liking, you can certainly drain the excess fat from the pancetta on a paper towel and use olive oil to cook your veggies rather than the rendered pancetta fat.
- Another way to make this recipe a touch lighter is to use half and half instead of heavy cream. Just make note that the sauce will be much thinner and may require a roux or a slurry to thicken it.
- One last tip for making this pasta with pancetta and peas with cream sauce is if the sauce gets too thick, thin it out with a bit of your reserved pasta water or keep some extra cream on hand. Add a little bit at a time to thin it out to your desired consistency without thinning out the flavor.
An Important Note About Pasta Water
One of the most valuable tips I ever learned in culinary school was how to treat the salted water when you boil pasta. If you grew up like me, you’d fill a big pot with water, put in a sprinkle of salt, and a big glug of oil. You know, so the noodles wouldn’t stick.
Well, the oil is a big, fat waste of time. It actually does nothing for the noodles, because it goes right down the drain when you strain the noodles before it has a chance to coat them! And the little that remains behind just makes some of the pasta oily, which means your delicious sauce won’t stick to it!
In terms of salt, one of my chefs changed my life in culinary school when he shared that your large pot of salted water should be “as salty as the sea.” That’s right, folks. When your water comes to a boil, you want to throw at least three big handfuls of salt in. I know you feel scared to do it but trust me! I mean, we only just met, but I promise you can trust me…wink wink.
The reason for this is that this salty water is your only chance to season the noodles. The pasta will absorb some of the boiling water while it’s cooking, which seasons the actual noodle itself. This results in a dynamic shift between a plain old dish of food and an incredible restaurant-quality dish made right in your own home! Just….well, trust me!
What to Serve with This Simple Pasta with Pancetta
Italian pasta with peas and pancetta is a deliciously satisfying main dish on its own, but if you're looking to create a well-rounded meal or to add some complementary flavors, here are some options to consider pairing with this easy recipe:
- A simple green salad dressed with a fresh lemon vinaigrette
- A giant baguette with lots of butter (my personal preference!)
- Roasted broccoli with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice
- Sauteed spinach with garlic
- Baked chicken or roasted salmon
When to Serve Creamy Pasta with Pancetta and Peas
I absolutely do not subscribe to the notion that certain foods have to be eaten at certain times, such as ice cream only in summer or stew only in winter. I believe that food is meant to be enjoyed whenever you dang well feel like it, so no matter when you get a hankering for a pasta dish with pancetta and peas, you’re all set thanks to this delicious recipe!
Other great ideas for when to serve pasta with pancetta and peas:
- On special occasions such as a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner or an indulgent, non-traditional Easter Sunday lunch
- For a solo Friday evening movie night
- As the main course for dinner parties
- On busy weeknights (or any night of the week!) when you want to put something quick and delicious on your dinner table
- The next time you’re in the mood for pancetta with pasta!
Frequently Asked Questions about Pasta with Pancetta and Peas Recipe
When it comes to preparing pasta with pancetta recipes, people often have lots of specific questions about pancetta and how to cook it. Here are answers to some common questions about this delicious Italian staple.
What does pancetta pair well with?
Pancetta pairs beautifully with anything that you want a rich, salty note added to. While pancetta with pasta is a match made in heaven, it is also a magical combination in a salad with a sharp, tangy vinaigrette dressing that helps cut the fat.
Although incorporating salty pancetta into pasta is the most common way to enjoy it, you can be as diverse and eclectic with it as you’d like. How about adding it to your next charcuterie board or throwing it in your scrambled eggs in the morning? Or why not go really wild and toss some crispy pancetta, parmesan, and rosemary into a big bowl of popcorn?!
Do you have to fully cook pancetta?
No, pancetta does not need to be fully cooked before eating it or adding it to a recipe. The curing process of pancetta makes it safe to consume raw.
How long does it take to cook pancetta?
The length of time it takes to cook pancetta is 100% subjective because as previously mentioned, you can eat pancetta raw! Because it’s cured meat, you can eat it just like you would prosciutto. So, the length of time it takes to cook it is really up to however crisp you like it.
Personally, I like a nice “crust” on the outside as it gives such a nice texture in addition to flavor. I typically cook mine somewhere between 12-15 minutes.
How do you know when pancetta is cooked?
Because you can eat pancetta raw, determining when it’s cooked is completely up to you. Therefore, pancetta is “done” whenever you feel like it’s reached your desired crispness or texture!
Does pancetta taste different than bacon?
Yes, pancetta tastes different than bacon. While both come from pork belly, each has its own unique characteristics.
Unlike bacon which is smoked, pancetta is cured with salt and sometimes with spices. The curing process gives pancetta a rich, savory, pork-forward flavor with a slightly sweet undertone, making it milder in comparison to bacon.
Bacon on the other hand is cured and then smoked, which imparts a notable smokiness to it. This gives the bacon a more robust and intense flavor.
Can you substitute bacon for pancetta in this pasta dish with pancetta and peas?
Absolutely! Depending on where you live, you might have a hard time finding pancetta in the grocery stores near you, so you can certainly sub bacon instead. Just make note that it will add a smokier flavor to your pancetta pasta recipes than pancetta.
Why is pancetta so expensive?
Such factors that contribute to the premium cost of pancetta include the use of high-quality ingredients to make it, the expertise and craftsmanship required in its production, the time-consuming curing and aging process, its limited production and distribution, and potential importation costs.
Do you eat the fat on pancetta?
Yes, the fat on pancetta is meant to be consumed! It adds flavor and richness and also contributes to the overall texture and mouthfeel of the dish you're cooking.
Does pancetta need to be refrigerated?
Yes, pancetta should be refrigerated to maintain its freshness and prevent spoilage. Since pancetta is a cured pork product, it is not as perishable as raw meat but still requires proper storage to ensure its quality. Once opened, store it in an airtight container for up to three weeks.
What is the best way to cook pancetta?
There are many delicious ways to cook pancetta, but the best way depends on how you want to use it. Here are a few of the most popular methods:
- PAN-FRYING: Pan-frying is the most common way to cook pancetta. It is simple and quick, and it produces crispy pancetta that can be used in a variety of dishes. You can also use the rendered fat to sauté other ingredients or to add extra flavor to the base of your dish.
- SAUTÉING: Sautéing is another good way to cook it. It is similar to pan-frying, but it uses a lower heat setting which allows the pancetta to render its fat slowly. This results in a more tender product.
- BAKING: If you want to keep your pancetta on the leaner side, baking it is the best way to do so.
- GRILLING: To add a smoky flavor to it, grilling it is the way to go.
Remember that pancetta is already cured, so it doesn't require as much cooking time as raw pork.
Creamy Pasta with Peas and Pancetta: The Wrap-Up
While this recipe for pasta with pancetta and peas no doubt tastes even better to me because of the nostalgia behind it, it’s one of those dishes that evokes feelings of comfort, contentment, and true joy no matter when and where you make it.
It’s the most perfect winter dish to eat while watching a movie in front of the fire, or it’s an amazing treat in the summer with a crisp, cold glass of white wine and some light strawberries and cream for dessert.
No matter when or why you make this pancetta peas pasta, it’s a dish that’s sure to impress. And who knows, perhaps you’ll create your own bowl of nostalgia to return to time and time again!
Valerie began her culinary career as a private chef in New York City before attending culinary school in Italy where she was trained in French technique and Italian cuisine. Over the course of her experience, she has had the honor of learning from celebrated chefs such as the incomparable Michelin-starred Chef Cesare Casella, renowned Italian Chef Maurizio Marsili, and well-known NYC Celebrity Chef Marco Canora.
Valerie now lives in Atlanta where she works for Electric Hospitality and its local hotspots Lady Bird and Muchacho. She spends her free time spoiling her two dogs, trying macaroni and cheese wherever she goes, and searching for the best wings The ATL has to offer with her fiancé!