“Bacon makes everything better.” That’s one of our favorite sayings in the test kitchen, and it helps explain why our recipes frequently call for it, or for its Italian cousin, pancetta. Bacon and pancetta are both made from pork bellies; the difference between them lies in how they’re prepared and cured. To make bacon, pork belly sides are brined and then smoked (Here’s a DIY bacon from Bruce Aidells, if you’d like to try this). Pancetta, the Italian version of bacon, is made by seasoning a pork belly side with salt and lots of pepper, curling it into a tight roll, and wrapping it in a casing to hold the shape. It’s cured, but it isn’t smoked.
Most people should have ready access to bacon in its various forms—thin-or thick-sliced, slab (unsliced)—but pancetta can be harder to find. Ask at a deli, particularly one that specializes in Italian foods. If they have it, some delis sell it in slices; others might insist you buy a minimum quantity (which they then should be willing to slice). If you can’t find pancetta, you can substitute bacon, but blanch it in boiling water first to reduce its smoky flavor since that isn’t characteristic of pancetta. Unused bacon and pancetta freeze well; wrap a few slices together in individual packets so it’s easy to thaw only the amount you need.