I live in a place where Pancetta is really hard to find, and when I do, it's completely overpriced. When I make some Carbonara or Gricia, both recipes from where I come from, I have to improvise it with good old bacon, but it never ends up the same as nonna did. So I ask, how can I make bacon a better substitute for pancetta?
It's not the same, but it can certainly work. Guanciale is a great substitute as well if you can find it.
I just made carbonara last week with bacon. I used this recipe. It came out pretty well. Using water in the initial cook makes the bacon come out a little more chewy.
Also, I use a zester on my pecorino, and it comes out grate that way.
You can substitute bacon for pancetta. The main difference between the two is that pancetta is unsmoked, so if you can find bacon that is unsmoked, go for that. If you only have access to smoked bacon, you can blanch the bacon before you use it in your recipe to reduce the smoky flavor. Check your local butcher they usually have pancetta, if you haven't already checked.
The most common cured meats to use in either of these dishes would, traditionally, be guanciale or pancetta. Both of which are fairly different than your standard grocery store bacon. But I don't think that means you're entirely out of luck.
The main difference, although there are definitely others, between guanciale and pancetta is that guanciale comes from the jowl or cheek, and pancetta the pork belly. The main difference between bacon and the above two, though is that bacon is typically smoked in addition to being cured. This changes the flavor considerably, and I don't believe smoked bacon would make for a desirable flavor profile for carbonara, gricia, or anything else calling for the above ingredients.
But what if you used unsmoked bacon?
Unsmoked bacon, while substantially less common than the smoked version, might be possible to find, and should have a much more similar flavor profile to guanciale and pancetta. If you can't find it at your grocer, finding a local butcher and asking if they have, or could make some as a special order for you might be an option. According to this link you can discern whether it's smoked or unsmoked by the following method:
A shopper can tell whether it’s been smoked by the condition of the flesh and the rind if it’s left on. If it’s been smoked, the rind is deep gold, and the flesh is deep pink. If it is unsmoked, the rind is white or cream-colored and the flesh is pale pink. Unsmoked or “green” is hard to come by.
If unsmoked bacon proves too hard to find, and you don't have access to a butcher willing to prepare some you have another easy option as well:
Look at other cured meats
While distinctly inferior to carbonara made with guanciale or pancetta, I remember growing up that my mother would exclusively use ham to make carbonara as a cost cutting measure. Dice the ham up and prepare as usual.
If available in your area, I've also heard of people using prosciutto for this purpose, although this is by no means a cost saving measure. At the very least, it's closer in flavor profile than bacon or ham.
If neither of the easy options suit your needs, you could try a few more labor intensive options as well:
Widen your search on where you buy
If you really want an authentic flavor, this is your best bet. There are some companies that allow you to purchase fresh/cured meats online for delivery, and I know I've had good luck buying interesting cured meats at craft fairs or larger town's farmer's markets in the past. You might also be able to look for a community with a high amount of ethnic Italians or a larger city in general if you're willing to travel for it. In which case, I would recommend bringing an insulated cooler/ice packs along with you.
If you have any Italian restaurants in the area, you could even speak to them and explain your predicament, ask them if they would be willing to order or share a certain amount of what they typically get with you, and pay for it. This will usually work best if you know someone who works there or worked there yourself at one point, but it's possible. You would likely need to order a larger quantity in these cases to be worth your while or to get the restaurant to agree.
Or, if you're truly dedicated, consider making your own
This is no small undertaking and not something I can personally advise on, but if you're determined to get an authentic flavor, don't mind waiting for it to cure, and are prepared to research the process this may be a possibility for you.
Pancetta is bacon that has been hanged until it has lost 30% of it's weight. This process of hanging it after it has cured makes it possible to eat pancetta like ham. Without cooking it. If you are willing to cook the bacon before you use it then bacon is a fine substitute. It is pretty much the same thing, to be honest.