In 1972, my family spent a month touring Italy. We stopped, of course, in Perugia, where my older sister was studying abroad, at the Università per Stranieri di Perugia. We stayed at a hilltop hotel with a rather large dining room. One night, Ma and Pa went out by themselves, and my older Bro and I had dinner there – That was the first time I experienced Spaghetti alla Carbonara.
The plates were, for a 12 year old, huge. A lady at the table next to ours showed us the right way to do things – grab some pasta with a fork, spin that into the bowl of your spoon, then pop that lovely stuff into your mouth. The stuff was stunningly good, and it became an instant favorite for me, but try as I might, I couldn’t finish. First the waiter looked appalled, and asked if I didn’t like it. I denied this, just said it was too much, but the process was already underway. Next came the head waiter, then the maitre d’, and finally, the Chef. With all these guys gesturing and beaming, I finished that damn plate. Ever since, I’ve been more judicious about my intake, and well that I should be – This is seriously rich stuff.
Carbonara is another of those fascinating dishes that are hard to pigeonhole. It’s a Roman thing, in all likelihood – and the locals have heartily embraced it as such. It’s delightfully simple, stemming from the pasta/cheese/pepper family of dishes, like cacio e pepe – maybe more like pasta alla gricia, since carbonara must have cured pork to be authentico. While the roots go way back, this is not an old dish. Carbonaro means ‘charcoal burner,’ and lead to the sobriquet, ‘coal miners pasta,’ but that is probably poetic license.
Carbonara appeared in Italy post World War II, because quite frankly, there was little or no eggs or bacon in that war torn collection of city states prior to the war. There was plenty of both afterwards thanks to the presence of American GIs and their vast supply stores. I think the Carbonara moniker came about because pepper and diced bacon kinda look like coal, if one is being imaginative. This line of reasoning is substantiated by the notable absence of the dish in Ada Bono’s seminal 1930 work, La Cucina Romana – If carbonara had been part of the scene, I guarantee it would have been in her book – and it did appear in Elizabeth David’s 1954 edition of Italian Food. In any event, Italians loved it, and so did the GI’s.
Like any seminal dish, there are a lot of potential rights and wrongs around making Carbonara, I mean come on – it’s Italian cooking, OK? In Italy, 90% of the time you encounter it the meat will be guanciale, the pasta will be spaghetti, the cheese will be Pecorino Romano, and the only other ingredients will be eggs, black pepper, and salt – anything else will be received akin to putting pineapple on their pizza.
Guanciale is worth checking out, but it can still be a bit hard to find here in the states. It is cured pork from the jowl or cheek, notably porkier and fattier than bacon or pancetta. The magic lies in the fat, which melts beautifully when it’s cooked, adding marvelous depth of flavor and mouth feel to a dish. Americans tend to use bacon for Carbonara, which is fine, really, especially if it’s really good bacon – sure they frown on this in Italy, but even pancetta can get you looked at funny over there. I think you should use what you like, but trying a cured pork product you’ve not had before should be on your dance card.
While the pasta you deploy doesn’t have to be spaghetti, it should be something with a hefty surface to volume ratio – that’ll allow the simple and relatively small amount of sauce involved to fully deploy. Folks have been known to double the sauce and use something like penne, and while that would technically be wrong, I’d snarf it down.
The cheese should be Pecorino Romano, but if you like parmigiano regiano, use that – Just know that they’re very different things – Pecorino is a salty, sharp, almost smoky sheep’s milk cheese, while Parmesan comes from cows – it’s nuttier and funkier stuff.
If ever there was a dish that wanted the best, freshest eggs you can find, this would be it. The taste and the appearance of the dish depend on great eggs, because they constitute most of the sauce – a watery, pale supermarket egg is not going to make great carbonara. Most cooks use whole eggs, while some employ only yolks, and either is fine, really.
As far as other stuff in carbonara goes, everything I’m about to mention does not go into the dish according to purists, and I feel strongly that you try the traditional dish at least once – After that, do what you like – it’s your kitchen. Some folks deploy a little cream in their sauce. Veggies from peas to broccoli and leaks to mushrooms have made their way into the mix. One thing you must never, ever do, however, is buy and eat anything from the store called ‘carbonara sauce’ – knowing what is likely in that stuff to make it shelf stable, it should be obvious that it’s not something you want in your pasta.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
1 Pound Dry Pasta
4 Large Eggs
8 Ounces Guanciale, (Pancetta or bacon are fine too)
1/2 Packed Cup Pecorino Romano Cheese
1/2 Packed Cup Parmigiano Regiano Cheese
Fresh Black Pepper
Cut your pork into roughly 1/2” cubes.
Fill a large pot with 5-6 quarts of water, then add 4 tablespoons of kosher salt and bring to a boil over high heat.
Add the spaghetti, allow the water to return to a boil, then reduce heat to maintain a rolling boil.
Boil pasta until it’s al dente, about 6-9 minutes.
In the largest skillet you’ve got, sauté the pork over medium heat until the fat is rendered out and the meat is crisp, about 3-4 minutes. Turn off the heat and slide the pan off of the burner.
Reserve 1 cup of past water, then drain the pasta into a colander.
Crack the eggs into a small mixing bowl, then whisk – add the cheese and whisk to fully incorporate.
Slide the skillet back onto a burner on medium and let it heat back through for a minute.
Add the pasta and half the reserved pasta water and use a couple of forks to incorporate that with the meat and fat – a lot of the water will evaporate and that’s OK.
Pull the skillet off the heat again, then add the egg and cheese blend and the rest of the pasta water, and use the forks to quickly incorporate everything – work quickly to get the pasta coated with the egg and cheese mix, and take care that the eggs don’t sit on the bottom of the skillet and scramble – if you get a little of that effect, don’t worry – we’re all human, it happens, and it’ll still be delicious. It’s your kitchen.
Season the pasta liberally with fresh ground black pepper, take a picture, then portion onto plates or bowls and serve pronto. Every time I spin a fork full of this lovely stuff, I’m right back in that dining room in Perugia.