Pasta alla Carbonara

Dishing Out Pasta Alla Carbonara

It is the most famous of Italian pasta recipes and in every restaurant you visit it’s made a different way. Each chef has their own version of what they think Pasta alla Carbonara should be. Look it up online and you could probably find a dozen different recipes for it. Some of these have nothing in common with the original, adding extra ingredients to the basic five that make up the dish. And we won’t even get into those concoctions you can buy off the shelf.

Pasta alla Carbonara
Pasta alla Carbonara

Now I’m no chef, let’s get that out in the open right now, but years of travelling across Italy have taught me a little something about how this dish should be made. What I love most about carbonara is its rustic origins. Sure, you probably couldn’t care less about the history of the food you’re eating, but for me it makes the experience all the more enjoyable.

Typically Roman, “alla carbonara” translates into “in the manner of the coal miners”. Legend has it that the dish was popular with miners who lived in the Apennine mountains surrounding Rome because the ingredients were always available and easy to carry to work. Pack a bit of spaghetti and pancetta in your rucksack, steal a few eggs from the hen house on the way to work and you had the makings of a meal. When dinnertime rolled around the miners would assemble the ingredients and prepare them over charcoal grills.

The black pepper that is sprinkled over the top of the pasta actually represents the flecks of coal that would fall from the miners clothing onto their plates. Others suggest the dish was cooked up by members of an early 19th century Italian secret society known as the “Carbonari” who were instrumental in organizing revolution in Italy in the 1800s. Who has to time to cook up an elaborate meal for your paesanos when there’s a rebellion to organize? It was an ideal dish for the Carbonari. The ingredients were always available, could last a long time without deteriorating and could be easily kept in caves and other hiding places until they were needed.

Only five ingredients make up a traditional pasta alla carbonara, including freshly made pasta.
Only five ingredients make up a traditional pasta alla carbonara, including freshly made pasta.

A modern rendition has the dish actually coming into existence in 1944 when allied troops entered Rome. After the liberation of Italy by the allies in WW2, cured pork or “guanciale” was hard to come by, but the allies, whose food rations had plenty of bacon and eggs, worked hand in hand with the Italians to dish up a few plates of carbonara.

Aside from being able to tell these tales to your friends every time you sit down to enjoy this rustic meal, the other great thing about Pasta alla Carbonara is its simplicity. Warm pasta, coated in a golden, eggy sauce, grated Pecorino, bits of pancetta and flakes of black pepper. For carbonara purists, there’s no need to add anything else. Of course, you can add anything you like to the dish. To each his own.

We no longer have to steal eggs from the hen house to make this dish (as much fun as that sounds), but getting that perfect, simple taste doesn’t require much effort. Just make sure you have the right ingredients and you’re ready to take your senses on a culinary trip to Italy.

Now, you could use any store-bought, dried spaghetti you find in a box but I find using fresh homemade pasta, like my nonna (who was up at the crack of dawn kneading dough into pasta perfection) or buying it from the local pasta shop makes all the difference in the world. It helps give the dish that homemade taste and texture. You can almost say it’s as good as nonna’s (just not within nonna’s listening range).

After the pasta, the second and third components, and equal in importance to the pasta, if not more so, are the cheese and the cured pork. For die hard carbonarists there’s no cheating on these ingredients.

Nonna making fresh, homemade pasta.
Nonna making fresh, homemade pasta.

The cured pork should be guanciale. Guanciale is salt cured pork that comes from the pig’s cheeks. In the event you can’t find guanciale, pancetta is often used. Pancetta comes from the belly (the “pancia”) of the pig. It is usually referred to as the Italian version of American bacon but although they come from the same place they are two very distinct meats. While bacon is smoked, pancetta is cured with salt, spices and left out to dry.

There has always been debate on whether one should use Pecorino, a sharp cheese made from sheep’s milk and which has been made in Rome since ancient times, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cow’s milk cheese that derives from the Emilia Romagna region in Italy. If you want to stay true to the Roman heritage of the dish, use grated Pecorino Romano cheese, but it can always be substituted with Parmigiano-Reggiano or even by mixing the two cheeses together.

The final step is putting it all together. Return the drained pasta to the pot, add the pancetta and the egg and cheese mixture. This is probably the trickiest part of the process, as you don’t want to overcook the eggs or scramble them in any way. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is by taking the pot off the burners and to thoroughly mix the eggs and cheese before you add them to the pasta.

Now while there is room for decision between Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano or choosing pancetta over guanciale, there is no debate when it comes to the addition of mushrooms, onions or, dare I mention it, cream, which makes its appearance in some recipes. Ask any Italian on the streets of Rome and they’ll give you a resounding “No!”

The perfect carbonara does have a creamy sauce but it’s done by beating the eggs together with the cheese, slowly pouring the mixture over the warm pasta then tossing the ingredients together. My guess is the cream is just a quick substitute for the work that goes behind beating the eggs and cheese until they achieve that creamy texture.

Once all the ingredients have come together gently toss the pasta, add some fresh ground pepper and get those plates to the table pronto! Pour yourself a glass of wine and sit down to a rustic Italian meal that even the coal miners would be proud of!

So how do you make a great carbonara? Just follow the steps below! It’s a combination of different recipes I’ve tried over the years and what I think works best, keeps it simple and brings my senses back to Italy every time.

Pasta alla Carbonara

  • 1 pound fresh spaghetti or fettuccine
  • 3/4 cup of guanciale, cubed
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino
  • Fresh ground black pepper

It’s best to prepare the sauce while the pasta is cooking to ensure that the spaghetti is ready when the sauce is finished. It’s also important that the pasta is hot when adding the sauce so that the heat of the pasta cooks the raw egg.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the pasta and let it cook until “al dente” (which basically means firm but still tender). Drain the pasta and reserve about ½ cup of the cooking water to use later in the sauce, if you need it.

While the pasta is cooking, beat the eggs and cheese together in a mixing bowl (making sure there are no lumps) and set aside.

In a pan over medium heat, add the guanciale and saute for about 2 minutes or until crisp. You could add olive oil to the pan, but I find that the guanciale has enough fat, it doesn’t require any additional fat to help it along.

Add the hot, drained pasta to the pan and toss for about 2 minutes to coat the strands.  Remove the pan from the heat (this is to ensure the eggs don’t scramble), pour the egg and cheese mixture over the pasta and toss the pasta gently to ensure it is coated.

You can use the reserved cooking water to thin out the sauce if it needs it or until it reaches the consistency you’re looking for. Season the carbonara with a few turns of fresh ground black pepper. Taste and add salt if needed. Serve immediately. Pasta alla Carbonara is best eaten right away. Enjoy!

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