Spaghetti Alla Carbonara

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I’m talking about one of the most famous Italian pasta recipe: ‘Spaghetti alla Carbonara’. At the same time this dish is also one of the most “bastardised” ones. I’ve been wanting to write a post about this traditional italian dish for some time now; first because it’s one of my favourite meals, and second because it is so simple, but yet difficult to get right.  Unfortunately, for many people outside Italy the introduction to spaghetti alla carbonara is nothing less than ignoble: a final dish made of egg substitute, artificial bacon bits and low-fat grated cheese.

Some of the recipes you can find for this dish on the web have absolutely nothing in common with the original: herbs, garlic or onion just don’t belong there. And let’s not even talk about those finished “carbonara” sauces one can buy ready-made, or even worst as powder… blasphemy!

But what I personally find quite intriguing about carbonara is it’s origins.
“Alla carbonara,” means “in the manner of the coal miners.” (Carbonara and carbone, the Italian word for coal, both derive from the Latin word carbo.) According to this legend, the dish was popular with miners because the few ingredients could easily be carried or, in the case of eggs, pocketed from henhouses on the way to work. When appetites knocked, a simple campfire in the woods was all that was needed to make an elegant meal. The liberal use of pepper is considered a modern-day metaphor for the specks of coal that would inevitably drop from the miners’ clothing onto the plates of pasta. Others say the name comes from the carbon that rose from cooking the dish over a charcoal fire.

There are a few stories apart the one about the coal miners however. Despite being a fairly recent creation, there are a lot of theories, often contradicting, about how this dish came into existence. There are two main theories: the most famous suggests that pasta alla carbonara was invented during World War II someone tried to make a pasta dish using the ingredients rationed to the American soldiers. According to these authors the dish actually came to existence in 1944 from the union of Italian (spaghetti and pecorino) and American (eggs and bacon) ingredients, after the allied forces had entered Rome. The Italian cooks had little left to cook and they added the bacon and powdered eggs the allied forces had with them as rations to their pantry (if legally or not is another question): the result was spaghetti alla carbonara. If the story is true this would, for once, be an example of an Italian take on an American dish, instead of the more common opposite.

The second theory, instead, suggests that carbonara is the evolution of a dish with ancient Roman origins called “cacio e ova” (or cheese and egg) that was served to the coal miners or carbonari. Even it cheese and egg had been used with pasta for a long time, this recipe became the carbonara as we know it today during World War II when the American soldiers asked the tavern cooks to add guanciale (or cured pork jowl) which they mistook for bacon, something Americans commonly pair with eggs.

Regardless, this is a very simple dish that requires only high quality ingredients. 
The recipe that I use and offer you below is what I have been using since my years of Culinary training in Florence. I believe being it the most authentic to the Carbonara origins. But there is no “perfect” carbonara recipe, as you know. Also as long as one stays within the boundaries of the ingredients, how much cheese or whether one uses yolks or whole eggs is a matter of preference; the dish is resilient enough to be tweaked and still remain authentic.
The Parmesan/Pecorino ratio can be varied to give a milder or stronger taste to the dish, with Pecorino the more rustic/stronger of the two. I like to prepare mine with a bit more Pecorino. You can use whole eggs or only yolks. Yolks will give a richer, smoother taste. Die-hard purist carbonara cooks will consider this already too much of a “cleaned up” version of this rustic dish. The eventual cream addition is for them absolutely a no-no. On the other hand this is quite often used in restaurants to make the sauce creamier and smoother and probably to make the chef’s work easier.
In the end, I hope the origin of the recipe is never found. It’s moving to see that a simple dish with only six ingredients can foster so much creativity and give birth to so many legends. If that doesn’t make it a classic, I don’t know what does.

Now, would someone pass the Parmigiano-Reggiano, please?

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pound spaghetti
3 large egg yolks + 1 large egg, well beaten
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano combined with 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
3/4 cup of boiling pasta water
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it ripples. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until crisp. Slide the pan off the heat and set aside.
2. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the salt and the spaghetti, stirring often to prevent the pasta from clumping, and cook until al dente. Drain, reserving the 3/4 cup of pasta water, and return the spaghetti while it’s very hot to the pan. Set over very low heat. Immediately add the eggs, half of the cheese, the reserved pancetta, and any rendered fat, and toss well. Add just enough of the pasta water to make the mixture lusciously creamy. Sprinkle generously with pepper and serve at once. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.