My grandmother Angelina never made it, as far as I can recall, but as a long-time resident of Rome I have a great fondness for la carbonara, one of the iconic dishes of Roman cooking. Together with bucatini all’amatriciana, you’ll find it on just about every menu in town. And it’s a popular dish to make at home–quick and easy (once you get the hang of it) and very, very satisfying.
It may come as a surprise to some readers that the real carbonara does not contain cream. It’s a rustic, even rough, dish invented by and for common people, full of flavor but not exactly refined–and cream is not an ingredient that features in proletarian cooking, at least not in Rome and points further south in Italy. The other great misconception: real carbonara does not contain ham or prosciutto, either, but the lustier guanciale (cured pig’s cheeck) or pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon). Nor are peas or other vegetables added to the sauce.
It’s not clear why the dish got ‘lost in translation’ in other countries. My best guess is that the dish that is called ‘carbonara’ abroad has become confused with fettuccine alla papalina, a more ‘upscale’ version of carbonara that does contain prosciutto as well as—at least in some versions—peas and cream. The substitution of guanciale is understandable, as it is not easy to find outside Italy (or even in Italy, which is why pancetta is a common substitute) but it would be much more in the spirit of the dish to use bacon than ham or even prosciutto. There is really no such thing as a ‘carbonara sauce’ as such—the sauce for this pasta is an intrinsic part of the dish and cannot be made separately. And, finally: there is no such thing in Italian cookery as ‘chicken carbonara’; how that got started, God only knows.
In any event, on to the authentic recipe: At its most basic, carbonara is basically bacon and eggs with pasta. In most recipes, including that offered by the venerable Ada Boni, who was Roman and surely knew what she was doing, the eggs are cooked only by the heat of the spaghetti that is poured and mixed with them fresh from the pasta pot. But the operation can be tricky—if the pasta is not hot enough, or if too much pasta water clings to the pasta, the result can be a runny, unappetizing mess. And, of course, concerns about egg contamination these days make this way of making carbonara a bit risky, too. So, after years of experimenting with different methods, I’ve come up with my own technique.
- 400-500g (14-16 oz) spaghetti
- 4-5 medium eggs
- 250g (8 oz) grated pecorino romano cheese (or a combination of Parmesan and pecorino)
- 250g (8 oz) guanciale or pancetta, cut into cubed
- Olive oil (or lard)
- Salt, to taste
- Lots of freshly ground black pepper
Cook the spaghetti in abundantly salted water until al dente.
While you are cooking your spaghetti, whisk the egg with grated pecorino cheese and lots of freshly ground pepper. (For most palates, if you salt the pasta water sufficiently and given that pecorino and pancetta are already quite salty, you need not season the sauce with salt.)
Separately, in a skillet, sauté the cubed guanciale or pancetta in olive oil (or, if you really want to be authentic, lard) over moderate heat until the pancetta fat is translucent and just beginning to brown a bit. You do not want the pancetta to become crispy.
Once the spaghetti are cooked al dente, drain them (but not too well) and pour them into the skillet over very low heat. Make sure there is a bit of pasta water clinging to the pasta; if not, add a ladleful from the pasta pot. Mix well and then add your egg mixture and mix again. Keep mixing until the eggs just being to thicken and form a creamy sauce that clings to the pasta. If you prefer (and these days I tend to like my carbonara this way) or if you are worried about contamination, you can continue a bit longer until the eggs actually set. In either case, remove from the heat as soon as it just bit less done than you want, as the eggs will continue to cook from the residual heat of the pasta.
Serve immediately in warm pasta plates, with additional pecorino and ground pepper for those who want some.
The ratio of egg to pasta is a critical component of the dish, of course, but funnily enough, recipes vary wildly on this score. I find that a ratio given here of roughly one medium egg to 100g of pasta—which, among other things, is easy to remember and allows for making a single portion—is a workable rule of thumb. But most recipes calls for just under one egg per 100g (usually something like 3 eggs for 400g) and some recipes calls for as little as one egg per 300g. The variable size of eggs may (partially) explain the differences.
It’s becoming more and more popular to use of egg yolks rather than whole eggs. Often just egg yolks, sometimes a combination of egg yolks with a whole egg or two. In this case, you use more eggs, of course. The formula is generally one yolk per 100g, plus another yolk or even two. The yolks do produce a richer carbonara to be sure, which must account for its popularity, but personally I always feel slightly guilty about wasting the whites…
Although the basic recipe is quite well defined, perhaps more so than other ‘classic recipes’, there are some fairly subtle variations to this dish.
As mentioned, pancetta or even bacon can substitute for the original guanciale.
The dish can be either fairly creamy—though never ‘swimming’ in the sauce—or fairly dry. The consistency will depend on how much egg you add, as well as how much liquid is in the pan when you do add the egg and cheese. In any event, one advantage of the technique described in this post is that is forgiving; if you have a lot of egg, just keep mixing until the egg has thickened.
One recipe from a great cookbook called Le specialita’ della cucina romana (Ce.di.st) calls for only parmesan and no pecorino. It also calls for adding a slightly crushed garlic clove to sauté lightly along with the pancetta or guanciale; the clove is removed as soon as it begins to color.
In the recipe offered by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, which follows the technique suggested above, additional pecorino is added to the pasta, off heat, after mixing it with the eggs just before serving.
A more radical variation is vegetarian carbonara, which substitutes a vegetable like zucchine or artichokes for the pork (but keeps the egg and cheese). I do like vegetarian carbonara as a change of pace, especially in the spring and fall when these vegetables are in season.
Spaghetti is the most common type of pasta to use with carbonara, but rigatoni and penne are also very good made alla carbonara. In fact, according to Le Ricette Regionali Italiane (Solares, 1995) the dish was originally made with penne, which mixed more easily with the eggs. I had fettuccine alla carbonara in a local trattoria in Trastevere once, which was very good. (But if you make it, make sure to use fettuccine and not the finer tagliatelle, which would be overwhelmed by this rustic sauce.) In each case, the technique is exactly the same.
The origins of carbonara
There are a number of stories about the origins of this dish. The word carbonara refers to a carbonaio, meaning coal miner or charcoal worker. (Both charcoal and coal are called carbone in Italian.) So one story goes that the name of the dish means ‘coal miner’s spaghetti’ or ‘charcoal worker’s spaghetti’, presumably because it was popular among them. The story is buttressed by the fact that the dish is said to have come not from Rome proper, but in the hills outside the city. Others say that the ‘coal’ in the name is a reference to the abundant ground pepper that is characteristic of the dish.
Still another story has it that the dish has American origins, at least directly, a result of Romans eating the bacon and eggs rations they got from American troops during World War II—which is why it is arguably acceptable to substitute American bacon for the pancetta. The smokiness of American bacon usually gives Italian dishes an ‘off’ taste, but in this case it works very nicely, marrying well with the piquancy of the ground pepper. However, since fettuccine alla papalina, which as mentioned is a variant on carbonara, predates the war, I wonder about this story. It does seem, however, that the dish only became popular in the post-war period.