Waverley Root’s classic The Food of Italy (1971) gives carbonara but sixteen words (although he does call it “a particular favorite”). The Dictionary of Italian Cuisine defines it as: Pasta (usually spaghetti) with egg yolks, Guanciale, Pecorino Romano or (less traditionally) Parmesan cheese, and black pepper. Variations from these few ingredients are common, but they are not called carbonara, at least not in Italy. Cream is not an ingredient of true carbonara; it is an aid to inexperienced cooks who have trouble getting the eggs to the right consistency without it.
The recipe for this Roman specialty is remarkably simple, yet its ingredients need some explanation.
Guanciale is seasoned and air-cured — but unsmoked — Italian bacon, cut from the cheek of the hog (as opposed to the belly, in American bacon, or tenderloin, in Canadian bacon). It is similar to pancetta, but its texture is firmer. Think prosciutto, but with much more luxurious fat.
Pecorino Romano is a sharp grating cheese made from sheep’s milk (unlike the sweeter cow’s milk Parmigiano). While it is made in Lazio (home to Rome), it is also made elsewhere, however its style is definitely Roman.
Whole eggs can be used, but can easily become scrambled (which is why beginners sometimes resort to adding cream); egg yolks alone will yield a perfectly creamy result, and golden color, when cooked only by the pasta’s heat.
The name “carbonara” suggests a number of folk etymologies that have become attached to the dish. The Dictionary of Italian Cuisine eliminates one of them: “Carbonara is the name of a town, near Bari, and is not related to pasta alla carbonara.”
One of these pseudo-histories claims that the name comes from the wives of coal miners or charcoal makers (just as “meuniere” refers to a French miller’s wife). This is somewhat suspect, as neither mining nor charcoal-making are major businesses in Rome. Another suggests that the dish was a favorite of the Carbonari, an Italian political secret society. This is more appealing, especially since it mirrors the history of the Slow Food movement (that began among Italian leftists, who — being Italian first, and communist second — always wanted to know the best places to eat when meeting with fellow travelers). Yet another version of the story says that the dish originated when Allied forces entered Rome during World War II. Supposedly, their rations included bacon (highly doubtful) and powdered eggs (probable, but not very appetizing) — and welcoming Romans invented the dish to make use of these ingredients. Creating wonderful dishes from whatever is available is very Italian, but the story doesn’t ring completely true. Spam™ would have been more likely than bacon — and pasta with spam and eggs sounds more Monty Python than cucina rustica.
The time period is probably accurate, though, since the dish was first mentioned in The New York Times in the July 12, 1954 issue (never one to be the first to mention a new trend, and nine years for the good gray lady is just fashionably late). The article’s title, “News of Food; When in Rome, You Eat Magnificent Meals in Simple Restaurants,” is generally good advice (at least it was when we went searching for good carbonara). One thing we discovered was that the guanciale was always cut exactly the same way: in little strips, one and a half inches long.
Whatever the true story of the dish’s origins, the likeliest explanation of the name is the presence of specks of black pepper in the dish that look like bits of coal or charcoal.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
In the past few years, spaghetti carbonara has been subject to all sorts of little “improvements,” often adding garnishes that only diminish the purity of the original dish. Here’s our recipe, roughly based on one by Marcella Hazan:
1 pound of pasta
1/2 pound guanciale (or pancetta, if guanciale can’t be found)
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon butter
3 cloves garlic, peeled an crushed
1/4 Cup dry white wine (such as Orvieto or Est! Est! Est!)
2 Tablespoons salt
8 egg yolks (or 3 whole eggs)
3/4 Cup pecorino romano, freshly grated
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
Sauté garlic in butter and oil until golden, then discard garlic.
Slice guanciale into small strips, one and a half inches long, a quarter inch wide, and an eighth of an inch thick. Sauté guanciale in garlic-scented fat until browned, Add wine and boil for a couple of minutes, scraping any browned bits from bottom of pan. Set pan aside to cool.
Cook spaghetti in at least a gallon of rapidly boiling salted water until just tender, but still firm.
In large serving bowl, beat egg yolks (or whole eggs), cheese and pepper.
Reheat guanciale. Toss drained pasta in egg mixture to coat evenly, pour guanciale on top, toss again and serve immediately.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us