Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rome's Spaghetti alla Carbonara - At Home

Last weekend, Significant Eater asked me to make her Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe for lunch. I wasn't in the mood to cook and we ended up going to Chinatown for noodles, since I knew that would make her happy.  This past weekend, however, I took matters into my own hands - and instead of Cacio e Pepe, I decided to go full bore and cook up what is one of the great pasta dishes of all time -  Spaghetti alla Carbonara. There are restaurants in Rome which are dedicated to this classic and all it takes is a few simple ingredients I always have in my pantry.  Pasta. Olive Oil. Pancetta (or guanciale). Eggs. Pecorino Cheese. Pepper. (Yes, there's water and salt involved too, but really...)
There's much hand-wringing about how to make a proper Carbonara.  And the more you read about it, the more  wringing you'll do. For instance, Emeril has a recipe using bacon, garlic and parsley (freakin' heathen), while Saveur Magazine's "classic" recipe includes garlic and parsley (again), and white wine. WTF?!

Arthur Schwartz, the author of a great book about cooking in Campania, Naples at Table, doesn't even bother to include a recipe, though it's not like Rome and Naples are different countries.

Mario (yes, that Mario), in his 1998 book Simple Italian Food, has a recipe for Carbonara that includes cream.  But in Molto Italiano, his 2005 award-winning tome, here's what he had to say about Spaghetti alla Carbonara:

A true carbonara has no cream...

And that Molto recipe gets all fancy, as it has you build a nest on each plate of pasta, into which you then drop the egg yolk and the diner gets to toss it all around.  Isn't life difficult enough?

In any event, the most important rule about making Carbonara is to NOT scramble the eggs when pulling this dish together.  I know, I know...you're saying to yourself: "That shouldn't be a problem; I can't even scramble an egg!"
Well, eggs are touchy - a little too much heat...scrambled eggs. 

So be careful when you make your Carbonara.  You can take a cue from the great Roman cookbook called, strangely enough, Cooking the Roman Way, which instructs you to make sure you cool the pan off for 3 minutes before adding the eggs and then the cooked pasta.  The pan, by the way, is the pan in which you cook up the pancetta with olive oil...
You can temper your eggs by adding a little bit (say 1/4 cup) of the pasta cooking water to the beaten eggs before adding them to that pan. You can keep your fingers crossed, like I do.  And if you're lucky, and your Carbonara comes out perfectly, you can sit back and enjoy, like we did this past weekend, a nice lunch of Spaghetti alla Carbonara - it's one of the great pasta dishes of all time...


  1. it is actually, my favorite pasta dish. I haven't eaten it since 1990, when I began my effort to stop gaining a pound a year.
    perhaps I will now break the fast...
    Robynn in Aptos

  2. Robynn - Gotta give up something else - cookies, maybe?

  3. Wow, the pasta looks great. That is some hunk of Pancetta, I bet that added some nice flavor.

  4. Mitch:

    Thanks for the inspiration. It had been too long since I last made the dish.

    I "bastardize" the traditional by adding a little white truffle oil when I beat the eggs.


  5. Ok, so I have a foolproof M.O. re: carbonara: You make a paste out of the raw eggs and grated cheese. Then when the pasta is done, add a tiny insignificant bit of pasta water and the pasta to the paste and stir up -- it makes its own sauce. Fabulous. then add pancetta and pepper (lots).


  6. Hehe my husband would eat this dish every day of the week if he could! :P