In case you missed it, I’ve decided to cook my way through the past ten years, re-experiencing and re-imagining my travels while learning to cook some really great food.
And I’m starting the whole project off with a cheat. I might as well be honest about it. I chose pasta carbonara as my first dish to tackle because I already know how to make it. In fact, I make it all the time.
If that sounds fancy, it’s really, really not. I make it all the time because it fits the 3 most important criteria for any working mom/cook:
- It’s fast.
- It’s easy.
- It’s really delicious.
It’s so easy that I’ve memorized the recipe, so simple that I almost always have the ingredients on hand, and so yummy that even my three year old never turns it down. It’s probably not great for your health, but we are in survival mode over here, ok people?!
The reason I felt compelled to include carbonara even though it’s basically old hat to me, is:
1. it’s a bold mouthful of food that always takes me back to sitting in a little trattoria in Rome. and
2. that the majority of people are making their carbonara wrong.
So I thought I would show how you too can have authentic carbonara in your own kitchen, with merely twenty minutes of effort. But first, let’s back up.
What is Carbonara Exactly?
I remember ordering spaghetti carbonara at a restaurant my freshman year of college and feeling quite fancy. It was full of rich white cream and little green peas. Fine, pretty tasty.
It wasn’t until I visited Italy years later that I realized what I thought was carbonara didn’t hold a candle to the real deal.
For starters, it was yellow.
Really yellow! And really delicious too: rich and robust, fatty and creamy, peppery and salty. It’s really the most perfect plate of pasta. Not a pea in sight.
From there well… I got a little bit obsessed. Especially when I learned how frighteningly easy it is to make.
To explain what carbonara is, let me first tell you what it isn’t. If you’ve had carbonara outside of Italy, whether at a restaurant, or from a recipe, there is a decent chance you were eating an imposter.
(Which isn’t to say what you had was bad by any means. I am not trying to be a food snob here. You can make and eat your pasta however you want. I implore you though- try the real thing just once!)
I ran a quick Pinterest search for Carbonara recipes, and I found a lot of “inauthentic” offerings out there. This is because carbonara is largely defined by what’s not in it:
It doesn’t have cream.
It doesn’t have chicken.
It doesn’t have peas (or garlic, or onions)
It doesn’t have thyme or mushrooms or zucchini.
Again, this is not to say any of these recipes are BAD or untasty. They just… aren’t carbonara. Real carbonara is hearty but uncluttered, simple and it doesn’t need extras. If you want chicken, eat it as a secondi. If you want veggies, make a side salad.
So what does go in carbonara? Just 5 simple ingredients (6 if you count salting the pasta water).
- Pasta- spaghetti or rigatoni are the most traditional, but really you can use whatever shape you want.
- Eggs– some recipes just use the yolks, some whole eggs, some, a combo.
- Pancetta or Guanciale– bacon will do in a pinch.
- Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese
That’s it. That’s all you need. The unique character of carbonara comes from how it’s cooked: the eggs melding together with the cheese, pig fat, and pasta water to form a delicious creamy emulsion that coats each piece of pasta. The contrast between that rich creamy sauce and the sharp salty pancetta and cheese. So simple, yet so perfect.
The Story of Carbonara
Where did this massively popular dish come from? While the history of Italian cooking stretches back centuries, carbonara is a solidly 20th century phenomenon.
As is our way, America tries to take credit for inventing carbonara. Common lore is that the dish was invented by American soldiers in Rome after WWII. Faced with a preponderance of eggs and ham, the soldiers mixed them together to basically make breakfast pasta.
This is probably not a true story. For one, it’s very silly, and for two, carbonara in one form or another predates the 1940s. It’s ancestor pasta cacio e uova, pasta dressed with melted lard, eggs and cheese, which was documented as early as 1839. It’s not hard to believe someone made the leap to tossing in some delicious meat and pepper in the hundred years before WWII.
But where carbonara came from, and where it got its name, is still unknown. The word carbonara coms from the word carbonaro, which means charcoal burner. That’s kind of random. One theory is that the flecks of pepper in the sauce look like coal flecks. Another is that the dish was first popularized by Ristorante La Carbonara in Rome (although they don’t seem to be claiming credit themselves). Theories abound, including one that pegs carbonara as Neopolitan, not even Roman!
In any case, we do know that while Americans didn’t invent carbonara, they definitely liked it. La Stampa, a prominent Italian paper, first mentioned the dish in 1950, as a Roman dish that was a favorite among American GIs. in 1954 it first appeared in a cookbook, Italian Food, by Elizabeth David and it’s been winding its way around the world ever since.
How did the peas worm their way into americanized carbonara? I truly have no idea, and nobody on the internet seems to know either. Maybe carbonara just looked too boring without a splash of green? Maybe it tricked people into feeling healthy about tucking into a plate of carbs and fat? It certainly wasn’t for the taste.
Making Pasta Carbonara
While we don’t know the exact origins of carbonara, it’s been widely accepted as a Roman classic, and that is without a doubt the best place to try the dish. Go to any halfway decent trattoria (Which is to say, get away from the tourist trap restaurants: stay away from anything in spitting distance of the Vatican, the Colosseum, or the Trevi Fountain), sit down, order, prepare to feel really really good about your life choices. (Need a more specific recommendation? I can vouch for the carbonara here, and here).
If you’re not headed to the eternal city anytime soon though, don’t despair: pasta carbonara is super easy to make even for not particularly chef-y people.
I’ll include a recipe below, but it’s good to remember that there is no standard carbonara recipe. Some chefs use more or less yolks, different shapes of pasta, or cheese in varying amounts. Some recipes make the sauce separately using a double boiler method, some just toss everything together (my preference). View this most like most Italian recipes: a set of guidelines to get you started. Make it your own.
For example, I usually make mine with rigatoni, not spaghetti, because spaghetti is really hard for toddlers to eat. I prefer pecorino to parmesan, but this time I went with parm b/c i always have a huge chunk in my fridge anyways.
I chose to make carbonara as one of the last meals in my sunny white Italian kitchen before we moved back to the states.
Adapted from Tasting Rome
Makes 4 hearty servings
- 8 oz guanciale, pancetta or bacon, cut into chunks or strips.
- 1 pound of pasta (rigatoni or spaghetti are most common)
- 4 large eggs
- 1.5 cups of grated parmesan or pecorino romano cheese ( personally prefer pecorino for its sharper bite)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Fry the guanciale, pancetta, or bacon in a large pan until it’s golden brown. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to a roiling boil. Salt the water. Add pasta and cook until al dente (don’t overcook the pasta, if anything, you want to slightly undercook it)
- While the pasta is boiling beat together the eggs, 1 cup cheese, and a generous pinch of pepper.
- Drain the pasta, reserve 1 cup of pasta water.
- Add the pasta to the pan with the pork. While stirring constantly, pour egg mixture into the pasta. Continue to stir, being careful not to let the eggs scramble, until pasta is fully coated in egg, cheese, and fat, and the sauce is thickened.. Add pasta water to thin as needed.
- Transfer to plates and top with remaining cheese and plenty of fresh pepper.
Carbonara is What You Want it to Be
I think at least part of carbonara’s popularity is due to its endless adaptability. Got two eggs and a pack of bacon in the fridge? You can have carbonara for dinner. But want to take it to the next level? How about:
- Carbonara pizza. We used to order this in Italy all the time. It’s a white pizza with the egg and cheese pizza baked right on top, sprinkled with crispy pancetta.
- Carbonara pie– we made this frittata at home and Marcella loved it. The leftovers were good too.
- Carbonara cocktails? According to Eating Rome, a bar in Rome called Co.So. serves a carbonara sour made with guanciale infused vodka. They have a recipe in the book if that sounds at all appetizing to you.
Want to go in the other direction and make life EVEN simpler? Check out cacio e pepi– a similar but even simpler pasta dish featuring just 3 ingredients: pasta, pecorino, and black pepper.
Whatever you do, just have fun with it. That’s the best part of Italian cooking after all.