Among Rome’s Greatest Contributions to Civilization…

…is Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

There are a number of competing theories surrounding the origin of Spaghetti alla Carbonara. Although this dish forms part of a Roman repertoire of dishes involving pasta with cured pork, cheese, and pepper (including spaghetti alla gricia or cacio e pepe), the name may in fact have derived from a dish made by woodcutters in Abruzzo who made charcoal for fuel.  Other more probable theories given the meaning of “alla carbonara” – coal worker’s style – are that the dish was eaten by coal workers or that the abundant use of coarsely ground black pepper resembles coal dust. Yet another story is that food shortages after Rome’s liberation in 1944 were so severe that Allied troops distributed military rations consisting of powdered eggs and bacon which the local population rehydrated with water to season the easily stored dried pasta.

There are hundreds of different recipes for Carbonara out there and although a simple dish, it has admittedly taken me years to nail it.  I use only egg yolks in my version and save the whites for a guilt-free breakfast the next day!   

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

From Majella Home Cooking

Serves 4 as a main course or 6 as a first course

1 lb spaghetti
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/4 lb diced pancetta
3 egg yolks whisked with 1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmigiano-Reggiano) plus more for sprinkling at the end
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook spaghetti according to package instructions minus one minute. Add olive oil to a wide, deep sauté pan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and cook until it starts to color, about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat. While the pasta is cooking, add 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water to the egg yolk and cheese mixture and whisk immediately to combine. Reserve another 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water and set aside. When you are ready to drain the pasta, set the pan that contains the pancetta over medium heat, and add the drained pasta and reserved 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water. Using tongs, stir to combine and allow to bubble away until the water has evaporated, about one minute, and turn off the heat. This next step has to happen quickly or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs! Add the egg yolk and cheese mixture to the pasta and with tongs, toss very quickly and vigorously until the spaghetti are completely coated. Add salt, lots of freshly-ground black pepper and more cheese. Serve immediately. Buon appetito!

My Extra Two Cents – In Rome, the dish is traditionally made with guanciale, cured pork jowl, but pancetta works just as well. I’ve used bacon before, but I personally think it’s too greasy and the smokiness overpowers the flavor.  Use very fresh eggs since they are only cooked by the residual heat at the end.  Pecorino Romano is the cheese of choice in Rome, but Parmigiano-Reggiano works as well and is my personal preference.

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9 thoughts on “Among Rome’s Greatest Contributions to Civilization…

  1. Antonette January 26, 2013 at 5:29 pm Reply

    Best carbonara we have had (an tasted quite a few when in Rome) is at a little out of the way place behind Piazza Navona called Trattoria da Francesco…authentic Roman, which mostly all the locals go and which we go to every time we are in Rome!! A funny story to share..growing up my Mom always thought we needed to be “well nourished” and would give us a “zabaglione” type of egg drink which would also include alittle amaretto liquor to give it alittle taste but for me this didn’t help much..up to this day I still smell that egg yolk whenever I cook anything with eggs so when making the carbonara I will get everything ready… chopping the guanciale (which I personally take back from Italy) or I use pancetta when my stock has ran out and I separate the egg yolks from the egg white etc.. and then I let my husband take it from this point because I cannot see the egg yolk being mixed in with the pasta or I will not be able to eat the carbonara because my mind takes me back to that “zabaglione” memory!!! I also use bucatini sometimes and sphaghetti alla ghittara…will give your version a try which I’m sure will be delicious!! Love reading your posts, there is always an “AHA” moment for me which takes me back to my food and travel adventures!! Thanks Michelle!! 🙂

    • Majella Home Cooking January 26, 2013 at 5:12 pm Reply

      Antonette, that is too funny!! I love that! I had an amazing Carbonara at Flavio Velavevodetto in the Testaccio neighborhood of Rome. They actually use rigatoni rather than spaghetti (and I completely agree with you that thicker cuts such as bucatini or chitarra are best) which worked very well with the condimento and is supposedly traditional in some parts of Rome. I was tempted to use Instagram on the photo that I posted in order to give it the same deep golden hue as the dish I had in Rome, but thought it would be disingenuous! There is no way to achieve that color with the eggs in the States – those vivid orange yokes in Italy are really something special. Thank you for your kind words. I love that this recipe brought back that memory. I hope you’ll share the blog with friends and relatives who also love Italian food and culture!

  2. The High Heel Gourmet January 26, 2013 at 8:17 pm Reply

    Love love love carbonara made this way! I just had an argument with a friend about the traditional Italian Carbonara that made without heavy cream VS the French vision made with heavy cream and I’m going to send her to this page.

    I’m following your blog hoping that in the future you will post some Sicilian recipe. 🙂 Sicilian is my favorite region of Italy when it comes to food.

    • Majella Home Cooking January 26, 2013 at 9:34 pm Reply

      I agree! Heavy cream has no place in Carbonara! My mother was born is Sicily so I have an arsenal of Sicilian recipes and will certainly share. Thanks for the follow!

  3. travelgardeneat January 27, 2013 at 5:49 pm Reply

    My husband makes it this way, as well, and I posted your recipe to my Pinterest pasta board for future reference as he may need to tweak his version further. I am craving a bowl of it now! ~ Kat

    • Majella Home Cooking January 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm Reply

      Thanks, Kat! I don’t know whether it’s cold in your part of the world, but it’s frigid here in NYC…perfect for this kind of homey, comforting dish! — Michelle

      • travelgardeneat January 27, 2013 at 11:18 pm

        We are just coming off a string of sub-zero temps in northern MN so still have comfort food cravings! ~ Kat

  4. Adri February 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm Reply

    Oh dear! I am so sorry to hear you have been ill. I hope you are well on the road to recovery. Your carbonara sounds fab!

    • Majella Home Cooking February 26, 2013 at 3:45 pm Reply

      Grazie, Adri! Between being away last week and coming home sick, I haven’t stepped foot in the kitchen in what feels like a lifetime! I need to cook!

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