Carbonara is another one of those Italian pastas that has evolved so far from its roots that some versions are downright repulsive. And it’s an interesting one to be huffy about evolutionary change as it is perhaps a result of “American intervention” to begin with… According to Marcella Hazan and other food writers, Carbonara was the result of American soldiers at the end of the war having bacon and eggs and asking the locals to turn it into a pasta sauce… the result is a classic carbonara with semi-raw eggs and lots of fried bacon and its grease. Throw on some cheese and you have a totally satisfying combination. I read somewhere else, possibly Saveur Magazine, that this was invented in the suburbs outside Rome when ingredients were scarce and you just had to make do with what you had on hand. For some reason, as the dish found its way back to America and beyond, cream was added to the equation so you now find a whole slew of versions which are swimming in a white creamy sauce.
Like Spaghetti Bolognese, carbonara is a very popular restaurant dish and more often than not, it sucks. I ordered it in downtown Rome in a fairly decent looking trattoria near the Spanish steps and this (second photo) near scrambled egg disaster emerged from the kitchens and I was mortified that I was staring at a lousy carbonara right in the heart of Rome! My wife’s Roman cousins prepared the version photographed up top served with penne or similar tubular pasta… it was excellent and extremely true to form, I think. With just egg, guanciale, lots of black pepper and cheese — it was made seconds before being plated and served. The key is to make the eggs coat the noodles but not to cook and scramble the eggs. It should be silky, salty and delicious.
Back home in Manila, my wife is on a Roman cooking streak and has gladly made her version (third photo, here) which is very close to the Roman preparation. She again heads to Marcella Hazan as her guide and creates a delicious version with our stocks of guanciale, parmigiano reggiano and pecorino romano. To make, sauté 250 grams of sliced guanciale or good bacon (not overly sweet bacon), add a few cloves of slightly smashed garlic and fry. Remove the garlic when golden. When the guanciale is cooked and starting to brown at the edges, add 1/4 cup of white wine and stir for a minute and turn off the heat. Meanwhile, boil the water for boiling the pasta in and when it reaches a boil, add a tablespoon of salt to the water. When it returns to a boil, add the pasta (spaghetti, linguine or penne, though Marcella says only spaghetti). In a large bowl, crack 2 large or 3 small organic eggs (organic ensures the yellowest yolks) and beat them a little with a fork. Add about a cup total of parmigiano reggiano and/or pecorino romano. We use half and half of each. Add some chopped Italian parsley and lots of freshly cracked black pepper. Mix this up with a fork. Re-heat the bacon if necessary. When the pasta is cooked, drain it but reserving some of the pasta water. Wait a minute (this step is CRITICAL) before adding the pasta to the egg mixture and mixing quickly. Add the bacon and toss some more and serve hot with more pecorino and parmesan cheese. Add a little pasta water only if it seems overly dry. If you put the noodles in too soon, you will end up with curdled or scrambled eggs on noodles like in the second photo above. This is one of the all-time favorite pastas in our house! If eating out, I only order this at Margarita Fores’ Pepato restaurant in Greenbelt.