In the early days of university when I was dating my first boyfriend (three cheers for the late-bloomer!), we used to have our date nights at this bring-your-own wine joint called Eduardo’s. The place was – and by all accounts, still is – a frumpy little hole-in-the-wall on Duluth street, outfitted with the usual harbingers of bad Italian dining: red and white checkered tablecloths, droopy pothos plants, and a menu longer than your arm, with few dishes that would ever come close to anything from terra madre Italia (“Camberelli alla Créole” and “Surf n’ Turf alla Eduardo” are two classic gems apparently still on offer). In our defence, though, we were students without much in terms of disposable income, and the BYOB aspect guaranteed a cheap, loopy night out.
We also didn’t know a whole lot about food outside of our usual repertoire. At nineteen, I only knew how to make a half-dozen of dishes without a recipe: chicken cutlets in mustard sauce, microwave rice pilaf, tomato sauce, blueberry pancakes, minestrone, and the Moosewood Cookbook‘s banana bread, which I’d only learnt by heart after my boyfriend fell hard for its butter and espresso-laden crumb. It wasn’t a bad list of back-pocket recipes for an undergrad student, but it was still fairly limited. And the Italian food I grew up with – thanks to by mom’s side of the family – usually revolved around tomatoes, polenta, or hearty vegetable soups enriched with beans or lentils. In other words, nutritious, sustaining, paesano food from the Abrusso region. Dishes of the northern persuasion, from places like Lombardy and Emillia-Romagna, which tend to favour butter, eggs, cured meats, and abundant quantities of Parmigiano-Reggiano, were still very novel to me.
Which brings me to carbonara.
For better or for worse, I discovered carbonara (or, more accurately, its bastardised second-cousin) in that dingy dining room at Eduardo’s, sitting across from my college boyfriend, contentedly drinking 8$ table wine. It may not have been the ideal venue to have my first go at a venerated Italian classic, but as soon as I tucked into that hot mess of bacon, cream, egg and noodles, I knew I was in trouble. That dish – as far removed from the original recipe as it may have been – slayed me. In the way that a cheap grilled cheese or a good hot dog can still slay me.
Little did I know, the stuff that I’d happily twirled onto my fork all those years wasn’t carbonara. At least not in the traditional sense. And when I look back on it, Eduardo’s version was nothing more than a mound of cloying, overcooked, cream-laden spaghetti littered with nubs of cheap bacon, masquerading as “spaghetti alla carbonara”. It would be enough to throw any self-respecting food purist into a total fit.
Real carbonara would only come to my attention about five years later, in an issue of Gourmet magazine. By this point, my budding interest in food and cooking meant that I was starting to pay attention to the details. I became more aware of the differences between authentic recipes and their imposters. As for carbonara, Gourmet taught me the basics, notably that the original Roman version doesn’t have one drop of cream in it (which, it turns out, is a purely Anglo-American flourish). True Roman carbonara is actually quite simpler – cured pork jowl (guanciale) is diced and then rendered in a hot pan; some eggs are whisked together with sheep’s milk cheese (pecorino), a generous amount of black pepper, and a little of the cooking water from the spaghetti. The whole lot is then tossed into freshly cooked, al dente spaghetti. The final result is a loose mess of noodles slicked in a rich, flavourful sauce dotted with crispy, salty pork belly.
It’s simplicity at its best. The kind of food that makes you happy to be alive.
I hope you think so too.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara – serves 4
Note 1: since guanciale if often hard to find, you can substitute it with mild pancetta (just don’t tell any Roman purists). If using pancetta, add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil to the pan before rendering it – pancetta has less fat than guanciale, so you’ll need the oil to get things going.
Note 2: In a dish this pared-down, the quality of your ingredients is crucial. Make sure to use good eggs, the best guanciale or pancetta you can find, and real pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano (No knock-offs! No Kraft parmesan! Don’t piss off the carbonara gods!). Freshly ground pepper is a must too. It’s also worth mentioning that this dish is one of the few that doesn’t reheat well the next day, as the eggs tend to curdle when they come into contact with too much heat. It’s definitely a dish best eaten straight away (which, I suspect, won’t be a problem).
Note 3: Given that the eggs are undercooked in this recipe, most sources would recommend that you avoid serving it to children or anyone with a compromised immune system. (apparently, if you use good-quality, fresh eggs, the risk of salmonella-poisoning is lower than in commercial eggs, which are produced in confined environments where bacteria can spread more easily among chickens.)
- 4oz. medium-sliced pancetta (or ideally guanciale), cut into 1⁄2″ pieces
- 1¾ cups finely grated pecorino cheese (or Parmigiano-Reggiano)
- 1 egg, plus 3 yolks
- freshly cracked black pepper
- sea salt
- 1 lb. spaghetti
1) Start by bringing a large pot of water to boil (for the pasta). Salt the water once it comes to the boil (about 1-1 1/2 Tbsp) (I eyeball it, but just remember that the guanciale is salty).
2) Whisk together the egg (1) and yolks (3). Stir in 1½ cups of the cheese and mix to combine; add a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper (about 2 tsp). Set aside.
3) Heat a medium skillet or cast-iron pan over medium heat (add oil if using pancetta). Add guanciale (or pancetta) and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned (about 6–8 minutes).
4) Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 3⁄4 cup water; drain pasta and transfer to the pan with the cooked guanciale (or pancetta). Toss, then and it off the heat.
5) In a slow, steady stream*, add the 3/4 cup of pasta water to the egg/cheese mixture. Add to the pasta and toss to coat (the residual heat from the pasta will lightly “cook” the egg, without scrambling it). Transfer to a serving platter and season with salt and some more freshly ground black pepper; sprinkle with the remaining cheese and serve straight away.
*if you add the hot cooking water too quickly to the egg mixture, it will curdle. The slow, steady stream allows you to “temper” the egg mixture, ensuring that your sauce comes together smoothly. In other words, you want to avoid too much heat too quickly, or else you’ll end up with scrambled eggs.