Yummy, creamy, bacony, Spaghetti Carbonara, is the mac n cheese of Italian pasta dishes. Interestingly, the origins of this popular dish are not clearly understood. In fact, its’ provenance is the subject of intense debate in Italy.
I was raised believing that the dish was named for the “Carbonari,” (Italian coal miners of the Apennines) who invented it, as all good dishes are invented, out of necessity. The story goes that the Carbonari created this yummy lunch based on the foodstuffs that were easily transportable and preparation that was simple.
First, a clarification. “Carbonari” are not coal miners in the American or English definition–they make coal by burning wood, not by mining the earth below ground (where obviously cooking a pasta dish–even one as straightforward as Carbonara would prove impossible).
It is imaginable that these Italian coal makers, carried with them dried pasta, pancetta, eggs, and hard cheese. As they were making coal they had fire already and the means of cooking at their disposal. I guess they carried a pasta pot and water with them as well? I like to envision these blackened men hunched over a wood fire making their communal lunch in the forest then taking a pisolino against a tree before finishing their day’s labor.
While the story is romantic and plausible, it has some holes.
An alternative narrative is that Pasta Carbonara is a dish invented in Rome after the liberation of that city in 1944. Similarities between Carbonara and the classic Roman pasta dish “Amatriciana” are obvious. Carbonara is an eggy version of Amatriciana (substituting the tomatoes with eggs). Therefore it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe a talented Roman woman invented it when entertaining an American soldier bearing eggs and bacon from his rations. Copious amounts of black pepper are added to the dish, giving the dish a blackened surface, might explain the name?
However the dish came about, due to the clever Carbonari or the clever Roman woman, I am forever grateful that the dish exits. Nothing is as wonderfully satisfying as the creaminess provided by whole eggs (and extra yolks) with the addition of Parmigiano and pecorino. The sweet and salty base of onions cooked in rendered bacon fat brings the dish to the point of exquisite lusciousness. Carbonara gilds the pasta with richness in every bite.
And all that gloriousness can be created in the time it takes to boil the pasta water and cook the spaghetti.
Always use spaghetti, never other shaped pasta. I prefer to use thinner spaghettini–I believe the narrower pasta hold together in the sauce and are better at carrying the sauce to the mouth.
Makes 4-5 servings as a primo piatto
5 oz of good quality American bacon, chopped roughly
1 Small onion chopped finely
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 lb thin spaghetti
2 eggs plus 2 egg yolk
½ ounce Romano cheese freshly grated
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese freshly grated
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste
pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional) Directions
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil.
Cut the pancetta or bacon into strips not quite 1/4-inch wide.
Chop the onion finely.
Add olive oil in a skillet and turn the heat to medium-high.
Add chopped pieces of bacon in the pan allow the fat to render, about 3 minutes.
Add onion to the pan, cook with bacon until onion goes from transparent to slightly colored edges and the bacon begins to crisp a little. Turn the heat off.
Add the spaghetti to the boiling water, and cook until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain.
While the pasta is cooking:
Break the eggs into the serving bowl in which you’ll be tossing the pasta. Beat them thoroughly with a fork, then add the Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, a liberal grinding of pepper, pinch of nutmeg, and the chopped parsley (if using). Mix thoroughly.
Turn heat back on beneath bacon mixture, listen for it to sizzle.
Add the spaghetti to the bowl and toss rapidly, coating the strands well. Add bacon and onion mixture to the pasta bowl, turning the entire contents of the pan into the bowl of spaghetti and toss thoroughly again.
Serve at once.0