It’s a classic image: a Roman trattoria. Check tablecloth and a carafe of local white wine. A steaming plate of heart-warming yet somehow sinful, sensuous carbonara. So let’s start here, because we need some kind of benchmark, and Rome is the only place qualified to provide that benchmark. This is carbonara heartland. Quite clearly, we are for once outside Sicily. Equally clearly, we are in Rome, but let’s try and be more precise, so …
Where? – Romans themselves of course disagree about the best place to try carbonara, just as Italians in general will disagree about the best place to try anything, or indeed whether it’s worth trying in the first place. Nevertheless, one name that often crops up as a purveyor of carbonara perfection is Perilli. Perilli also happens to be the epitome of an old-school Roman trattoria (so much so that it doesn’t have its own website), with reassuring, avuncular middle-aged waiters, a rarity these days, and a reminder of the fact that waiting in Italy is, or at least was, an honourable, life-long profession. Perilli, like two other frequently mentioned temples of classic Roman cooking, Lo Scopettaro and Flavio al Velavevodetto, is in Testaccio, the pulsing heart of old Rome, with fewer tourists and much of the best traditional food. Other popular carbonara locations are Roscioli, Sora Lella and Pipero (although the latter is more of a chic outfit and lacks the typical Roman trattoria atmosphere). This is of course just a small selection, and almost every Roman will have their own favourite, quite possibly a trattoria down some shady side street frequented by locals. I should here mention another institution, La Campana suggested to me by friend and fellow food-blogger Claudia (check out her stylish blog at centopresine.it), which started serving up food back in 1518. It claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world, with famous habitués including Caravaggio, Goethe and Federico Fellini. I too can personally vouch for its carbonara, although am well aware that its being recommended by Caravaggio probably carries a touch more weight.
Carbonara doesn’t need any qualification, or even translation. This is an institution. It requires the definite article. This is not just carbonara; this is la carbonara. Nevertheless, it is much maligned even here in Italy, and finding a decent carbonara outside Rome (or Lazio at least), is not as easy as you would imagine. As for the treatment it gets abroad, there seems to be no limit to the torture it is subjected to. Of course, being in Italy, exactly what the recipe should be is itself a matter for heated debate. After years of sacrificing my waistline in research, I have settled on a purist version, based on those you will find in Rome’s most traditional trattorias.
Origins – The strange thing is that despite its iconic status, carbonara may actually be a fairly recent addition to the country’s cuisine, introduced during the Second World War after the liberation of Rome in 1944. One theory, in fact, is that it was invented to cater to the tastes of American soldiers, or even by the soldiers themselves, since (dried) eggs and bacon were two of the ingredients the soldiers had in their rations. In support of this theory is also the fact that carbonara does not appear in any Italian recipe books until after World War II. This would also explain why pancetta/bacon is considered by many, possibly most, people as an acceptable or even preferable alternative to guanciale. It would also justify the terrible carbonaras served up all over the place. Any dish whose origins involve a) American soldiers, b) tinned bacon and c) dried egg powder may understandably invite a liberal interpretation. One imagines no variant could be much worse than the original itself, if that’s what the original was. We’re not exactly talking Timbale de ris de veau Toulousaine.
Another, more convincing theory is that it developed from a hearty dish invented by charcoal workers (carbonari in local dialect), who needed something quick, cheap and hearty to get them through their long hours away from home, using local ingredients they would usually have at hand. Some, meanwhile, suggest it is an evolution of cacio e ova, a traditional pasta dish based on eggs and pecorino cheese, possibly originating in Naples.
Even the reason for the name is unclear, unless you espouse the charcoal worker theory, which covers this as well as the origins. But if you favour American or Neapolitan ancestry, you still have to explain why it’s called carbonara. Some say as a tribute to the Carbonari, a 19th-century secret society (although their connection to the dish eludes me), others that it quite simply comes from carbone, i.e. ‘coal, charcoal’ because of the huge amounts of black pepper used in its preparation (and found on the underside of the guanciale).
Fact is, nobody actually knows. For what it’s worth, I go for the charcoal worker theory, which not only explains the traditional origin of the dish and its name, but also why Roman purists insist on guanciale. I do suspect there may be something worth salvaging from the other version too, however. We know that carbonara became especially popular during Allied occupation and can imagine that all the trattorias started serving it to cater for the troops’ tastes. Perhaps quite a few started to substitute bacon/pancetta for guanciale for the same reason. Its sudden boom in popularity and omnipresence after the war would thus be due to the Americans, even though the dish itself already existed.
What exactly are we talking about? – The Romans have very definite rules about carbonara, and can be emphatic about them, just as Neapolitans can be about pizza. They have a point: it’s not about stopping people from experimenting, it’s about safeguarding tradition. If others want to create something different, fine; just don’t call it carbonara. Why should Italy’s culinary reputation be compromised by others hijacking recipe names and then applying them to dishes that bear no resemblance to the original? Any Brit who has been served an “English breakfast” in a hotel in Italy will know what I mean. We don’t have much of a culinary reputation to defend as it is, so when presented with an “English breakfast” composed of a minuscule hot dog sausage, scrambled eggs you can cut into blocks, and even – I speak from bitter experience – cold tomatoes and lettuce, we naturally take umbrage. Of course an English breakfast admits variations, but there are still some basic dos and don’ts. Bacon yes; salad leaves no, for example. Similarly, the ‘way of la carbonara’ requires certain rules to be respected. Not least regarding the pasta itself.The pasta – In Rome you may find tonnarelli, a fresh pasta resembling spaghetti. But dried spaghetti and rigatoni are also, indeed mainly, used. That’s it. Don’t even consider penne, fusilli, or god forbid, farfalle. If you prefer long pasta, spaghetti is fine, but thicker types are better (spaghetti grossi, spaghettoni, vermicelli). I personally prefer rigatoni, which are big enough to trap scraps of guanciale inside. Perilli, Lo Scopettaro, Flavio al Velavevodetto and Roscioli all use rigatoni for their carbonara too, so I’m in good company. Having said that, I used spaghetti for some of the photos, not least because they show off the creamy sauce to better advantage.
The pork, the eggs and the cheese – And that brings us on to the second ingredient, guanciale. Even in Rome you will find some use smoky pancetta affumicata, but purists, especially if they don’t buy into the GI Joe origins of the dish, will turn up their noses. Not bacon, not pancetta. Only guanciale. Only guanciale’s unctuous fattiness will do. ‘Only’ is a word you’ll be seeing a lot in this post. Only (told you) egg yolks, not whole eggs – we’re not making an omelette. And only pecorino romano cheese. Some Romans, including a number of top chefs, actually prefer a milder pecorino-parmesan mix. But I’m with the fundamentalists here. Pecorino only, for the authentic kick. I don’t want my carbonara toned down. If you must, just go for a mild pecorino, but resist the temptation to change cheese.
The don’ts – But perhaps most important of all is what you DON’T put in. No cream, for a start. The time-honoured grand-dame of Italian cookery magazines, La Cucina Italiana, goes so far as to call the addition of cream an ‘aberration’. If you follow the recipe properly, the sauce will be beautifully silky anyway; cream just makes it dense and heavy. And polluting a carbonara with garlic is like putting tomato ketchup on caviar: not only crass but a gastronomic crime. The fact that the recipe suggested by an authority such as the Accademia della Cucina Italiana no less, suggests garlic, as well as olive oil, and whole eggs, has no doubt made the hackles rise on the back of many a Roman neck. Not least because the Accademia is based in Milan, and suspicions that their recipe is an attempt at sabotaging a Roman dish may understandably have crossed a few minds. As for other additions, such as onions, parsley, and mushrooms, all of which I have sadly witnessed, they are abominations that, as Lady Bracknell would have put it, remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. The addition of peas or broccoli may well be a hanging offence in Rome, which only seems fair.
The quantities – One thing that even those who agree on the basic ingredients and procedure differ on is quantities. Some use as little as 20g of guanciale per person, some up to 60g. Some use as little as 15g of pecorino a portion, others as much as 50g. And the proportions are not always constant either – those who use more guanciale do not necessarily use more pecorino, and vice versa. Again, my proportions are the result of extensive self-sacrifice and experimentation, and naturally of personal taste. The only thing I would say is that this is by no means a light dish for calorie counters. If it deserves to be cooked, you deserve to enjoy it to the full. So either avoid it altogether, or do it properly. The only compromise I ever consider is scaling down the portion size.
The details that make the difference – Now that we’ve ‘only’-ed our way through the ingredients, a couple of other points. Starting with the quality of those ingredients. With so few, it pays to aim high. If you can get it, use bronze-extruded artisanal pasta, which has a slightly dusty, rough looking finish, rather than the shiny smooth industrial stuff. This will make a huge difference not only in taste and texture, but to the silkiness of the sauce. Add free-range eggs, or even better, eggs from a local farmer. Sourcing top-notch guanciale and pecorino, especially the former, may be more difficult, so it’s worth hunting down a good deli. Even if you use the best ingredients available, this is not an expensive dish. Just to give you an idea, I used locally produced farmyard eggs and artisanal guanciale, artisanal pasta, and the best pecorino romano I could find, all bought in the city’s most renowned salumeria, with prices to match. And despite what might seem like a strategy aimed at turning a cheap dish into an expensive treat, the final cost still came in at only €2.80 a portion, i.e. about £2.50. If I’d shopped around or had gone to a well-stocked supermarket I probably could have brought that down to €2. Not bad for the best carbonara you are ever likely to eat this side of Rome.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite… Time, finally, to get down to the actual preparation. When you cut the guanciale into 1 cm slabs, it might seem too thick. Thick like the bread component of a doorstep bacon sarnie rather than its filling. But trust me. The thick cut is for two reasons. First, guanciale loses copious amounts of fat when cooked, so will shrink considerably. Second, despite weight loss (the guanciale’s, not yours, sorry), we still want the chunks to retain some substance. Slightly crisp on the outside, succulent inside is what we’re aiming for, so that when you bite into it, it resists slightly before exploding meltingly, filling your mouth with what one Roman Michelin-starred chef calls its “sexy fat”, as an “erotic, seductive aroma” fills the air. I’ve always said so: pork brings out the best in people.
On a more prosaic level, we turn to salt. Just add a touch to the pasta water, but not to the eggs or at any other stage of the recipe. The guanciale and pecorino provide quite enough. Moreover, the salty pasta water is itself one of the ingredients.Second, remember to do the final amalgamation of the sauce off the heat – you want a creamy coating, not scrambled eggs. The guanciale fat and pasta water help achieve the consistency you’re looking for; think along the lines of loose hollandaise. If your eggs stubbornly remain raw, then finish over the lowest heat your hob can muster, and work with a watchful eye until ready, which will probably take less than a minute. Once the eggs have cooked too much there’s no turning back. Dose heat, guanciale fat, and pasta water as necessary. The finishing of the dish is admittedly the part that requires most concentration, but it’s not nearly as hard as it might sound. Once you’ve tried, even only once, you will instinctively know what is needed. And even if you do slightly overcook the eggs first time round, console yourself with the thought that the final result is still probably much better than 95% of the world’s other carbonaras.
To be eaten as soon as it’s ready, steamy and silky, salty and creamy, washed down with a chilled Italian white.
- 200 g pasta – either short and robust (preferably rigatoni, but at a push tortiglioni), or long and fairly thick (spaghetti, but even better the thicker spaghettoni or vermicelli, presuming you can’t find tonnarelli)
- 120 g guanciale, peppery skin and rind removed, cut into 1 cm cubes. In practical terms, this will probably mean one 1-cm slice of guanciale. If insufficient, just get two slices, and fry up lardons of any surplus until crisp to give flavour to soups, other pasta dishes, omelettes, quiches, or even salads Or of course, say “to hell with it”, as you add any extra guanciale to your pasta.
- 3 egg yolks
- 50 g grated pecorino, plus a couple of tablespoons to serve
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Put a large pan of water on to boil for the pasta. Use a non-stick variety, for reasons that will become clear in steps 5 and 6.
- Fry the guanciale in a non-stick pan over a medium heat. Do not use any oil; just let it sizzle in the fat it releases. Turn frequently to avoid burning, and spoon off (but reserve) the abundant fat that will be released. Once golden brown on all sides, spoon the guanciale onto a plate with kitchen roll to absorb any excess fat and help keep it crisp. Snaffle a cube or two.
- In the meantime, the water should come to the boil. When it does, salt lightly and add the pasta.
- Prepare the eggs, beating them together with the cheese, a generous amount of freshly ground pepper and one tablespoon of cold water (sparkling mineral water for preference).
- When the pasta is al dente, scoop off a cupful of the pasta water, then drain the pasta and put back in the pan, off the heat. Stir in half the guanciale, a tablespoonful of the reserved guanciale fat and two tablespoons of the reserved pasta water, then add the egg and cheese mixture.
- Still off the heat, fold the pasta into the sauce to coat well using a large metal spoon (or your best Masterchef toss-in-the-pan-with-a-flick-of-the-wrist technique), and continue until a silky consistency is achieved. As said, depending on the type and quantity of pasta used, it may be necessary to heat gently, and very briefly, over the lowest possible flame, and/or to add a spoonful or two more of pasta water. Either way, make sure you continue to turn the pasta over in the sauce, and to stop when the latter is clearly no longer raw, but is nevertheless still light, fluid and silky.
- Spoon the pasta onto plates, then top with the remaining crispy guanciale, some more pecorino, and another good twist or two from the pepper mill.