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Carbonara: Secrets of a Perfect Dish

Who invented Rome's classic pasta recipe spaghetti alla carbonara? More important, what's the trick to making a perfect batch? A culinary potboiler by CAROLE LALLI.

A just-tossed plate of warm pasta, golden with an eggy sauce clinging to the strands, fragrant with freshly grated cheese, and studded here and there with glistening, rosy bits of cured pork: This is spaghetti alla carbonara. Like so many dishes in the Italian canon, it has humble origins and—similar to a well-cut suit from a skilled tailor—is as swell as it is simple. At first look, carbonara elicits little intellectual curiosity. Instead, the senses conspire to set off a neuroelectric chain reaction resulting in not so much a thought as a command from the brain: Pick up the fork!

Once the plate is polished off, however, the mind is free to contemplate the now disappeared meal. Amid the wave of culinary innovation that has recently swept through Italy, carbonara has remained a popular staple. This most traditional of preparations can be found on restaurant menus up and down the peninsula as well as around the world. But where is it from? Who created it? And how should it be made? The region of Lazio, especially the city of Rome, claims carbonara as its own, and it is certainly ubiquitous there, showing up in every sort of public eating place, from tiny hole-in-the-wall trattorias to white-tablecloth ristoranti. But unlike, say, fettucine Alfredo, which no one denies was created by Alfredo Di Lelio and is still served in his namesake restaurants in Rome, carbonara's exact birthplace and original recipe are less definite.

One of the most compelling clues to its provenance comes from the name. Many believe the dish was invented by carbonai—a carbonaio is a man who makes charcoal, or carbone—who for centuries worked in the Apennine Mountains near the city. In the old days, carbonai camped outdoors for months at a time and brought most of the ingredients for carbonara with them. Cheese, cured pork, olive oil, salt, pepper, and pasta kept fresh without refrigeration and eggs were readily available at local farms. All that was needed was a pot and a campfire. An eyewitness account supporting this theory can be found in a cookbook I edited, Sophia Loren's Recipes & Memories. The actress describes how during the filming of Two Women in the late fifties, in the mountains a few hours from Rome, the crew came upon a group of carbonai who offered to prepare the dish for them. The director, Vittorio De Sica, and Loren had second helpings, and she returned the next day to take notes as the men assembled the dish. (An accomplished home cook, Loren claims the recipe is verbatim. But while the results are first-rate, her rendition calls for cream—an addition most carbonara connoisseurs would not abide.)

Another connection to carbonai and the mountains close to Rome can be found at Ristorante La Carbonara, which dominates a flank of Rome's Campo de' Fiori. The original restaurant, Il Carbonaro, was established in 1912 by a coal salesman, one Federico Salomone, who had plenty of contact with the region's carbonai. It's no coincidence that penne alla carbonara is the establishment's signature dish. Roberto Cavezza, a longtime waiter at La Carbonara, makes the point that even if it wasn't invented by charcoalmakers, the dish is typical of the fare in rural areas where they worked: "It's a dish for people who couldn't make a meal with primo, secondo, and contorno [courses]—something for those who couldn't spend much money on food."

Not far from the Campo de' Fiori, in a pretty 17th-century building, is the Ristorante Vecchia Roma, which also serves carbonara. The proprietor, Antonio Palladino, reinforces the rural theory: "It is not refined," he says. "It is common...of the people—a country dish." Over in the Testaccio neighborhood, Checchino dal 1887's Elio Mariani, a keeper of old Roman meat-based dishes, adds, "It comes from a peasant dish that was called unto e uova [fat and eggs]. Originally it was made with lard and eggs, then, in time, guanciale supplanted the lard. It was a little more flavorful and less greasy."

But there is another popular tale of the dish's origin that begins with the Allied occupation of Italy during World War II. In this version, American GIs brought their rations of bacon and eggs to the many locals who, because of the shortage of fuel, cooked over communal charcoal braziers on the streets of Rome. The innovative chefs whipped together the ingredients with a little local cheese and pasta, and a classic was born.

The story is heartwarming but probably apocryphal for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that many older Romans remember eating carbonara before the war. And if there was one thing the Greatest Generation complained about, it was the powdered eggs they received as part of their rations. Still, legends die hard, even for such an estimable scholar as the late Alan Davidson, author of The Oxford Companion to Food, who offered a curious mix of information in his spaghetti alla carbonara entry. Davidson found the carbonai theory "implausible"; he thought the dish was "invented in 1944 as a result of the American occupation troops having their lavish rations of eggs and bacon prepared by local cooks." But at the same time, he described the dish as being made with pancetta or guanciale.

Davidson was accurate on the ingredients, which should be enough to discredit the American connection to spaghetti alla carbonara, as the dish is not made with bacon as we know it. Although pancetta comes from the belly (pancia) of the pig—the very place bacon originates—the two meats are quite different. Pancetta, which is usually rolled into a cylindrical shape and tied like a thick sausage, is cured with salt, gently spiced, and air-dried. It has a more subtle flavor and silkier texture than bacon, which is smoked. (Guanciale is also salt-cured, but it is made from pig's cheeks.)

Perhaps the soldier story gained credence because it helped explain why bacon was called for in recipes for carbonara in English-language cookbooks. The phenomenon of serious international home cooking in the United States began soon after the war, but the availability of authentic ingredients often lagged behind the enthusiasm of practitioners. In fact, until quite recently pancetta was hard to find outside major urban centers. Few cookbook writers mentioned that bacon was to be used in place of the real thing, let alone what the real thing was.

On the meat issue then, the only plausible area of debate might be over which salt-cured part of the pig, pancetta or guanciale, is the more authentic ingredient for subtly flavoring this modest dish. Here there is little consensus. At La Carbonara, guanciale, with its deeper taste, is preferred over pancetta. But in Palladino's opinion, a fifty-fifty combination of pancetta and guanciale would provide "a true carbonara."

If we can settle on pancetta or guanciale as the legitimate pork element, with eggs as irrefutable to create a sauce, the third principal ingredient for carbonara is the cheese. Two of Italy's great hard cheeses are used, often in combination: pecorino Romano, the sheep's-milk cheese made in Lazio and Sardinia, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, the magnificent cow's-milk cheese from Emilia-Romagna. Based on history and style, one might argue that pecorino alone be used. Less expensive and sharper flavored, it seems nicely suited to this hearty dish with its rural and Roman background (sheep's-milk cheeses have been made there since ancient days). Mariani of Checchino is firm on the cheese question; along with guanciale, Checchino's admirable rendition includes pecorino Romano only. "This is a traditional, original recipe that my family has been making for more than eighty years," he says.

If there is any latitude on the cheese, the same cannot be said for cream, which mysteriously appears in some recipes. On this Romans are united. Ask Palladino of Vecchia Roma and the response is as adamant as from anyone else: "No, no. Never. Never!" A well-made carbonara does have a creamy texture, which is obtained by beating the eggs and carefully tossing the pasta with them. (It is possible that some misguided cooks have attempted to reproduce the effect by adding cream.)

The final step is putting it all together. At La Carbonara, the drained pasta is returned to the pot, the eggs and a bit of the cooking water are added, and the mixture is stirred vigorously over the heat. (This is a tricky technique as the eggs can overcook. First-timers may want to do this off the heat.) Either way, the secret is to thoroughly mix the eggs before you add them to the pasta. From there the rest is simple: Get the plates to the table pronto and let the senses take charge.


PASTA PERFECTION: SPAGHETTI CARBONARA

The version of spaghetti alla carbonara I make at home is based on a handful of others, in particular those found in Fred Plotkin's The Authentic Pasta Book and Sophia Loren's Recipes & Memories (though she calls for cream, which I omit). For an extra-creamy preparation, I sometimes use penne instead of spaghetti. I also often use guanciale in place of pancetta. Try it if you can find it. In the past, I added Parmigiano-Reggiano, but the determined voices of Roman cooks have convinced me that this dish should be made only with pecorino Romano, the legendary cheese of the region.

1/4 POUND PANCETTA
2 TABLESPOONS EXTRA-VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
4 EXTRA-LARGE EGGS
1 EGG YOLK
2 TABLESPOONS FRESHLY GRATED PECORINO ROMANO CHEESE, PLUS MORE FOR SERVING
FRESHLY GROUND BLACK PEPPER
SALT
1 POUND SPAGHETTI

Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Cut the pancetta into 1/2-inch dice. Set a medium skillet over moderately high heat. Pour in the olive oil and then add the pancetta. Cook until the pancetta is lightly colored and some of the fat has been rendered; the pancetta should remain soft. Drain off some of the fat if there seems to be an excessive amount.

Meanwhile, in a bowl, vigorously whisk the eggs with the egg yolk. Beat in the cheese and a generous pinch of pepper.

When the water comes to a boil, add a big pinch of salt and the spaghetti. Cook until the spaghetti is barely al dente, then drain. Return the spaghetti to the pot. Add the eggs and pancetta and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the spaghetti is evenly coated. Add more cheese and pepper if desired and serve at once. Pass a bowl of grated cheese at the table.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.