Thursday, May 28, 2009

Crazy for Carbonara: An Italian Classic Gets a Reissue

I have a fondness for retro kitsch in the kitchen.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara was big in the 70’s, but like so many food trends of that decade, it seems to have vanished from the collective consciousness. Fondue, anyone? I think it’s time for a reissue of this simple classic. By simple I mean its preparation, not its flavor.

There are several theories on the origin of Spaghetti alla Carbonara, which loosely translated means, “in the manner of coal miners, ” or "coal miner's spaghetti." It’s rumored that the dish was created during World War II by the Italians when American servicemen were hungry for bacon and eggs. My favorite legend however, claims that it was a staple of the coal miner diet because its few and simple ingredients could easily be carried into the mines and they needed no refrigeration. A roaring campfire was all that was needed for a quick meal. The liberal use of black pepper in the dish is said to represent the flecks of coal that would fall onto the miner’s plates. Isn’t that a romantic notion?

The ingredients for spaghetti alla carbonara.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Serves 6

Kosher salt, for pasta water
1¼ pounds spaghetti
4 cloves garlic, smashed
3 tablespoons good olive oil
½ pound of thickly sliced pancetta, cut into ¼-inch cubes
¼ cup good dry white wine
2 large eggs*
1/3 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
¼ cup Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, grated
Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Bring a large pot of water to the boil and when it does, generously season the water with salt. Cook the spaghetti according to package directions, to al dente, about 12 minutes. Reserve a ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water.

Meanwhile, with the flat side of a butcher knife, smash the garlic cloves and place them in a medium sauté pan along with the olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute until the garlic turns golden, about 2 minutes. Remove the garlic and discard. Place the pancetta in the pan and cook until it begins to crisp around the edges, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and let the alcohol cook off, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

Meanwhile, crack the eggs into the bowl in which you’ll be serving the pasta. Beat them lightly with a fork and slowly whisk in the reserved pasta water. Add the cheeses and a generous grinding of black pepper, along with the parsley. Mix well.

Drain the spaghetti and immediately add to the bowl. Tip the pancetta into the bowl and toss well to coat. Serve immediately.

* If you’re concerned about using raw eggs, substitute ½ cup of pasteurized egg product for two large eggs.

Print Recipe


  1. This is pretty much exactly how I make the dish, but as a nice alternative, I sometimes only whisk in the whites and then place one yolk atop each serving and let the diner break it and mix it in themselves!

  2. This is probably one of my Top 5 comfort food. I absolutely love this dish. Thanks for sharing!