The Mystery of Pasta alla Carbonara

The Mystery of Pasta alla Carbonara

One of my favorite dishes to make for myself or for others is spaghetti alla carbonara, made in the traditional Roman way i.e. eggs, guanciale, pecorino cheese – no cream!

But there is a bit of mystery around the origin of this dish, because even though it’s associated with la cucina romana, it turns out that it could have come from Abruzzo.  Or Naples.  Or the Lazio countryside. 

Did it come from Abruzzo?

The name, alla carbonara, means coal worker’s style.  Again, it is not clear if the name came from the coal workers eating it or from the coal workers making it.  (One assumes they then also ate it, of course.)

In favor of the Abruzzo origin, we have the woodcutters in the Apennine mountains who made charcoal for fuel who would cook the dish over a charcoal fire, making a pasta dish with eggs and cheese. (Note: sources refer to these as “easy to transport” but I don’t consider raw eggs easy to transport!) And in Abruzzo, the terms “carbonada” means pancetta, salted pork that is cooked on coals. So we have the carbonada (pancetta) and the carbonari (coal workers) to support this carbonara theory.

The Naples Connection

Or did it come from Naples, where, unique among Italian regional dishes, it is common to season some dishes by adding beaten egg, cheese, and pepper to the cooked dish. This obviously was used even before it was mentioned as early as 1837 in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s theoretical-practical cooking treatise. Of course, this version seems to be missing the guanciale.

Or is Rome its birthplace?

Now back to Rome.  Since the dish was not mentioned in the classic Roman cookbook by Ada Boni in 1930, it is thought that it appeared after 1944 when bacon appeared in the Roman markets, brought by the allied troops.  It is hypothesized that the idea came to Roman chefs and cooks from seeing American soldiers mix their bacon and eggs with spaghetti, and since food items were in short supply, they adapted what was available -powdered eggs and smoked bacon – to make an Italian dish.

Related to this is the possibility that during the occupation of Rome by the Germans in WWII, the middle-class families escaped from Rome to the countryside of Lazio where they came into contact with this dish. They then took it back to Rome with them, and of course were able to get the ingredients as mentioned above.  Is this why one could use either guanciale or pancetta in the recipe?

And even though it may seem logical or romantic to attribute it La Carbonara restaurant in Rome, they deny any connection to it originating there!

And finally…

What this means for me is that I won’t be as picky as to whether I eat it in Rome or not, but I will continue to be picky about making it with only traditional ingredients. If you don’t have guanciale, use pancetta or bacon.  But if you don’t have the bacon, you can always make “cacio e uva” which is just eggs and cheese.

Also, I am not great at weighing things.  I tend to use 1 inch of spaghetti per person, one egg yoke per person (making it richer) and then enough cheese to make it the right consistency.  However, most people would follow the recipe!

Whichever history one believes, the dish is divine – rich, satisfying and filling.  Enjoy with a good red wine!

Spaghetti alla Carbonara Recipe:

Time: 30 minutes     4 people

Ingredients

350 g spaghetti

120 g guanciale, cut into small strips

2 large egg yolks

50 g Pecorino romano cheese, grated

Salt

Black pepper

Steps:

  1. Put pot of salted water onto stove to boil
  2. Beat egg yolks together with 2/3 of the grated cheese until well-beaten and creamy.  Add pepper.
  3. Add guanciale to frying pan (with no added oil) and cook over low heat until crisp, about 7-8 minutes
  4. When water boils, add the spaghetti. 
  5. Cook spaghetti until al dente, and then add it to the guanciale. 

(Reserve some of the pasta water in case it is needed to thin the sauce.)

  • Add the spaghetti to the guanciale and its fat and mix well.
  • Slowly pour in the egg and cheese mixture, mixing well the whole time so that the sauce is creamy.
  • Serve and top with cracked black pepper and grated cheese to taste.

NOTE:  The trick is in adding the egg mixture so that makes a smooth sauce and that it doesn’t harden to be cooked eggs!

This recipe is the one that I use and it came from La Cucina Italiana:  https://www.lacucinaitaliana.it/ricetta/primi/spaghetti-alla-carbonara/