Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara My Way
It’s the mid-1970s, and I’m out to dinner in “the city” with my sister Liti, my good friend Barbara, and a few gay boyfriends, driving the 30 minutes or so, depending on traffic, from our Nassau Country ranch house to a place called the Grotta Azurra, in Little Italy, a Neapolitan restaurant bathed in a shade of turquoise that can make even a 19-year-old’s complexion look haggard. Kind of a cozy place, though, since it’s down below street level and actually feels a bit like a grotto. I’ve been there a few times with my parents. The food was never great at the Grotta, but the Naples-inspired décor was all-enveloping, and just being in Little Italy appealed to me (of course, now the real neighborhood is gone and replaced by a Disneyfied stand-in).
I order spaghetti carbonara, something my mother never makes at home. She probably thinks it’s fattening. I order it because it’s famous, and supposedly a dish has to be famous for a good reason. I’ve had pasta carbonara before, though, usually when out to dinner with my parents, and it has never seemed to me to merit any excitement. Thought I’d give it another shot.
Tonight my spaghetti carbonara is extremely smoky, emitting almost a Liquid Smoke aroma as it comes to the table, and it’s very thick with cream. On top of that it’s lumpy. Not only is the sauce clotted, but the spaghetti is fused together in places, and I can tell from having eaten pasta at home that it’s tragically overcooked. Worst of all, it just doesn’t taste good. It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t understand all the rubbery pieces of bacon coated with clotted cream. A mood is creeping up, a withdrawal. It can’t be this stupid pasta dish. I must have brought the mood with me. But occasionally when I’m in a mood, bad food can push me to feeling out of control.
I’m having a glass of nameless white wine that’s pretty good. I’m with my friends. Life is beautiful. But I’m overcome by deep disappointment. My eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure anyone notices. Everything is disappointing. I feel extremely bony, my speaking voice too low-pitched. I don’t understand how those waiters carry all those plates at the same time without letting them crash to the floor. I could never ever do that job.
Then I make a big discovery: I don’t like cream in pasta. Period. “I never like cream in pasta.” I announce.
“Why did you order it?”
“Because I don’t understand what carbonara is supposed to be.”
That evening I drink white wine, red wine, and Sambuca, all to try to work the cream through my body. Everyone carries on, having a good time, not seeing what I’m feeling, most likely because I’m not showing what I’m feeling. Finally I’m feeling only one thing, and that’s drunk. Liti, I notice, orders a cannoli. I order one too, and another Sambuca.
I interpret that drunken evening as a call to figure out the right way to make pasta carbonara. Having tasted it only in New York restaurants, I’ve assumed it was a Neapolitan dish. Wrong. I grabbed the only Italian cookbook we had in our Long Island house, The Talisman Cookbook, by Ada Boni, which was a great book, the first real Italian cookbook available to Americans. I looked all through it but couldn’t find spaghetti carbonara—until I realized she had listed it in the index as “Spaghetti with Bacon.” I turned to the recipe and it was titled “Spaghetti Carbonara (with bacon).”
Ada Boni explained that this was a Roman pasta. How about that? With very few ingredients and, sure enough, no cream. Not a drop. I felt vindicated. Eggs! The creaminess came from eggs. A revelation. There had been definitely no eggs in the Grotto Azzura reproduction.
How could I get eggs to become creamy without ending up with scrambled eggs? Well, I learned from Miss Boni that if you work with care, the heat from the spaghetti can gently cook the eggs without curdling them, producing a soft sauce. Now, I’m sure Miss Boni knew that smoked bacon wasn’t the correct meat to use for carbonara. I had heard rumors of something called pancetta from a neighbor whose family came from the Abbruzzi mountains of central Italy, but that woman couldn’t find pancetta in 1970s Long Island, so Miss Boni surely had no choice when translating the dish for American readers in a cookbook first published in 1950.
Here’s how Ada Boni instructed me to put together my first spaghetti carbonara in, I’d say, 1974: First you start boiling your spaghetti (Ronzoni, she suggests). While it’s cooking, you sauté chopped-up bacon until crisp. In a bowl, add pecorino Romano or Parmesan (spelled just like that) cheese to a few beaten eggs (you can, she says, if you like, add a little white wine to the mix as well, which I did, because it sounded fancy). Drain the spaghetti, and then return it to the pot it was cooked in. Pour the egg mixture over the top. Add black pepper and some of the hot grease from cooking the bacon, and toss. That grease, plus I assume the heat from the pasta pot, she says will provide sufficient heat to cook the eggs. Now pour everything into a serving bowl, and scatter the crisp bacon on top.
Well, I tried that a few times, and it wasn’t bad, but I found there was too much residual heat in the pasta cooking pot, and the first few times the eggs did curdle. Even so, it was a much better dish than the cream-laden carbonaras I had choked down before.
I did finally locate pancetta and learned it is the same cut as bacon but unsmoked, just cured with nutmeg, black pepper, salt, and sometimes other spices. I consulted my newly acquired The Classic Italian Cook Book, by Marcella Hazan. She didn’t discuss carbonara, but she did mention other uses for pancetta, such as as a flavoring for sauces, pasta fillings, vegetables, and roasts. I did, however, discuss the subject again with my Abruzzese neighbor, and she insisted that pancetta was a beautiful thing. So I went ahead trying to perfect my carbonara and learning how to cook pancetta so it came out neither burnt nor flabby. A success.
In 1979 I made my first visit to Rome. Spaghetti carbonara was on every trattoria menu, sometimes made with pancetta and sometimes made with a meat called guanciale, a cured pork jowl, as I learned. Wow, wacky. Pork jowl. The thought of that disgusted me at first, but of course like most disgusting things it eventually exerted a fascination. It even eventually grew to be an ingredient that I cherish. It tastes rich and gentle, even suaver than pancetta. I learned that guanciale was a dignified way to go. Pancetta was for lazy people and amateurs, meaning Americans. But I didn’t locate any guanciale for another ten years or so, even in sophisticated Manhattan, where I ended up living.
Guanciale is a must for me now when I cook spaghetti carbonara, and I understand why the dish at its best is so great, so well balanced, with a wonderful texture and gentle blend of flavors. For years I made it totally straight—why mess with perfection? Then I started experimenting, making a few personal adjustments. A Roman might object to my now including parsley, a touch of garlic, a quick grating of nutmeg, and the splash of dry Marsala I use to deglaze the skillet (Ada Boni beats a little white wine into the raw eggs, which is nice but doesn’t pull up all that great skillet flavor).
And since I learned that returning the spaghetti to the pot it was cooked in can occasionally curdle the eggs. I now mix the eggs and cheese in a warmed serving bowl, give the drained spaghetti a quick toss in the skillet that I sautéed the guanciale in, and then add that to the egg and cheese mixture. The texture that results is perfect, creamy, custardy. Wow, that took long enough to figure out.
And just for the record, I recently looked up Grotto Azzura’s latest menu. They still serve spaghetti carbonara, and they still describe it as spaghetti with a Parmesan (same spelling) cream sauce, but with pancetta. At least they finally got rid of the bacon.
Spaghetti Carbonara My Way
(Serves 5 as a first course)
3 extra-large organic eggs
¼ cup fresh grated pecorino Romano cheese (try to find one that’s not too sharp)
½ cup fresh grated grana Padano cheese, plus extra for the table
Several large scrapings of nutmeg
A large handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves very lightly chopped
Coarse black pepper, freshly ground
1 pound spaghetti (an artisanal one, cut to catch the sauce, Latini, for instance)
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ pound guanciale, cut into medium dice
2 small garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
½ cup dry Marsala
Bring to a boil a large pot of pasta cooking water. Add a generous amount of salt.
Place the eggs, the pecorino, the grana Padano, the nutmeg, a generous amount of black pepper, and the parsley in a large, warmed serving bowl, and mix everything together well.
Drop the spaghetti into the pot, and give it a quick stir to make sure it doesn’t stick.
In a medium skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the guanciale, and cook it slowly until it’s very crisp and has given off much of its fat, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, and sauté about a minute, just until it gives off fragrance. Add the Marsala, and let it bubble for about 30 seconds; you don’t want to boil it away completely but just enough to loosen all the caramelized skillet bits, so you can incorporate them into your sauce.
When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, saving about ½ cup of the cooking water, and add the spaghetti to the bowl with the egg mixture. Toss well. The heat from the pasta will lightly cook the eggs. Add the guanciale and all the skillet juices, and toss again. Add an extra drizzle of fresh olive oil, a few more grindings of coarse black pepper (black pepper is a main player in this dish), and a little of the cooking water to loosen the sauce, if needed. Taste to see if it needs more salt. Serve right away, with extra grana Padano brought to the table if you like.