Everyone has a theory
Updated: Jan 13
I slipped into Da Michele Pizza e Rist for a glass of Valpolicella and a pizza - I’ve been dying for a good pizza (actually any pizza, as I had been dieting). Under the list of Pizza Bianco; there was a Carbonara, seriously that sounded amazing, this was a first for me. And it was pure delight hanging two inches over the plate, Mamma Mia!
Carbonara is well known all over the world and it is one of the essential dishes of Lazio and Abruzzo food culture, but it’s usually a fight over spaghetti or Bucatini the ingredients, not about pasta verse a pizza. Whoever came up with this idea was a genius in my book, though your Nonna may not approve. As you may probably guess, everything that is related to food is taken very seriously in Italy.
For this reason, talking about the origins of a Carbonara is a very contentious subject. There are at least three versions of the story all from the Lazio region. The first Carbonara literally translates to “in the manner of coal miners.” With that said, some food historians can’t help but credit coal miners or a secret society of charcoal burners named “Carbonari” who helped unify Italy in the early 1800s. Their dish could have been conceived using easy-to-find and affordable ingredients such as pepper and lard. Plus, the flecks of black peppering on the pasta resembles coal dust.
Two, is the restaurant that opened in 1912 by a coal seller on Campo di Fiori called ‘La Carbonara’, lots of black pepper was incorporated in the dish. Third, was American and British WW II soldiers had adequate rations of powdered eggs and bacon, easily adding plentiful pasta and cheese of the region, which would be Pecorino.
Obviously, every Roman strongly refuses each of these versions. The tradition speaks clear, the pasta Carbonara is an evolution of “Cace e Ova”, a pasta that coalmen (Carbonari) brought in their pockets and ate cold. So, when two main ingredients, fresh ground black pepper and pieces of “guanciale”, were added, the “Cace and Ova” became the “Carbonara” thanks to the simple way of living of the coalman. To this day, this recipe has a heritage that is jealously guarded by every Roman grandmother.
The origins of Pecorino Romano can be traced back to the Roman Empire, when cheese processing methods were first described by some of ancient Rome's most important writers on agriculture: Varrone, Columella, Virgilio and Pliny the Elder. In 227 BC, the production of this renowned cheese spread to the neighboring island of Sardinia, where even today almost 90% of Pecorino Romano is produced, while the remaining 10% comes from Lazio and the Tuscan province of Grosseto. This hard cooked cheese is made with whole milk from pasture-grazed sheep and has a particularly salty and slightly piquant flavor. Aged for at least 5 months, Pecorino Romano makes an excellent table cheese, particularly when combined with fresh vegetables and fruit, but after eight months of aging, it is mainly used for grating over classic Roman dishes such as Bucatini all’Amatriciana, Rigatoni alla Carbonara, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, and Tripe alla Romana.
We have talked too much about stories, let’s check the ingredients! So, the very real Carbonara needs: spaghetti, eggs, freshly ground black pepper, guanciale and pecorino. Your Black Pepper has to be freshly ground on your beaten eggs but also on the pasta just right before you eat it. Then there are the two exclamation points to the ingredients list. First, the so called “Guanciale”, pork jowls that are seasoned and cured for at least three months resulting in a more intense flavor than the “pancetta” bacon. Second, the Pecorino cheese is a must, grated over the beaten eggs with black pepper, but also sprinkled on top at the last moment when you’re not really able to keep the fork away from the dish. Parmigiano could be a variation, but the taste would not be the same. I like to use bucatini for this recipe since it is slightly thicker than spaghetti and has a hole in the center which means sauce coats both the inside and outside of the pasta.
The recipe for 4 people requires:
Spaghetti or bucatini
12 c guanciale or pancetta
1c grated Pecorino Romano DOP (50% for the cream and 50% for the topping)
4 egg yolks (one per person)
Instructions: Cut the guanciale into very thin slices, put it into a non-stick pan and let it simmer. Do not add oil: thanks to the heat the guanciale will release its own grease. Fill a pot with water, when it boils add a bit of salt (not too much, as guanciale and pecorino have a strong taste) and then add the pasta; the original recipe is with Spaghetti, but any type of pasta is fine, just pay attention not to overcook it This is the most important step. Put the egg yolks in a bowl, together with Pecorino and pepper, and whisk with a fork. With a spoon, take some of the water in which the pasta is cooking and add it to the eggs: this will create the famous carbonara sauce. It should be creamy enough, but it really depends on your taste: you can add more Pecorino Romanoa or more water, according to your preferences. A couple of minutes before cooking time (Spaghetti usually take 10 minutes), drain the pasta and put it in the pan with guanciale to complete the cooking. Steer for a couple of minutes and then turn off the stove. Wait one minute as the pasta cools down and then add the sauce made with eggs and Pecorino. It is fundamental that the pasta is not too hot, otherwise the heat will cook the eggs and turn them into an omelette! Steer the pasta and then serve it adding Pecorino Romano DOP and pepper on top.
Your carbonara is ready!