Spaghetti Carbonara, or how to host a proper lunch.

February 14, 2010 · Posted in Recipes, Travel · 4 Comments 

Taking a cue from my sister’s blog here, with a personal note:

Spaghetti Carbonara is my favorite pasta dish and most likely holds the #2 spot in my all-time list of favorite dishes.  Like, ever.  At first I thought I liked it because of it’s inherent simplicity, humble beginnings, and surprising harmony.  In general, I like things to be simple, and rely on the freshness and quality of their ingredients.  And the surprising bit – I like it when dishes and flavors surprise, or the combination turns out much better than you’d expect.  Perhaps the best example of this is the Wasabi Caesar salad at Elevation in Aspen, CO.  When you say it, you’d think that wasabi and Caesar would be a no go.  But then you take note of the fact that a proper Caeser is supposed to have a healthy dose of pepper and be slightly spicy. And if a subtle amount of wasabi helps in that endeavor then it just might work.

As for humble beginnings – spaghetti carbonara was, according to the most popular legend, created for charcoal workers in the area around Rome.  It is a Roman dish, even though a restaurant in Rimini has claimed it.  It doesn’t show up until post-WWII.  Another popular iteration states that the charcoal workers created it themselves, and the original recipe doesn’t have pepper.  Instead flecks of charcoal actually made its way into the pasta, and when the recipe was introduced elsewhere they added pepper to maintain the same look.  And then, for you secret society freaks out there (myself included), there did exist a mostly harmless Italian society called the Carbonari

Come to think of it, I’m going to start calling anyone who likes Carbonara the new Carbonari.

But then it hit me – why I like this recipe so much.  It’s basically bacon and eggs tossed over spaghetti.  It’s a no brainer.

  • Pancetta – not bacon unless you really have to.  Guanciale is the original I think but pancetta is more accessible to most people.
  • Eggs
  • Spaghetti
  • Parmigiano-reggiano – both finely grated and cut into thin strips
  • Fresh cracked black pepper


Saute up the pancetta until it’s nice and crispy, set the pan aside.

In a small bowl, crack a couple of eggs and finely grate some p-r cheese.

Cook the spaghetti, enough for four people.

Mix it up.  All of it.  It’s good.  Top with fresh cracked pepper, salt, and thin shavings of p-r cheese.

Most recipes will be more precise than this one, but you need to adjust the amount of eggs, bacon, etc to suit your own personal tastes here.

You should probably drink this with a bottle of red wine.  I know it doesn’t totally seem like red’s the obvious choice, but it’s a serious meal, and serious meals deserve to be had with red wine.  Osso bucco?  Red wine.  Chicken cutlets?  White wine.  Need I go on.  Again, serious wines for serious meals.

And please, no onions, peas (seriously America, peas?), broccoli, or anything else ridiculous like that.  Keep it simple here people.  If you’re doing it well, it should look like this:

That’s if you’re doing it well.  If you want to do it right, you’ll go to Mantova.  You may remember this little town as the place Romeo was banished to.  It was also the seat of the Gonzaga family, who ruled large chunks of northern Italy for many years.  And last but not least, it is the home of Andrea Pattarini, a friend of mine who studied at Bocconi last year and did his exchange in Chicago.  He tempted me by telling me his mom made the best Carbonara.  Well….this I had to see.

At the end of the Foodyssey Jenni and I traveled to Mantova to visit Andrea and his welcoming parents.  Carbonara was to be lunch on Sunday so we had some time to kill Saturday night.  Andrea took us around and showed us the town, and we actually went out to a sushi place that had recently opened in town.

Sunday morning started with an aperitivo of prosecco and Crodino and some delicious little snacks at the local bar.  The closest thing to our bloody Mary brunches they’ve got over here.  When we walked into the kitchen at home, this is what awaited us:

Yes, that is a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino on a table covered with fine China and a white tablecloth.  They were not messing around here.  This was going to be the real deal.  You’ve been given instructions above for how to cook – now sit back and watch the magic unfold.

Cooking the pasta…

How about a little more bacon?

Mix it up.  It’s good.

When I die, I won’t see a white light.  I will see this.

I’ve made Carbonara a bunch myself, and it’s different every time.  I think that’s how it is when it’s your favorite dish and you have exacting standards for yourself.  It never quite comes out right.  But her Carbonara was perfect.  Perfectly al dente, just the right amount of saltiness from the pork, slightly creamy consistency from the eggs.  I’m pretty sure I ate close to 8 pounds of pasta that day.  It was the quintessential comfort food experience.  And then it got even better.

Apparently everything you’ve heard about Italian hospitality isn’t quite accurate.  It goes beyond.  After our bottle of Brunello we opened a 2005 Amarone di Valpolicella.  Mrs Pattarini doesn’t enjoy red wine so much so she opens a bottle of champagne.  After the wine is done, Mr Pattarini decides it’s time for Armagnac.  A 1970, unopened bottle of Armagnac to be precise.

And then an unopened bottle of Ron Zacapa XO.

And then a Moscato grappa.

I’m pretty sure those are all my glasses.

This is what we drank for lunch that day – Ron Zacapa, Armagnac, Grappa, Valpolicella, Brunello, and Champagne.

Thankfully, we were taking the train back.  These all went down straight, in gigantic bourbon glasses.

As the warmth engulfed my entire body, I couldn’t tell if it was from the Carbonara, the hospitality, the wine, grappa, armagnac, or rum.

I did know, however, that when people speak of La Dolce Vita, and they speak of good food and great peoplw….

This is exactly what they have in mind.


Cafe con Giorgio Armani

January 28, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 4 Comments 

When visiting Milan one must stop at least once by the Armani megalopolis that is his flagship store, cafe, restaurant, another restaurant, club, hotel, spa, theme park, water park, movie theater, farm, nuclear research facility, space shuttle launching pad, race track, football stadium, symposium, palace and petting zoo.  (The truth in that sentence stopped somewhere around “hotel”)

So Jenni and I did, and had coffee and cocktails at his new cafe that just opened.  All sorts of beautiful people walked in and even dressed somewhat nicely I felt like I had been cleaning horse stables all day or something.  Quite a few old guys with small dogs and fur coats.  Then in walks a man in black velvet with perfectly combed, bleach white hair.  I whisper to Jenni “I think that’s Giorgio Armani himself”  She refused to believe me but he was walking around and as he was, every employee was jumping.  Finally this 6’3″ blonde used-t0-be-model gets up and says “Buona sera Sr. Armani.”

Damn – we were having coffee with Giorgio Armani.  I could have reached out and touched his exquisite velvet…whatever you call what he was wearing.  But I did not.  Story doesn’t end there.

I go upstairs in the bathroom, and as I’m washing my hands, guess who comes out of the bathroom and washes his hands next to me?

Emilio Estevez!  The Mighty Ducks man himself!

No, really, it was Giorgio Armani. So I said good evening and ran out before he could force me into a modeling contract or something absurd.

Jenni was there, she’ll tell you.  She was the one who called the fashionista’s name.  She was like “Giorgioooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!”

True story.



January 20, 2010 · Posted in Recipes, Travel · 1 Comment 

My passport is almost a full ten years old, and needs to be renewed in 2011.  About 8 years ago, I also washed it.  Yeah, I know I know.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I washed it.  So it’s a bit frayed and, as I discovered in Istanbul, the part near the picture is actually starting to come apart.  The kindly border patrol agent (Round ’em up, as fast as you can, with one truck, or this country’s gonna be way too big!) at the airport wouldn’t let me pass for about 15 minutes because he didn’t trust it.  Several supervisors were called over, all of whom looked at him like he was an idiot because my passport’s only been stamped about 15 times in the past few weeks.

My favorite part was when he asked me – “Where are you from in the States?”

Me – “Chicago”

Him – “But you’re going to Milan.  Why are you going to Milan?”

You’re right buddy, because everyone leaving Istanbul should be going immediately home.  Ya’ jerk.

Then, on the plane, I get up to use the bathroom, and one of the two lavatories has been marked “occupied” for almost 20 minutes.  There was a very long line to use the facilities so I counted.  I knocked on the door to no answer, so I start thinking there’s a terrorist on board putting together some sort of bomb!  After several attempts to ask the stewardesses what was going on, one finally spoke enough English to tell me the bathroom was out of order.

Needless to say, after being taken for a ride several times, I was so happy to land in Milan.  Almost immediately I started smiling again and felt better.  There’s just something in the air over here…

I found my apartment very easily, got settled in, and met my roommate Abby when she showed up.  Per Facebook, I immediately bought several bottles of wine and started enjoying the fruits of the land.

Despite the dollar being worth about 1 Euro cent, wine is still super cheap over here.  So too are Belgian Ales.  My favorite beer, Chimay Blue, costs about $9 in the US.  It costs 1 Euro 50 cents over here.  Fantastic.


Milan so far has been cold and rainy, so I haven’t gotten too many shots of things outdoors.  Which means I’ve spent my time indoors, usually in bars or restaurants.  And usually at apertivo, one of the greatest things ever invented.

Basically you pay for your drinks and get an unlimited amount of buffet style food from about 6 to about 9.  The more crowded the place, the earlier it tends to end for some reason.  The buffet isn’t going to have the best pastas, but the pizzas and contorni (sides, veggies, etc) are always good.  You won’t find meats either.  But you will get incredibly full for the price of a few beers, which is nice.  Apertivo has been about a four to five times weekly occurrence.

Tall Italians

Quick side note here – there is an unusual species of people here, one I am not used to.  This idea of the “tall Italian.”  We’re talking ladies about 5’11, 6 feet and guys 6’2″, 6’3″.  Very interesting – at Easter mass in Tropea in 2003 I was the tallest person in the building by at least a foot.  Tropea is in the very south of Italy, FYI.  Up here it’s different – I don’t stand out at all.

The Food

I mean come on, that’s what we’re doing here, isn’t it?  This is supposed to be a food blog and I’m in ITALY for Pete’s sake!  We practically invented food!

Speaking of the invention of food, let’s dispel with a little food myth right off the bat.  The Chinese did not teach the Italians how to make pasta.  Please.  Let’s take a look at this from several angles shall we?

1 – The myth says Marco Polo went to China and brought back recipes for making noodles.  However Italian cookbooks predating his visit to China contain recipes that call for pasta.  So chronologically that’s a big fail.

2 – Let’s look at noodle construction.  While certain similarities do exist for the most part Chinese noodles look and taste nothing like Italian pastas.  I like Chinese food and noodles, but they’re not the same.  So on texture, appearance, and taste large differences exist.

3 – Rice noodles.  Both cultures use rice extensively and yet the Chinese make rice noodles and the Italians make…not rice noodles.  Why didn’t this technique transfer over?  I don’t know.   Probably because the Italians already had their system figured out.

Points 2 and 3 are more or less observational but point 1 can be fact-checked, so if you disagree go do that…

Now.  Where were we?

Ah yes, we were making a poor man’s Bolognese sauce and sneaking sips from that big magnum of wine you see in the background.

Instead of taking the full three or so hours I caramelized some onions, browned some ground beef and pork, and simmered with some tomato sauce for about 30-45 minutes.  Then topped with some fresh ground pepper and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano and served over bucatini pasta.

Here’s my fellow Booth student and newly acquired sous-chef Toshi working some cheese magic over a beautiful spread:

When all was said and done, we laid it down like this:

I mean, picture kinda says it all.  That’s about how we’ll be doing it from here on out.  Much more of that to come.  Spaghetti Carbonara is on deck – Toshi wants to learn how to cook a bunch of different Italian foods so we’ll be working our way through some traditional dishes here.

After my Italy for the gourmet traveler book showed up, I had a list of places to check out in Milan.  By far my favorite so far (and, will probably remain for the time I’m here) is Gastronomia Peck.  It’s a specialty food store selling all different kinds of cheese, meats, steaks, seafoods, chocolate, tea, oils, coffee and on and on.  They won’t let you take pictures, but at the cafe upstairs there are no such rules.  So here you go:

Prosciutto e Mozzarella

Lasagna Bolognese

Due cappuccini.

Peck is an absolute must-go and will be re-featured here.  I will give a much more descriptive run-down of the food after one or two more visits.

In the interest of time I’m going to stop here for now.  In the meantime since these events have taken place, I went snowboarding in the Alps, ran into Giorgio Armani himself, made spaghetti carbonara, gone inside the Duomo, and may have set up an interview with an MD from one of the Italian banks.  So that’s what we’ve got to look forward to.

But now I’m heading off to Modena, Parma, Bologna, and Mantua.  Back in a week!

Ciao tutti!