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.