While it’s primarily linked to Rome and the Lazio area, the origins of carbonara – much like many other Italian dishes – are not entirely clear, although there are many theories about how it came to be.
Some suggest that it may have evolved from pasta cacio e uova, a dish from Naples consisting of pasta mixed with melted lard, beaten raw eggs, and cheese, as mentioned in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s 1839 cookbook on Neapolitan cuisine. Others believe that the dish was created to provide a filling and simple meal for men who worked outdoors for long periods, and derived its name from the word “carbonaro,” meaning “coal burner.”
Another hypothesis yet – and this is the one that caused quite the stir recently – claims that the dish was introduced to Italian restaurants during the Allied liberation of Rome in 1944, when American GIs began adding their daily rations of eggs and bacon to the limited Italian menu that was available to them. This theory is supported by the first written reference to carbonara appearing in the newspaper La Stampa in 1950, which described the dish as being highly regarded by American servicemen. Soon after, carbonara also featured in Elizabeth David’s renowned 1954 book “Italian Food.”
Regardless of its genesis, carbonara has risen to become one of Italy’s most famous and beloved dishes over the decades, and possibly one of our most famous exports. From New York’s Little Italy to pretty much any Italian restaurant around the world, carbonara is likely to be the star of the menu, albeit not always in its most authentic expression.
However, the dish is most popular in Rome, where it is considered a local specialty.
Here, you’ll find carbonara in almost every trattoria and osteria, often with unique takes on it, like adding a splash of white wine to the sauce.
Its success and significance go beyond the fact it tastes delicious. Carbonara is a symbol of the Italian culinary tradition, and a testament to the creativity and resourcefulness of Italian cooks. It is a dish that has stood the test of time despite the many changes that have occurred in the world of food, and one that captures what we most like about Italian cooking: the tantalising power of simplicity.