In honour of Carbonara Day, we chart the history behind the iconic Italian pasta dish
Think of the classics of Italian cuisine, and pasta in all its countless variations immediately come to mind. There’s the Sicilian pasta alla Norma and the all-Roman cacio e pepe and amatriciana, the Piedmontese plin and the quintessential Bolognese tortellini. The most iconic and world-famous of them all though – not to mention divisive – might be carbonara: perfectly cooked spaghetti tossed in a creamy sauce of raw beaten eggs and crisp bits of guanciale, finished with a shower of grated aged Pecorino Romano cheese plus freshly ground black pepper.
Chances are you’ve encountered the dish before – or at least read about it in the news over the past few years, be it in the form of a media storm caused by a New York Times recipe that dared to include tomatoes among its ingredients; or as a recent food expert’s claim that the staple might have actually been created by Americans who were in Italy after the Second World War. Both stories stirred quite a lot of anger and some serious complaints by our fellow countrymen, which goes to show just how deeply fond of carbonara the Bel Paese is.
That’s why, on Carbonara Day, we thought we’d give this beloved pasta the attention it deserves – and why not, try to set the record straight as far as its significance goes.
A Roman Classic or an American Invention?
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.
Reinventing a classic
While carbonara does allow for tweaks and variations – swapping guanciale for artichokes to create a vegetarian version, like many Roman-Jewish restaurants do, or using seafood in place of cured pork to create a carbonara di mare – there are a few rules that can’t be broken when it comes to the most classic iteration of the dish.
While it is also made with fettuccine, linguine, or bucatini, for instance, spaghetti remains the canonical pasta shape for carbonara.
Also, although until the 1990s the recipe allowed for ingredients such as wine, garlic, onion, parsley, bell pepper, black pepper and chilli pepper, today’s most recognised and official carbonara contains only egg yolk, pecorino cheese, guanciale and black pepper. Pecorino should never be substituted with parmigiano or other cheeses, just like pancetta shouldn’t be used in lieu of guanciale, and no butter, cream or garlic should make their way into the pot – regardless of what you might have been led to believe.
Besides that, the world (or better, carbonara) is your oyster. Just don’t add any tomatoes into the mix…
How to Make a Classic Carbonara
Classic Carbonara Recipe Ingredients
320 grams spaghetti
150 grams guanciale
50 grams grated Pecorino Romano
4-6 fresh large egg yolks, depending on the egg size
- Combine the egg yolks with the grated cheese and a pinch of black pepper.
- Remove the pork rind from the guanciale and cut it first into slices and then into strips about 1/2″ (1cm) thick. Put the pieces into a non-stick pan and brown for about 15 minutes over medium heat, being careful not to burn it. Turn off the heat and leave to cool.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add salt. Cook the spaghetti, setting aside a ladleful of the pasta cooking water, until al dente. Drain.
- Pour the reserved hot water into the frying pan with the cooled guanciale, then transfer the pasta to the same pan and mix. Add the yolk and cheese mixture, stirring rapidly. The eggs will cook gently and become creamy in the pan with the hot pasta. KEY TIP: Don’t stir over the heat, as the carbonara will become lumpy. It’s important to stir quickly to prevent the yolks from congealing and taking on the texture of scrambled eggs.
- Season with freshly milled black pepper and serve immediately on heated plates.