One of the signature dishes of Roman cooking, the humble Carbonara is probably one of the best known and most popular Italian pasta dishes but although it can be found in Italian restaurants all over the world the origins of the dish are somewhat hazy. The name seems to suggest a connection to the coal-workers or carbonari of the Lazio and Abruzzo regions, with the black pepper used to season the dish thought to resemble coal dust. This theory would indicate that the Carbonara was first created in the mid-19th century but there are also suggestions that the dish arrived Rome during World War Two when the Allies brought rations of bacon and eggs to the city.
Wherever it came from, the Carbonara has now been firmly adopted as a stalwart of the Cucina Romana. However along with the conflicting stories of the dish’s origin there is just as much debate over the true recipe. If you ask ten different Romans for their take on Carbonara and you will get ten different answers; as with most Italian dishes the ‘authentic’ version seems to be the way that mamma makes it. But despite this the Romans are generally in agreement that there are three basic ingredients: eggs, pancetta (bacon) or guanciale (pig cheek), and cheese, though the quantities and methods used vary greatly. Move outside Italy and you will encounter all sorts of variations including substituting the eggs for cream, adding mushrooms or onions, and even serving it with a fried egg on top.
However, confusing though it may be, a good old Carbonara is essentially an easy, cheap and satisfying meal, and it tastes even better when you make your own. I recommend using guanciale which is easy to find in Italy and is fattier than pancetta so will help to create a creamy sauce. Although people often use more egg yolks than whites I find that this can often make the whole thing too dry when mixed with the parmesan and pecorino cheeses. Traditionally the Carbonara sauce is served with spaghetti but any long pasta works well. Bucatini is good as the thick strands soak up the egg nicely while another very Roman option would be rigatoni.
Bucatini alla Carbonara (serves 2)
100g guanciale, cut into chunks
Handful of grated Parmesan
Handful of grated Pecorino Romano
Salt & Black Pepper
Bring to the boil a large pan of salted water.
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cheeses, salt and black pepper until they form a thick, pale, creamy mixture.
Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook according to instructions until it is ‘al dente’.
While the pasta is cooking, heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan and then add the chunks of guanciale and cook until the fat is translucent and they are beginning to brown.
Drain the pasta and add to the hot frying pan, mix well with the guanciale so that the pasta absorbs the flavour of the fat.
Pour the whole lot into the bowl of eggs and cheese and mix well. The heat of the pasta will gently cook the eggs but they won’t scramble.
Serve immediately with a generous sprinkling of parmesan and pecorino on top.