We were driving home talking about what to have for dinner, when Lauren said “How about Penne Carbonara?” I knew that this was some kind of pasta sauce, but somehow I’d never actually had any. Well, there are cookbooks. My goodness gracious: I thought that America had seized world leadership in the art and science of coating the insides of your arteries with fatty, greasy, substances; but I see that the Italians are still the masters. First, you cut up a third of a package of bacon and cook it in olive oil. Then you’ve got four eggs, considerable butter, some cream, and a bunch of grated Parmesan. Cook ’em up in just the right order, toss the pasta in it, and apply great lashings of fresh-ground black pepper. I had lots of red wine in the faint hope that it would mitigate the arterial damage. With apologies to all the observant vegan Jews and Muslims among my readership, I have to say it tasted damn good. [Update: I really have to write that commenting system. Now up to four seven eight smart carbonariferous replies. Also, check out the Wikipedia on Carbonara, also the Wiki Cookbook, and especially the Cookbook’s discussion page].

Massimo Morelli writes from Bologna:

A Hint for you and Lauren: the best pasta for Carbonara is Spaghetti (possibly the thickest kind) and not Penne. Just try.

Mike O’Dell counters:

when my Roman best friend taught me to make Carbonara in his family apartment in The Eternal City, he used large bucatini because of it has increased surface area without increased mass: “It holds the sauce much better.”

he also said bucatini is a Roman localization of the dish. i learned it’s made across Italy with different pasta and other minor variations.

you can take some solace in the knowledge that the olive oil is full of heart-friendly oils which mitigate the impact of the others.

but my Roman friend wrapped it up thusly: when finished, he leaned back in his chair, cherubic grin on his face and said,

“Carbonara is so very fine.”


John Dougan adds:

Oh, you poor man. Never had Carbonara. It’s a sad, sad world.

Actually it’s not uncommon for people to not have had Carbonara. Most Italian restaurants don’t have it on the menu as you pretty much have to make it fresh. If memory serves from when I was still living in Vancouver, Chianti Cafe and Restaurant near West 4th and Burrard serves it.

If you decide to dig deeper, you’ll find that there are 2 approaches to Carbonara: dry or creamy. Which is better is a matter of preference, but I have seen heated arguments over the question.

Mik Lernout writes:

Also: squeeze some lemon juice over the Carbonara on your plate: it pulls the dish up yet another notch.

Wayne Citrin indulges in heresy:

You might enjoy a lighter, but somewhat heretical variant—use smoked salmon instead of bacon.

Other ways to lighten it up:

  • don’t use cream

  • use fewer eggs. You can probably get away with two eggs with a pound of pasta

Michael Constans deep-dives on pork products:

I would like to point out that there is a hierarchy of pork products involved in making Carbonara.

Bacon works in a pinch, but only if stuck someplace where you can’t get Pancetta. But avoid the packaged slices. They are much too thinly sliced for this application. You want to get the kind that comes rolled up like a sausage, and then slice it yourself into battons.

But the undisputed king is Guanciale Taken from the pig’s jowl it has a fantastic texture and flavor. I don’t know where you would find it in Vancouver, but if you pass through Seattle, you can find it at Salumi’s.

Rafe Colburn, on behalf of his wife really:

I am a carbonara lover (I had the best carbonara ever in a little Italian place in Boston over by Mass General hospital a few years ago), but my wife has a version that is, to me, even better.

She buys a whole chunk of slab bacon and cubes it into half inch cubes, then she puts it in a roasting pan, pours some olive oil and freshly ground black pepper on it, and roasts it until it’s brown and slightly crispy. She makes some spaghettini (thin spaghettini—De Cecco #11) and puts the freshly made pasta into the roasting pan when she takes it out of the oven and mixes it all up. The fat from the bacon and the olive oil make the sauce for the pasta. Then she puts some fresh Italian parsley on it, and serves it.

Absolutely magnificent. Think of it as carbonara without the dairy.

Andrew Brown (check his blog, really) writes:

One final trick—this dish has been a favourite of my children for 25 years now—make it in a wok. Here’s what I do for three people: Take equal quantities of smoked and unsmoked pork products (pancetta and Kassler is one great mix) chop them in strips, about matchstick thick and fry them carefully in olive oil in a capacious wok. While this is going on, beat three eggs together with salt and pepper, and cook thin pasta—vermicelli is best—to maximise the surface area. When the pasta is al dente, turn the heat off under the wok, drain the pasta, and then dump it into the work, pout over the beaten egg, and mix all together: the egg cooks in contact with the hot sauce and pasta. Serve immediately, garnished with parsley.

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March 26, 2006
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