The Virtual Group of Italian Chefs (GVCI) has declared January 17th, 2008 the International Day of Italian Cuisines:
"For one day, everyone who makes, promotes or simply loves Italian food outside of Italy is invited to carry out a small activity to celebrate authenticity and quality in Italian cuisine."
Italian chefs all over the world are celebrating the day by making pasta alla carbonara, one of the most famous dishes of the Italian tradition. I am not a chef, but simply an Italian who loves to cook and who has a soft spot for spaghetti alla carbonara. I have never had anything other than spaghetti prepared in this way, but apparently there is a claim that rigatoni is the pasta to use. For my rendition, I will stick to spaghetti.
The origin of this dish and the reason for its name are not clearly established. It appears that its origin is recent: there is no mention of it in cookbooks before WWII. The name could refer to carbonai,Carbonari, the Sardinian town of Carbonia, or carbone (coal). Carbonai were people who cut and processed wood to make charcoal. On this page there are some photos of how this was done and even short videos. Carbonari, on the other hand, were the members of a secret society (Carboneria) that was active in the first half of the 19th century and had as goal the unification of Italy into a single country freed from foreign occupants. The name of the society comes from the fact that its members used symbols from the carbonai. Fortunately we don't need to establish the origin of the pasta alla carbonara before enjoying it.
There are uncountable recipes for this dish. My mother makes it occasionally and it is a nice dish to share with friends. I like to keep the recipe simple and agree with Roman chef Antonello Colonna when he describes the traditional ingredients, among which he includes tradition itself:
guanciale (e non pancetta), pecorino, uovo, sale e pepe. Null’altro...
Le rielaborazioni non sono vietate. Ma chi pretende di fare la vera carbonara deve usare solo queste materie: la tradizione è un ingrediente come gli altri.
Translation: guanciale (not pancetta), pecorino, egg, salt and pepper. Nothing else...
Variations are not prohibited, but who claims to be making a true carbonara must use only those ingredients: tradition is itself an ingredient.
For the spaghetti in the photo I could not find guanciale and therefore I used pancetta. Guanciale is cured pork jowl (the word also means pillow). Pancetta, instead, comes from the pork belly (pancia). Coincidentally, the NY Times just published an article that talks about guanciale in connection with another famous Italian pasta dish, bucatini all'amatriciana. Chef Colonna is adamant about not using parmigiano for this dish and again I agree with him and use only good pecorino.
My recipe makes no special claim besides the fact that a me piace farla così (I like to make it this way).
Bring a pot of water to rolling boil and pour in it a pound of spaghetti. In the meantime, finely dice 3.5 oz of guanciale. Warm up a lightly oiled skillet big enough to hold the spaghetti and add two small garlic cloves. When the oil is warm, add the guanciale and cook it in its fat, then remove the garlic and keep warm. In the meantime, prepare also the bowl in which you will mix the spaghetti: break 3 very fresh eggs in it and lightly beat them with a pinch of salt, then add 3 oz of pecorino, freshly grated. Keep the bowl warm while you wait for the pasta to cook. Drain the pasta when it is al dente, leaving a little water clinging to it, and pour it into the skillet with the browned guanciale, mix briefly and then empty the skillet into the bowl with the eggs and cheese. Stir quickly: the egg and cheese mixture must remain creamy (I use two forks for this step). Sprinkle generously with freshly-ground black pepper. Serve immediately, possibly in warm bowls and enjoy.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the spaghetti alla carbonara audio file [mp3].
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