Spaghetti alla carbonara may be my favorite dish. Where did it come from? Nobody knows. Speculation begins with Italian charcoal-makers and progresses to a secret society known as the carbonari (they were involved with the unification of Italy). One well-regarded theory offers the improbable suggestion that carbonara made its first appearance at the end of World War II, a result of the eggs and bacon supplied by American troops.
My own theory is that carbonara is a variation on a dish called unto e uova (fat and eggs), which has been eaten for centuries by Italian peasants with little time and less money. Carbonara begins with everyday ingredients, and it can be thrown together in a trice. Although its sheer deliciousness has led many cooks to try to improve upon the recipe by adding extraneous ingredients (cream, vermouth, herbs), in this case, less really is more. And especially if you take care to keep these tips in mind:
1. Don’t overcook the spaghetti. You know that already, but texture really matters here; let the pasta spend a minute too long in its bubbling bath and the dish will be ruined. What you want is what the Romans call “filo di ferro” - string of iron. Keep tasting the pasta as it cooks and pull it out the moment the last speck of white disappears from the middle.
2. Don’t be afraid to use bacon. The classic recipe calls for guanciale, which is made from the jowel of the pig. But if the original cooks had been American they would have been using bacon, and since you’re in America, you can use that too.
3. Use good bacon. When you’ve only got a few ingredients, quality matters.
4. Use very fresh eggs from happy hens. (See rule 3.)
5. Make it fast. You have to drain the pasta and toss it with the eggs while it’s still boiling hot; the point is to let the heat of the pasta thicken and slightly cook the eggs. Toss like mad.
6. Don’t be afraid of fat. It would be a crime to throw it all away.
7. Use good Parmesan cheese (or pecorino if you prefer). (See rule 3.)
8. Use plenty of freshly ground black pepper; it is the perfect finishing touch.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Serves 3 as a main course, 6 as an appetizer
1 pound spaghetti
¼ to ½ pound bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 cloves peeled garlic (this is optional, but it adds a nice little shadow of flavor)
2 large, excellent eggs, room temperature
½ cup grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese, plus extra for the table
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cook the pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. When it is boiling, throw the spaghetti in and cook just until it’s al dente.
Gently cook the bacon: Put the bacon in a skillet and cook over medium-low heat for 2 minutes, until the fat begins to render. Add the whole cloves of garlic and cook another 5 minutes, until the edges of the bacon just begin to get crisp.
Beat the eggs: Break the eggs into a large, pretty serving bowl, grind in some pepper, and beat well with a fork. If they are cold, take the chill off by setting them in a bowl of warm water.
Deal with your conscience: Remove the garlic from the bacon. Look at the fat in the pan, and if the amount is truly terrifying you, throw as much of it out as your conscience dictates.
Toss: Drain the pasta and immediately throw it into the beaten eggs. Toss fast and thoroughly. Add the bacon and its fat, toss again, add cheese, toss again. Serve to very happy people.