This is one of Italy’s most famous pasta dishes and is extremely easy to prepare though it can be disastrous if you do not follow a few simple rules. Carbonara is one pasta dish that I have been making since I first married over 40 years ago and I have tweaked the recipe many times over the years until I now have the perfect recipe (for me) that I make almost on a weekly basis using up the fresh eggs I collect daily from our chickens here in Umbria.
This classic Italian dish is said to have been named for coal miners around Rome, because the black specks of pepper resemble coal dust. Carbonara contains just a few ingredients and takes mere minutes to prepare; when properly executed, it’s rich, creamy, and truly satisfying. But it’s not quite as simple as all that. Traditionalists will tell you that Spaghetti alla Carbonara should contain eggs, cheese, black pepper, a diced cured pork product, and nothing else. But plenty of carbonara recipes out there call for dry white wine, heavy cream, and even garlic—though, of course, purists would never use them in an “authentic” preparation.
I was initially taught—by an Italian friend, no less—to make my carbonara with both a little white wine and a dash of heavy cream. In the time since, I’ve found that these two ingredients really aren’t necessary to creating a sublimely delicious dish of creamy egg pasta. Spaghetti Carbonara has been a family favorite in my own home since my children were small, and I’ve tinkered with it for years, first eliminating the wine, then the cream, and finally learning that the real trick is to gently warm your eggs before adding them to the pasta, ensuring that they lightly coat each strand in their velvety sauce.
Some like the flavor of whole eggs, while others feel using just the yolks is best; I tend to discard the whites, but it’s really a matter of personal preference. As a rule, I use about one yolk per person (or serving). Here in Umbria, I use diced guanciale—an unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig’s jowl—but if you can’t find it locally, you can use pancetta or bacon in its place. As for cheese, Pecorino Romano is typically used in carbonara. However, I often incorporate an equal portion of Parmesan or Grana Padano, since the Pecorino is quite sharp on its own. And though the black pepper may seem like an insignificant ingredient, it helps cut through some of the richness and really brings the pasta to life. It’s best to use fresh black peppercorns, crushed with a mortar and pestle or coarsely ground in a pepper mill.
Though not customary, I sometimes toss baby peas, tender strands of asparagus, or sliced artichokes into the pasta before serving. If you want to make this dish into a hearty main course, you can top each bowl of pasta with an egg that’s been fried or poached in olive oil. When you cut into the egg, the yolk will run into the pasta, intensifying its creamy texture and flavor.
To ensure your eggs don’t separate, warm them to room temperature before you use them. I also take a further step by warming a large bowl that I use to whisk the eggs, cheese, and pepper together. To warm the empty bowl, simply set it over your pasta pot as the water is boiling. You want the bowl very warm, but not so hot that the eggs will cook.
A great tip when cooking pasta dishes such as this one is to reserve a small cup of the pasta water before draining. When mixing the sauce with the pasta, you can always loosen the sauce with a few teaspoons of the water if it starts to look to thick.
Deborah Mele Revised 2020
- 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
- 8 Ounces Diced Guanciale or Pancetta
- 1 Pound Package Bucatini or Spaghetti
- 6 Egg Yolks, At Room Temperature
- 1/2 Cup Grated Pecorino Romano Cheese, Mixed With 1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan or Grana Padano Cheese, Divided
- 2 Teaspoons Coarsely Ground Black Pepper
- 1/3 Cup Finely Chopped Parsley Leaves (Optional)
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a rolling boil for the pasta.
- In a large frying pan, heat the oil until lightly smoking over medium heat, then cook the guanciale or pancetta until crispy, about 6 minutes.
- Keep warm.
- Drop the pasta into the water and cook until "al dente" according to the package instructions.
- As the pasta is cooking, warm a large serving bowl.
- Place the egg yolks in the bowl along with three quarters of the cheese mixture along with the ground pepper.
- Use a whisk and blend until well mixed.
- Drain the pasta, reserving a small cup of the pasta water.
- Add the drained, steaming hot pasta into the bowl with the eggs, along with a little of the pasta water, toss well to lightly cook the eggs and coat the pasta with the egg mixture.
- Add the warm guanciale or pancetta, and toss again to mix well.
- Serve the pasta in individual bowls with a sprinkling of the parsley and the remainder of the cheese.