Spaghetti alla Carbonara: a tale of two recipes

Which cheese is ‘right’ for simple pasta Carbonara? Well, it seems it’s not so simple

If you want to get into an argument with a Texan, ask him if barbecue should be served with sauce. Depending on where he’s from and his personal preference, he’ll either scold you for even suggesting such a travesty or make a more nuanced argument about how sauce can complement and improve the flavor of smoked meat.

If you want to get into an argument with an Italian, ask if Italy’s beloved national pasta dish – spaghetti alla carbonara – should be made with spicier Pecorino Romano cheese or milder Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Again, it depends on what region of Italy they are from and personal taste.

Carbonara, as it is often called, is a deceptively simple dish: pasta, cheese, meat, eggs and black pepper. How these ingredients are assembled and combined, along with the specific nature of the ingredients, has become something of a rallying point for nationalistic Italian gourmands. Two recipes, along with their histories, have come to be an edible Rorschach test in the debate between the sovereignty of Italy’s formidable culinary traditions and outside influences, especially from America, that are changing those traditions.

Let’s call the first one the “American G.I.” recipe. This refers to the theory that carbonara was invented in the mid-1940s when American soldiers in Rome during World War II offered their rations of bacon and eggs to local cooks who combined them with Italian cheese (in this case, probably the more ubiquitous Parmigiano Reggiano) and dry pasta to create a tasty, filling and relatively inexpensive dish. This theory is based on the fact that there are no references to carbonara in Italian literature before the early 1950s.

Indeed, the first known description of the dish is found in an American guidebook from 1957, “Eating in Italy.” Author Richard Hammond describes the basic recipe and includes bacon as well as prosciutto for the meat component, though no type of cheese is specified. Clearly, the recipe for carbonara was still fluid and changing back then.

As for the name “spaghetti alla carbonara,” there is a theory that it derives from an extant restaurant in central Rome, La Carbonara. Though the restaurant does not claim to have invented the dish, anecdotal evidence suggests that something similar to carbonara was made there in the mid-1950s, and the name stuck.

In Italian, “carbonari” describes workers who burn wood to make charcoal – this is the root of the second history and recipe that offers a more “Italo-centric” view of the dish. Italians, like most cultures, mythologize the workers and manual laborers who are credited with forging the modern traditions and values of their country. In Italy the carbonari (charcoal burners), covered in soot and ash, are one of those mythologized laborers.

The belief is that these workers would cook a combination of pasta, cheese and cured meat (there is a long history of this type of dish in Italy), and flecks of ash would fall into the mix – resembling the specks of black pepper that are now an attribute of contemporary carbonara.

The recipe, too, takes on a more Italian/Roman flavor in this case. The cheese is often specified as Pecorino Romano, a spicy, pungent sheep’s milk cheese specific to the area around Rome. The meat is specified as guanciale, the cured pork jowl that is famous in cities near Rome, such as Amatrice and Norcia.

Research into the origins of carbonara, trips to Rome have found both recipes being served among the city’s myriad restaurants. Very generally, I’ve found that the Parmiggiano Reggiano/bacon “American G.I.” recipe is served in older, tourist-style restaurants, whereas the “Italo-centric” recipe is served in more contemporary, upscale restaurants.

The opinion is that the origins of carbonara tilt toward the American G.I. theory but that in the intervening years Italian chefs and food historians have wrested back sovereignty of this canonical Italian dish by espousing the Italo-centric angle.

Whatever the origin, spaghetti alla carbonara is a delicious dish that, for better or worse, continues to inspire new recipes and variations, often depending on the personal tastes of the chef. From a simple foundation of pasta, cheese, cured meat, eggs and black pepper, a world of different flavors and recipes continues to be created.


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