Heard of Spaghetti Carbonara?
Sometimes I think with all of the dishes in Italian cuisine, a true carbonara tops them all. So why don’t we order it more often and why don’t we hear about it as much as alfredo or marinara? Hmmm… could it be we get in an Italian food rut?
Carbonara, Where Have you Been All Our Lives?
When my husband lived as a student in Italy he found out that the variety of fabulous pasta dishes greatly exceeded what he had been exposed to America. Back in those days (you know, the dinosaur days of the 1970’s) your typical American Italian restaurant stuck to pizza, spaghetti with meat sauce, meatballs, baked ziti, and fettucini alfredo. No problem because those are all delicious. Some of us ventured into veal piccata, or chicken marsala. But it was rare to find a carbonara on the menu.
Hooray for Little Italy
Later we all found out that if we visited one of the many “Little Italy” areas in big cities, we could treat our taste buds to a wider variety. You know. Manhattan, Boston, or Philly. The Bronx, Brooklyn, or Queens. Chicago, San Diego, or San Francisco. They helped broaden our worldview. Still, we often stuck to what we knew. After all, those dishes were so delicious and comforting. Occasionally when we spied a carbonara, Americans tended to think, “Bacon on my spaghetti? Nope!” Wow were we ever misinformed!
Londoners Knew the Secret
Although Italy was my husband’s grand introduction into authentic carbonara, we soon got a revived interest. Moving to England we discovered that Europeans often passed on the heavy alfredo sauce (no judgement here, I could enjoy some alfredo even now as I am writing.) They opted for carbonara. We were surprised and decided carbonara deserved a bit of investigation. I mean ultimately, doesn’t carbonara get its creaminess in the same way as alfredo? We decided to find out.
Bacon, Bacon, and Bacon?
Let’s first take a look at the meat involved. In America most bacon is cold smoked (smoked raw), cured, comes from the belly portion of a pig, and contains fat. Aaaah breakfast at its finest. While England has something similar, called streaky bacon, they more commonly serve a bacon taken from the tenderloin portion of the back. Although it comes from the same part of the pig as Canadian bacon, it incorporates a bit of the fat unlike its leaner North American cousin. English bacon is cured and comes both smoked and unsmoked (or “green.”) But here is the thing: while carbonara in England occasionally contains their local butcher’s bacon, if it is authentic it has none of these. Read on.
Anyone for Pancetta?
A traditional recipe uses either guanciale or pancetta. Depending on the region. Or the family. The chef. Or the preference. Perhaps the availability. Are you getting the picture? Be careful because it is a very sensitive subject. Both are Italian cured pork pieces often translated by Americans to simply “bacon.” Pancetta comes from the belly of the pig. It has recently become readily available in the U.S. even in local grocery store delis. Guanciale comes from the pig’s cheeks or jowls. It is seasoned with herbs, dried, and like pancetta, aged in order to absorb the herb flavors. It’s a bit harder to find. Remember our friend Arthur Petrosemolo who helped us with this blog about Pizza Rustica? Well, he recommends a fabulous little shop in Wyomissing called Russo Food and Market for Italian ingredients. Thanks again Art. You are becoming our Italian advisor. :)
Where is the Cream?
Okay so now we know that the meat is very important. And of course the cheese should be a quality romano, though some Italians will let you use a very good parmegiano-reggiano or as we like to call it: parmesan. And I don’t mean from a shaker container. But what about the creaminess? Isn’t it an alfredo sauce. “Non ci penso propio!” (no way!} In fact while alfredo and marinara are both sauces, there is no carbonara sauce. Carbonara is, rather, the dish itself.
And the Process?
To make a true carbonara, after frying the meat and cooking the pasta separately, you then add the pasta to the meat, lift your pan off of the direct heat, and pour the eggs and herbs over the hot pasta. The eggs “cook” via contact with the hot pasta, not with the bottom of the pan. The cheese is tossed in. Some Italian grandmothers insist on separating the eggs and folding in separately while others use the whole eggs. I like this recipe.
Where Is It?
After contacting various Italian restaurants we discovered something extraordinary. Most do not boast carbonara on their menus. Some that do, actually no longer make traditional carbonara but substitute a cream sauce or even an alfredo. Reason number one is obvious: it is best cooked while everyone waits and then served immediately. Reason number two? Both the English and the Americans love a rich, creamy sauce. And additions. The English keep their additions simple like peas or mushrooms. But stateside we like to add chicken or shrimp. Because honestly shrimp just takes everything up a notch (or at least I think so, being raised in Florida.)
Even our own Nature’s Yoke cook makes a mouthwatering version that will make you beg for seconds. It might make some traditional Italians click their tongues and turn up their noses. But they just might change their mind after trying our recipe! That shrimp. Sorry Nonna. It’s yum.
Local Restaurants to the Rescue
Although two of our local Italian restaurants did not have a traditional carbonara on their menu, when we called in and asked for it we were pleasantly surprised. In BOTH instances, an Italian owner or chef came on the line and said they would be more than happy to make us an authentic version. We did not mention a blog, but only called in as anonymous customers. You can imagine how impressed we were.
Both versions were incredible. Palermo’s was a wetter, somewhat creamier version with a milder taste. Simply delicious. We have been told to use the starchy water in which the pasta was boiled to add a bit of wetness if it is your preference, which may have been what they did. Sal’s had a saltier, meatier flavor, was drier (I liked the dryness,) and the egg and cheese flavors stood out. It appeared to have both types of Italian meat. We recommend you ask both restaurants to let you try it. They were outstanding dishes and will be repeat orders for us. Kudos.
Go for It
Hopefully, we’ve made you want to go to one of our local restaurants, or your favorite one, and ask for spaghetti carbonara. Or try your hand at making it at home. You will be won over.