In his autobiography, writer Romain Gary tells the story of how Italian-American actor Danny Devito verbally abused a chef who had unfortunately confessed to adding cream to his spaghetti with carbonara sauce. An episode that is not at all hard to believe: various studies, not least the one recently promoted by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, have shown that Italian carbonara recipe – made from eggs, cheese and diced pancetta – is the most wrongly interpreted pasta dish out of Italy, the most bungled but also one of the most popular.
Most authoritative Italian recipe books give no indication of its existence before 1930, which would confirm its recent invention. Among the possible explanations put forward to explain its origins, we like to think it is closely related to the United States: in fact, it starts to get a mention after the liberation of Rome in 1944. It is possible that smoked bacon started to appear on Roman markets round about that period, together with the powdered eggs rationed out to the US troops. But the more nationalistic and romantic among us do not agree. They think that carbonara is a later version of a Roman dish known as "cacio e ova", carrying the distinctive regional mark of Latium and Abruzzo. The name of carbonara apparently derives from the fact that it used to be prepared by the lumberjacks who went up the Apennine hills to make charcoal (carbone, in Italian). Certainly, no expert of traditional recipes would use belly bacon: the authentic recipe calls for guanciale which is actually cured pork jowl with a high muscle content and a low quantity of (quality) fat.
Leaving aside the discussion that rages outside of Italy, this recipe even causes our own chefs and gourmets to squabble: a whole egg or just the yolk, pecorino or parmigiano, garlic or onion, or neither? The old school of traditional Italian cuisine seems to be in substantial agreement over the indications provided by Anna Gosetti della Salda in her authoritative and time-honoured recipe book: in fact, she is adamantly opposed to the addition of cream and, as far as the other ingredients are concerned, she allows for some minor variations. A long pasta type is called for, the eggs have to be beaten apart – preferably only the yolks – and the pepper must be freshly ground: in fact, in this recipe it is considered an essential ingredient rather than just a seasoning. Less expert cooks and foodies must take care to avoid the risk of turning the dish into a sort of “scrambled eggs”: this happens when egg comes into contact with a temperature of 75° or more, causing coagulation. It is therefore advisable to mix the ingredients away from the heat to prevent such an occurrence.
In Italy, there are many celebrity chefs who have been unable to resist the charm of this recipe. One of the best I have ever eaten was the famous carbonara of Luciano Monosilio, chef of the Pipero al Rex restaurant in Rome, who owes his fame largely to this dish. The ingredients are guanciale, egg yolks and a mix of grated parmigiano and pecorino cheese, but the real secret consists in a sort of savoury zabaglione made from egg and cheese which he first beats with a hand whisk while still cold before placing the mixture in a bowl over a bain-marie as he continues to whisk it. His final piece of advice is that the diced guanciale should be fried to the point of crispness so that it never feels soft when you bite into it. Monosilio is not the only chef, however, to have tried his hand at la carbonara, a dish that has been interpreted in some of the most creative recipes: Heinz Beck, chef of the three Michelin starred restaurant La Pergola in Rome, prepares it by wrapping the ingredients in little pasta parcels which, when in the mouth, release all the flavour of an entire portion. Antonello Colonna captures its aroma in a sort of tortello or stuffed pasta, while Davide Scabin conceals the quintessence of carbonara in a doser: after having stabilized the egg at 75 degrees, he squirts it on the spaghetti with nonchalance as though it were ketchup.