Another Roman signature pasta, carbonara has lots of contradictory origin stories, but the name is related to “carbon” or coal, and it was first recorded as a Roman dish during WWII. It involves coating the pasta with a mixture of egg yolk and cheese, accented with pancetta (bacon) and black pepper. It is fast, rich, easy and very different from standard red and cream sauces, and a style you rarely find in the US. Carbonara is not a sauce but a process in which the egg yolks are cooked by the heat of the pasta itself, so there is no “carbonara sauce” that you can prepare ahead of time, though the noodles reheat very well, and cold carbonara has much the vibe of cold pizza. There are two fiercely-adversarial camps, those who include cream in their carbonara and those who don’t; cream is more common in northern Italy and overseas, so many Americans think of carbonara as a cream dish, which Romans don’t. Spaghetti is the shape of choice, but fettuccine or bucatini and occasionally rigatoni are used. Just don’t use it on anything like rotini or shells or the cheese and egg will all collect inside the big crevices and make it weird.
My recipe is my own and certainly not identical to any you would find in Italy, but it’s a practical way to make it taste good with easy ingredients.
Ingredients (enough for 1 lb pasta)
- Six eggs, depending on desired texture
- At least ¼ lb. fresh grated parmesan or pecorino Romano
- ¼ lb. diced pancetta or bacon
- Black pepper
- Optional: ½ cup “egg beaters” or other liquid egg product
- Optional: 2 tbsp. butter or cream
- Optional: Diced yellow bell pepper, peas, sliced mushrooms
- Start pasta water heating, and cook pasta as you work.
- Separate egg whites and yolks. (Whites are usually not used; see below.)
- Simmer pancetta/bacon in a small pan with a little olive oil until fully cooked. Set aside.
- For vegetarians, substitute yellow bell pepper. Some add peas or mushrooms.
- Optional: for extra protein, fry the egg whites in the oil that’s left over after cooking the pancetta or pepper. Otherwise let oil cool and pour it into the egg yolk mixture, and save the egg whites for mousse or something.
- With a fork, stir egg yolks together into a nice smooth liquid. Add butter or cream if desired. If using butter, melt it but make sure it is not hot enough to cook the eggs.
- IMPORTANT: all must be ready before the pasta is done, including grating the cheese!
- When the pasta is done, drain it and put it in a bowl, or back in the pot to keep it hot.
- Some save ½ cup of the water the pasta cooked in and stir it into the yolk mix.
- Immediately, while the pasta is still steaming, drizzle the egg yolk mixture over the noodles, stirring constantly so it coats them nicely. The heat of the pasta cooks the eggs.
- Immediately sprinkle on the cheese, again stirring constantly. The heat will melt the cheese and make it adhere to and coat the noodles.
- Note: some versions mix the cheese and egg yolk together before adding them.
- Optionally, for super-eggy version drizzle on the liquid egg product
- Add the pancetta/bacon and/or vegetables and, if you cooked them, the egg whites. Stir.
- Add black pepper. Stir. Serve with extra parmesan or pecorino Romano to grate over it.