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A taste of Rome: Carbonara on white dish; photo by StudioGi.

. . . Rome is as good as it gets, particularly when you throw in Italian food.~ Roger Federer

The cuisine of Rome is like its people ~ direct and energetic.

A number of restaurants near the Rome's Piazza Venezia serve a good Spaghetti Carbonara.

Motor vehicles rule Rome’s crazy-busy Piazza Venezia. At its center is Il Vittoriano, a monument honoring unified Italy’s first king. Il Vittoriano’s nickname is “The Wedding Cake.” It’s not hard to guess why.

Throughout the city and the surrounding region of Lazio, strong flavors prevail in dishes made with humble ingredients of the highest possible quality.

Pasta alla Carbonara, Rome’s signature dish with the oh-so-creamy sauce, is one of these.

It’s a delicious meal with simple ingredients that are simple to prepare.

This is true even though carbonara is the most complex of the tantalizing three tomato-free pasta sauces the Eternal City is best known for, in terms of the number of ingredients.

Three Pasta Sauces featuring a Taste of Rome

Cacio e pepe

Gricia

Carbonara

For example, the sauce for cacio e pepe (cheese and black pepper) is made with—you guessed it—cheese and black pepper.

Any sauce for pasta alla gricia will contain salt-cured pork, cheese, and black pepper.

But carbonara sauce goes one better than the gricia sauce. Cheese, black pepper, cured pork, and eggs are essential ingredients.

That’s how pasta alla Carbonara got the nickname: “Italian-style bacon and eggs.“

A taste of Rome is this "Carbonara on white dish" - photo by StudioGi.

Oh, yes, this is Italian home-style cooking at its finest. So then, what’s in this tantalizing taste of Rome?

Pasta alla Carbonara ~ What’s In There

  • EGG YOLKS  from large eggs at room temperature to make the silkiest carbonara sauce possible. However, the dish originated in the early days of post-World War II Italy, where few could throw away perfectly good food. Therefore, as I once did, many cooks made their carbonara with whole eggs with good results.  Nowadays, carbonara chefs simply make other dishes to put their discarded egg whites to good use.
  • BLACK PEPPER that is freshly ground and plenty of it.
  • PASTA – typically spaghetti, but you can use any high-quality dry pasta with enough texture for the sauce to cling to. 
  • CHEESE—traditionally, Pecorino Romano is the hard, salty, and aromatic milk cheese produced by pasture-raised sheep in Sardinia, Lazio, and southern Tuscany.

Pecorino Romano cheese is a tangy taste of Rome; photo by Deanna from Chicago 'burbs.

  • SALT-CURED PORK ~ Ideally sourced from guanciale, pig jowls cured with salt and pepper. Yes, hog jowls. You can’t get more humble than that.Guanciale is a taste of Rome typically used in Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Spaghetti all'Amatriciana; the "Slicing guanciale (pork jowl)" with slices of guanciale and a knife on a wooden cutting board photo is by Giorgenko.Guanciale adds a level of porky-ness to foods other cuts of pork don’t. Many modern-day Romans have gone as far as to say ~

If it doesn’t have guanciale, then it’s not Carbonara!

However, locating guanciale can be challenging unless you live near a butcher shop or deli specializing in Italian foods. Many Italian-born cooks—even in Italy—use pancetta instead when they cannot obtain good-quality guanciale.

So if you absolutely, positively cannot get a hold of guanciale, all is not lost.

Simply use pancetta instead.

A flavorful taste of Rome: pancetta che soffrigge in padella; photo by Paolo Fornaseri.

Or thick, fatty bacon.

With all its glorious smokiness, American bacon does not taste like guanciale, but if it’s all you’ve got, run with it.

But, c’mon Melodie (you may be asking): Can you really create a taste of Rome using American bacon?

Yesss! You can still prepare a Carbonara good enough to make everyone around your table beg, “More, please!”

In a pinch, even pasta alla Carbonara made with small strips of American bacon can satisfy the palate seeking a taste of Rome.

NOW THEN . . .

How did “pasta alla Carbonara” come to be?

As is the case with traditional dishes elsewhere in Italy, the origin of pasta alla Carbonara (or simply, Carbonara) is rooted in local history, the stories of Lazio and Rome.

One story tells about the charcoal makers ~ or carbonari ~ for which the dish is named.

These artisans made a living in the countryside by turning wood into coal. They spent many days and nights in the mountains away from home to complete the work.

So, to sustain themselves in the field, they took along inexpensive pork and pecorino cheeses preserved by salt, just like the soldiers of ancient Rome had done centuries before them.

Ancient building ruins in the background, lush gardens in the foreground, and large numbers of pedestrians in the center dominate this view of the Roman Forum.

Ruins of what was once the center of downtown Rome, the Roman Forum.

Now, Carbonara is one edible bit of Italian history that doesn’t go back nearly that far, which brings us to our second story ~

This is the one about how American powdered eggs and bacon fed hungry Italians at the end of World War II. And how American GIs stationed in Rome shared their enthusiasm for bacon and eggs with the people there . . .

Who, being Roman, improved upon what the Americans started by swapping out the powdered eggs with fresh eggs, bacon with guanciale, and American cheese with their beloved pecorino.

Then, the people remembered that these specific foods together were what the carbonari used to eat. So they named the new dish accordingly, adding lots of black pepper to taste.

No wonder there’s no mention of the dish in any cookbook before World War II.

This central Italian “classic” pasta alla Carbonara is less than 100 years old!

Yet, in that short time, it has become one of the world’s most recognized Italian pasta dishes. If you’ve tasted Carbonara before, you know why. If you haven’t, doncha think it’s time to taste what you’ve been missing?

WHAT NOW?

  1. Head for the kitchen and start bangin’ some pots together for this easy-to-prepare and easier-to-love Spaghetti Carbonara recipe.
  2. How exactly do the carbonari make charcoal from wood? This article and this photolog feature some of the last remaining carbonari at work.

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS (FAQs) ABOUT PASTA ALLA CARBONARA

  • What kinds of pasta can I use to make Carbonara besides spaghetti?  You can use rigatoni instead. Or mezze maniche (half-sleeves), a pasta with rigatoni-like ridges but only about half as long. Another good choice is bucatini, a pasta you might mistake for spaghetti until you notice it’s hollow, like a reed. Can you imagine any better place to hold the sauce’s cheesy-porky goodness than inside the pasta?
  • Can I use another kind of cheese in place of Pecorino Romano? (I don’t like the strong taste of Romano cheese.) You’re not alone. Many Italians prefer the milder taste of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and use it instead of Pecorino Romano. (Some chefs use equal parts of freshly grated Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese; you might like  this combination, too.)

PHOTO CREDITS

Featured image, Carbonara on white dish by Studio Gi; Guanciale “72,” by Giorgenko; Roman Forum with a Touch of Purple by Eustaquio Santimano; Pancetta che soffrigge in padella/frying lightly in a pan by Paolo Fornaseri; Pecorino Romano by Deanna from Chicago ‘burbs.