About forty years ago, I returned from a European school holiday understanding that there was more to Italian food than red sauce and pizza. Growing up on the east coast of Canada limited my opportunity to eat ethnic food. My knowledge of Italian cuisine came from the Kraft and Catelli companies. Kraft pizza and Catelli meat sauce made up my entire repertoire. So, when I found myself sitting in front of a ‘real’ Italian menu in Europe, I was lost. The waiter kindly suggested the spaghetti carbonara. I took his recommendation. Having never seen a plate of spaghetti carbonara, I’m not sure how I mustered up the gumption to send it back to the kitchen, but I did. In retrospect, I’d say it was divine intervention.
“It’s not cooked.”
Although the waiter was ticked off, he marched the plate back to his chef. The next thing I knew, the chef was at my table holding a fresh spaghetti carbonara. The pasta was swirled in a creamy, golden sauce with no traces of raw egg white. He apologized for the mix up and waited for me to take my first bite. I awkwardly spun the spaghetti on to my fork and slurped it into my mouth. The look on my face was enough to send the chef happily back into the kitchen.
I’ve been chasing the taste of that spaghetti carbonara for fourty years.
I’ve had spaghetti carbonara in Tuscany and Rome, but neither plate lived up to my first. In Tuscany the chef used pancetta. It was good, but not perfect. In Rome the chef added mushrooms and peas; creative but not a true carbonara.
Guanciale not pancetta and certainly not smoked bacon, pecorino not Reggiano-parmigiana and whole eggs with a little pasta water not yolks mixed with butter or cream produces the elusive flavour haunting my memory. A true spaghetti carbonara is simple and stunning.
Use the freshest eggs you can find. If you can find guanciale, awesome, if not pancetta works. Once the egg and cheese mixture have been added to the pasta, don’t put the skillet back on the heat or you’ll end up with scrambled eggs.
Fourty years ago, in a tiny taverna in Athens, an honest chef took the time to correct his mistake on a dish being served to a high school student. Little did he know how his kindness would spark a life long passion for the heavenly diverse world of Italian food.
SPAGHETTI CARBONARA – serves 2
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 packed cup grated pecorino Romano, plus more for serving
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 3 ounces of slab guanciale, or pancetta, chopped into pieces 1/4 inch thick squares
- fresh chive shoots, to garnish
- Spaghetti – enough for 2 servings, amount depends on your appetite, but I recommend 6 ounces of dry pasta for two people. Keep in mind I have a big appetite!
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs and pecorino. The mixture will be thick.
- Season with a pinch of sea salt and black pepper. Set aside
- Prepare pasta according to manufacturer’s instructions.
- Meanwhile, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.
- Add the guanciale, and sauté until the fat just renders. You want it crispy not hard or burnt, so don’t walk away from it.
- Remove from heat and set aside.
- Just before pasta is ready, put the guanciale back on the heat, if needed.
- Remove the pasta with tongs from the pasta water. It’s okay to have some of the pasta water in your skillet. Stir or toss until the water has evaporated and the pasta is well coated with the rendered fat.
- Remove skillet from heat.
- Pour egg and cheese mixture on top of hot pasta and toss until the pasta is beautifully coated. If you are not comfortable tossing the pasta, use two large forks.
- Serve immediately, with extra grated pecorino and freshly ground pepper.
THE LOVE: This dish is tricky. I don’t suggest making it for more than two people at a time.
Thanks for reading.