Spring peas, ham, and cream: three things that are never in authentic Carbonara.
Culturally, Italian immigrants to America (like the Irish; think corned beef, an item that does not exist in Ireland) had to make use of the ingredients that were available here. They adapted their recipes. Old World techniques and New World ingredients. Thus, despite Carbonara consisting of all staple ingredients — things that would be in nearly any pantry in the Lazio — it’s more difficult to recreate here without some work.
Italian cooking is regional. I’ll commit real sacrilege here by revealing that I do not like pasta. I am rather carnivorous, and if I am inclined to eat a starchy carbohydrate, pasta would never be my first choice. Give me risotto. Give me polenta. Give me potatoes cooked in fat. I’m sure I’ve upset a couple of Roman restauranteurs by eschewing their pasta offerings. I just don’t like pasta unless it’s a positively perfect presentation.
With some very simple ingredients, you can make a handful of the most simple, popular, prevalent, and undeniably delicious pastas on the planet. Even I will eat them, or a little bit at least.
So, let’s talk about the pantry. The areas surrounding Rome were/are agrarian. Lots of shepherds, lots of sheep, lots of hogs. Dry pasta carries well and can be made by simply boiling salted water. I suspect some coastal Italians sometimes used water from the Mediterranean for pasta water, because the level of “saltiness” in pasta water is supposed to match the salinity of sea water.
Pecorino Romano, a dry, aged cheese made from sheep’s milk is ubiquitous. It’s used in place of the more popular Parmigiano Reggiano which is more prevalent in the north. It isn’t aged as long, is more white in color and less nutty in flavor than the Parmigiano. It melts better into sauces. It has a robust, full flavor. You can “taste the sheep”, which is a good thing in my book.
I prefer Pecorino to Parmigiano. You can get a good one from Italy at Costco, for not a lot of money. Pecorino is usually half the price of Parmigiano. If you want authentic pasta from the Roman canon, buy the best Pecorino from Italy that you can find.
Oh, and you use less cheese when it’s higher quality. More flavor packed into each ounce.
Guinciale. Next to the Pecorino, the meat that is used will be the principal flavoring. It is the most difficult item to source, so difficult in fact that I make it myself out of the raw pig jowls.
You can, alternatively, use pancetta (which is easier to find, but still not terribly common in the food deserts that comprise most of the U.S.). Some popular recipes call for pancetta. My wife would prefer that I use our house-cured pancetta, because it has a milder, less “porky” flavor.
If you don’t use guinciale and opt instead for pancetta, the pasta will be good, but it won’t be as good as the real thing. I suppose you could travel even further down the path of compromise by using some form of salt pork or bacon. I would only use bacon as a very last resort. (In fact, I wouldn’t use it; I’d make cacio e pepe instead). The reason is that American bacon is heavily smoked. That smoke flavor will overpower everything else about the dish.
Next, eggs or tomatoes. I say “or” because I can’t think of a pasta dish where these two ingredients go together. If Pecorino and Pasta are the pavement, tomatoes and eggs are the fork in the road. With the foundation of cheese and pork, by adding tomatoes you will arrive at Amatriciana. If you instead use eggs, you have Carbonara.
With these basic staples: dry pasta, Pecorino, guinciale, eggs or tomatoes, you can make at least four excellent pastas: alla gricia (Pecorino and guinciale); cacio e pepe (Pecorino and eggs, and pepper); carbonara (Pecorino, guinciale, eggs); or Amatriciana (canned tomatoes, Pecorino, guinciale). The basic method of preparation is the same for each.
Spaghetti Alla Carbonara (6 entree portions)
4-6 ounces of guinciale or pancetta, diced into thin strips
1.5 pounds dry spaghetti (best possible quality, “Garofolo” brand from Costco is quite good and reasonably priced; don’t buy any old generic dry $1 pasta from the supermarket)
5-6 whole eggs (fresh is best)
6 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
Unlike many dishes, most pastas must be served immediately. Make sure your guests will be ready to eat when you serve, before you begin cooking the pasta. Boil a pot of salted water for the pasta.
Add the guinciale to a large skillet and cook over medium heat, until the guinciale is nicely browned (but not over crisped or dark) and much of the fat has rendered out.
Whisk the eggs and two-thirds of the cheese together with the black pepper in a bowl. I like a lot of black pepper in this. Set aside for the moment.
Once the pasta water is at a rolling boil, add the pasta and begin cooking. Do not cook the pasta completely. When it is about two-thirds to al dente, add several ladles of pasta water to the skillet with the guinciale and rendered fat, and then transfer all of the pasta to the skillet with a pair of tongs. Add enough pasta water to keep most of the pasta in liquid, continue to turn the pasta in the skillet while cooking over medium high heat.
When the pasta is almost to al dente, remove the skillet from the heat and add the egg and cheese mixture. Continue to toss the pasta and incorporate the eggs and cheese with the tongs and watch the magic happen. The eggs will set up (as long as you move everything around with the tongs and keep the skillet off the heat, the eggs will not scramble) and you will have created a fantastic sauce. If you’d like to have it set up a little more, you can briefly set the skillet over the heat and continue to toss for a few seconds. Do not overcook.
Add all but a few tablespoons of the remaining cheese and toss a final time.
Plating consists of adding the correct portion of finished pasta to a warm plate, and garnishing with a teaspoon or two of grated cheese, and a little chopped parsley (if you like; most trattorias omit a parsley garnish, but I happen to like it).