What’s the one item you’re likely to find on nearly every menu in Italy? If you said spaghetti and meatballs, your answer is plausible, but it’s wrong.
Spaghetti and meatballs is actually an American dish, invented, it is true, by Italian immigrants to this country, but invented here nonetheless. These days you can find spaghetti and meatballs on the menu in Italy, but more often than not at tourist traps. In contrast, the one item you are almost always assured to find on any restaurant menu there is spaghetti carbonara.
Though there are reportedly some 400 versions of the recipe, spaghetti carbonara is fundamentally just warm spaghetti laced with a creamy sauce made of eggs and cheese and studded with cured pork. In other words it’s essentially bacon and eggs with pasta. No wonder it’s so popular.
Though popular, its origins are not so well known.
Probably the most common theory about the invention of the dish derives from its name. The word carbonara, loosely translated, means “in the manner of the charcoal pit,” and comes from the Italian word for coal.
According to this theory spaghetti carbonara was invented by the men who made charcoal in the Apennine Mountains near Rome, camping outdoors for months at a time. They took with them the few ingredients needed to make spaghetti carbonara—cheese, cured pork, pasta, olive oil, and salt and pepper—which did not require refrigeration and combined them with eggs which were readily available at local farms to create the dish. The smattering of pepper called for in the contemporary dish is said to represent the specks of coal that would often drop from the workers’ clothing as they cooked.
Though the theory is debatable, spaghetti carbonara is irrefutable proof of the genius of Italian cooking.
I’ve tried lots of recipes for pasta carbonara, but this is the one, from the Joy of Cooking, I keep coming back to. It’s easy, delicious, and for the most part authentic, unless you substitute cream for the pasta water which, I confess, I usually do.
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 ounces diced bacon
1 pound spaghetti
1/3 cup pasta water
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/3 cup grated pecorino cheese
Cook bacon in oil over medium-high heat until crisp. Pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat. Cook pasta. Combine pasta water with eggs and cheese. Drain pasta and add to skillet with the bacon. Add egg mixture and toss over medium heat until sauce thickens. Season with pepper. Top with additional grated cheese and serve.