PHOTO BY LA CUCINA ITALIANA
A Brief History of Carbonara
The origin of Pasta alla Carbonara is a matter of debate – as it happens when something is this popular and beloved. If it is true that there's a halo of mystery surrounding the history of one of the most famous pasta dishes in the world, it is also true that we do know a few things for sure.
For example, we know that Pasta alla Carbonara is not ancient matter. It's a pretty recent dish. In a 1951 movie called "Cameriera bella presenza offresi..." one of the characters, the employer, asks the maid if she knows how to make spaghetti alla carbonara. This seems to indicate that the dish was not yet widely known, and it was somewhat of a special skill being able to prepare it.
Another early mention dates back to 1952, when the first Carbonara recipe was published on a restaurant guide from Chicago called “An extraordinary guide to what’s cooking on Chicago’s Near North Side,” authored by Patricia Bronté.
The first Italian recipe for the dish is said to have been published in August 1954 in the magazine La cucina italiana, which lists spaghetti, egg, bacon, Gruyere cheese, and garlic as ingredients. That's right, pancetta and not guanciale. Guanciale comes only later, with Luigi Carnacina's “La grande cucina,” published in 1960. For those who don't know who Luigi Carnacina is, think of him as the father of modern Italian cuisine. It is worth mentioning how "il Carnacina" also includes "panna" – heavy cream – in his Pasta alla Carbonara recipe.
But where does Pasta alla Carbonara actually come from? Where was the idea of pasta with bacon, egg, cheese, and black pepper put together? We have a few hypothesis, but there's one origin story that was never disproved, Renato Gualandi's story.
Renato Gualandi was a young chef of Bolognese origin who was hired on September 22, 1944 to prepare a lunch on the occasion of the meeting between the Eighth English Army and the Fifth American Army in Riccione just liberated (this was during World War II). Making the best of what he had, he unwittingly created a dish destined to become famous worldwide. I his words: "The Americans had fantastic bacon, delicious cream, cheese, and egg yolk powder. I put everything together and served this pasta to the generals and officers for dinner. At the last moment, I decided to add black pepper, which gave it an excellent taste. I cooked the pasta al dente, and they were won over by the dish."
This is what we are able to say with some degree of certainty about the origins and history of Pasta alla Carbonara. Of course, if you ask someone from Rome, they'd very likely tell you a different story. But that's part of the game when we talk about traditions, food, wine, and people. Myth and reality can become almost undistinguishable.
INGREDIENTS (4 people)
- 400g spaghetti
- 200g guanciale, diced
- 4 large eggs
- 100g Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
- 50g Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
- Black pepper, salt
- Cook the spaghetti in a big pot of salted boiling water until it's al dente. Take about 1 cup of the cooking water and put it in a cup, drain the spaghetti.
- While the spaghetti cooks, cook the guanciale in a large frying pan over medium heat until crispy and golden. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside.
- Whisk together the egg yolks, Pecorino Romano cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and a generous amount of black pepper in a bowl.
- Add the cooked spaghetti to the frying pan with the pancetta or guanciale and toss.
- Pour the egg and cheese mixture over the spaghetti and toss quickly to coat the pasta evenly.
- Add a splash of the reserved pasta water to the pan and toss again, to create a creamy sauce that coats the spaghetti.
- Serve the Carbonara Pasta hot, with an extra sprinkle of Pecorino Romano cheese and freshly grounder black pepper.