Friday, February 3, 2012

Pancetta, bacon and the story of Carbonara

One of the most powerful and enduring memories I have of the time I spent working in Philadelphia as a short order cook is the aroma in the morning of bacon strips sizzling on the griddle. These days, just the sight of a frying egg is enough to send a sharp pang of nostalgia to my stomach.  Frankly, breakfast seems pointless and empty without it. Nowadays, every time I make a trip to London I load the boot, hoping it will be enough to see me through to the next trip. But it never is. My two young sons have developed a liking for it too!

The closest Italians get to bacon is pancetta. Of all the salume, it is pancetta that Italians most often cook with. Pancetta can come in many forms - smoked, unsmoked, rolled or flat. It is made from the belly of the pig and practically every region of Italy makes some form of pancetta. Here in Piacenza the local variety has achieved DOP status and is regarded as one of the best of its kind. The meat is simply seasoned by hand, rolled and hung to dry for a couple of months. The microclimate is left to do the rest. 

Although it might look like bacon, Italians generally don’t fry it in the pan and eat it between two slices of bread or with eggs. Usually it’s either eaten raw, in an affettato as an antipasto, or it is cooked with other ingredients. It is, however, used often, to the extent, you could say, that it’s something of a store cupboard staple.

The dish that follows, spaghetti carbonara is one of Italy’s ‘modern’ classics. 
It’s a recent invention as there’s no reference to it in cookbooks older than 50 years, at least not with this name. Like all Italian dishes there are competing claims to ownership and stories and legends which supposedly explain its origins. Truth be told, few of them appear very credible.

The name Carbonara derives from the word carbone – charcoal. So, one theory has it that it was a way of cooking pasta popular among Roman Carbinai - the men who worked in the bush, carbonising wood to produce charcoal. Others attribute it to the Carbonari - the underground Italian insurgents who fought for independence from the Austrians two hundred years ago. Another theory has it is that the dish was invented for the American soldiers who entered Rome after the Second World War.  When they frequented Roman trattoria’s they would ask for eggs, bacon and noodles for lunch. Hence, Roman chefs created a dish that incorporated the three ingredients. Although it’s a charming story, it doesn’t explain where the name came from!

I’ve been served some truly awful spaghetti carbonara in restaurants – mostly abroad, I have to say. One restaurant served it with peas and ham, another even threw pieces of chicken in the mix. Two or three times the pasta has come drowned in the best part of a tub of cream. And as if to disguise the shame, they tried camouflaging it in under a forest of chopped parsley. It’s strange, given that it’s such a simple dish to prepare. Now, to avoid disappointment, it’s a dish I only ever eat it at home.  There are a few acceptable variations on this dish. You can use either pancetta or guanciale (cheek), although it’s best you avoid using cooked ham. Also, I’ve been served this dish with grated parmesan cheese instead of pecorino but I have to say that whilst acceptable, it’s just not the same. Besides, good mature pecorino cheese is just as widely available these days. Whatever you do, however, avoid the Carbonara Cardinal Sin – leave the tub of cream and the parsley in the fridge – it certainly doesn’t belong here!!!

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Serves 4

320g Spaghetti, although the Romans also use Rigatoni
150g Pancetta or guanciale
30g grated pecorino cheese
2 or 3 organic free-range eggs (depending on size)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Chop the pancetta into cubes and cook at a low heat in a heavy based frying pan until the fat has dissolved. Don’t allow it to crisp and brown too much.   

In a bowl, beat together the eggs. Add the grated cheese and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. 

Boil the pasta in salted water until it is al dente, and then drain and add to the frying pan with the pancetta.  Switch off the heat, add the eggs and cheese and stir rapidly.  Don’t be tempted to over cook the eggs. The residual heat from the pan and the pasta will be enough to cook them through.  Serve immediately with an extra sprinkling of grated cheese.


  1. This dish is a favourite of ours. The kids love it. We tried to get fresh pancetta for another pasta dish that my husband makes this morning but due to the snow, there was no delivery

  2. Aaah, what to do without pancetta? I use it a lot Cathy. I usually buy a whole piece and leave it in the cellar. It keeps really well and that way, at least, I don't have to worry about the snow!

  3. Bouncing over from Paula's blog and I am subscribing NOW. Spaghetti Carbonara was the first dinner I had in Napoli in 1976 when I was stationed there for three years. Cooked right so that the egg cooks on the pasta and becomes a thick sauce, not runny, and not dry, it is like angels are singing when I take a bite. Unless there is a salumeria around we usually have to make do with prosciutto for home-made. We loved our three years in Italy and the Italians.

  4. Walking through San Francisco one morning we passed an Italian Restaurant with a newspaper article taped to the door saying that the owner was from Napoli and everything was authentic. They had carbonara. I walked 3 miles up the hills late that afternoon to have dinner there. When it came I took a fork and lifted the "ball of pasta" and there was an inch of some sort of liquid broth or something remaining in the bowl. I should have demanded that the article be torn down.

  5. Three years in Naples 6693 must have been a blast! I think Naples is one of the most beautiful and exciting cities Italy has to offer. It puts me in mind to write something about it. And yes, your description is spot on - 'like angels singing'! And as far as the restaurant is concerned, like I said, been there and done that - to avoid disappointment, make it at home (or, better still, take a trip back to Naples). Thanks for writing.

  6. Mario, I made the carbonara today - there is a great little restaurant/deli in town that had both pancetta and pecorino. It was not quite moist enough but very close and the taste was so much superior to the "cream sauce" you get even in allegedly Italian ristoriante. Next up is penne diavolo.

  7. So we are going hot next! 'Diavolo', I love it! The hotter the better. And as far as deli's are concerned, when I worked in Philly, some of the best food I ever ate came from discreet little back street deli's. Thanks again for tuning in.

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