Let me start by saying that Spaghetti alla Carbonara is not a Pugliese dish. You might find it on a few restaurant menus here, but this decadent bowl of flavorsome pasta belongs irrevocably to the culinary legacy of Rome. So why am I writing about it from my kitchen in Martina Franca? Because Spaghetti alla Carbonara is the guiltiest of guilty pasta pleasures and I have a surfeit of especially fresh eggs from the country calling to me. What could be better than showcasing them in a pasta that depends upon just a few ingredients to make it sing?
The origins of Spaghetti alla Carbonara are unclear, although Mediterranean food historian Clifford Wright offers several plausible theories here. Today, this sumptuous plate of pasta so closely associated with Roman food tradition can be found all over the city. Where is the best representation of this iconic dish? Visit Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog or, better yet, invest in her Rome food app. It’s easy to go wrong in such a heavily-touristed city and you won’t want to waste a moment with inferior meals when you visit.
For my own version, I started with some truly amazing eggs from last week’s country idyll. These Pugliese chickens have free access to a wildflower-filled meadow supplemented by bits of vegetable trimmings, so their yolks are the deepest marigold you can imagine. They stand upright in a puddle of translucent albumen when cracked, turning everything they touch into a saffron puddle. Next, I used pancetta from a farmer nearby, although Romans prefer the fattier guanciale to provide both the flavor and texture this dish wants. I mixed freshly grated parmigiano and pecorino cheese for a balance between the mellow depth of the cow’s milk parmigiano and the salty, sheepy tang of the pecorino. The rest of the ingredients are simple: finely chopped yellow onions; Pascarosa extra virgin olive oil; top quality dried spaghetti from Italy; Kosher or sea salt and the coarsely grated black pepper for which La Carbonara is named. Don’t let anyone tell you that adding heavy cream to Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a good idea. It’s not authentic and definitely isn’t necessary, besides the way it muddies the flavor intensity of the other ingredients.
Serve Spaghetti alla Carbonara with a salad of bitter greens to provide a contrast to the silky richness of the pasta. Good choices are arugula, radicchio chicory and maybe some finely shaved fennel, with a simple olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette. If you can still find room, fruit for dessert is a great idea.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara—Spaghetti with Eggs, Guanciale and Black Pepper
5 ounces guanciale or pancetta, cut into small cubes (1/4 to 1/2 inches)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 cup dry white wine
1 lb. spaghetti (look for brands like Benedetto Cavalieri, Rustichella d’Abruzzo or Latini are all great)
4 eggs (preferably from free ranging chickens)
¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano
1/3 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
Kosher or sea salt
Fresh, coarsely ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the guanciale or pancetta cubes and stir until the pork begins to render its fat—about 3-4 minutes. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent and beginning to become golden—about 10-12 minutes. Add white wine and simmer until the liquid is reduced by about half. Keep warm.
Bring a large (6-8 quart) pasta pot full of water to the boil. Add 2 Tbsp. of salt, return to the boil and add the spaghetti. Quickly stir the spaghetti with a wooden spoon to prevent the pasta from clumping together, cover the pot, and stand by until the water returns to the boil. Remove the lid and stir occasionally until the spaghetti is al dente (resisting your teeth at its core as you bite into a piece) .
While the pasta is cooking, whisk together the eggs, cheeses and pepper in a small bowl.
Just when you’re ready to drain the spaghetti, reserve a cup of the pasta water then drain the spaghetti into a colander. Return the sauté pan of guanciale or pancetta and onions to the stove over low heat and add the spaghetti. Using two spoons or pasta tongs, toss the spaghetti with the guanciale or pancetta and onions until well coated. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly add the egg and cheese mixture, tossing to combine. Be sure to do this off the heat to avoid scrambling the eggs. Don’t worry if it happens, though. It won’t be beautiful but it will still taste good. If necessary, add a little of the pasta cooking water to the mixture in the sauté pan to achieve a creamy sauce that clings to the spaghetti. Taste for salt and add as necessary. Add a little more coarsely ground black pepper to each portion before serving.
Serves 6-8 as a first course; 4 as a main course.