There are a few Italian dishes that are so simple but that require such attention and care that they are only at their best when they are made at home or in the fanciest, most expensive restaurants. Risotto is one of them. In order to make a perfect risotto, you really need to start it 20 minutes before you intend to serve it. Although you don’t have to stir it constantly, you do have to stir it often. You also have to dedicate an entire burner to the process. Then you have to eat it almost immediately. Most restaurant can’t afford to produce and serve a dish in this manner. And if they do, they have to charge a fortune for it. You are better off making risotto at home.
Spaghetti alla carbonara is another dish that’s usually better in the hands of an experienced home cook. Though simple, the temperatures have to be just right: too cool and the eggs will be runny, too hot and they will curdle. Like risotto, carbonara also has to be eaten as soon as it is ready. If it sits, it clumps; if it’s reheated, the eggs scramble. What’s more, most restaurants doctor the recipe with cream or cream sauce, both aberrations of the original Roman speciality.
In addition to only using eggs too make a true carbonara, you should also use guanciale, or cured pork jowl, a Roman specialty. Guanciale is becoming more common as the charcuterie craze takes hold across America, but often guanciale made outside Italy is cured and smoked. It is not traditionally smoked. If you can’t find true guanciale, pancetta or unsmoked country bacon are my preference. And then, when all else fails, just use your favorite smoked bacon, which, it should be noted, makes a mighty delicious carbonara. no matter how inauthentic.
What follows is my favorite recipe at the moment for spaghetti alla carbonara. It is based on advice from two friends, Oretta Zanini de Vita and Maureen B. Fant, whose recent collaboration on the Encyclopedia of Pasta, just won a James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship. My technique has been changed slightly from the recipe I published in my own book, Kitchen Sense, but that recipe (page 253), makes a delicious carbonara, as well.
With so few ingredients, like most Italian dishes, spaghetti alla carbonara behooves you to use the best ingredients you can find. I made it for dinner the other night with a beautiful, fine Italian pasta made from kamut, an ancient variety of hard wheat that some Italian chef friends prefer to durum wheat. Any top quality, imported Italian pasta will do. Ronzoni won’t. Choose your pork product carefully (see above), but also your eggs (farm fresh is best), and your cheeses. Imported Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano will improve the final product. So will exquisite extra virgin olive oil and cultured European butter—these days my favorite comes from the same region in Parma that makes the king of cheeses.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Serves 4 to 6
1 pound (450g) fine, imported Italian spaghetti
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
6 ounces guanciale, pancetta, country bacon, or smoked bacon, cut into strips (lardons) about 1/2-inch wide
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large eggs
1/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano, plus additional for garnish
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper
Bring about 5 quarts of water to a rapid boil with a scant 1/4 cup of kosher salt. Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente, 8 to 9 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the guanciale and cook slowly until the fat renders and the meat browns, 6 to 7 minutes. I keep the pan over a very low flame to keep the pan hot and keep the meat roasting until I need it.
In a large, ceramic mixing bowl (for better insulation), beat the eggs until fluffy. Add both cheeses, 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, and a generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.
When the spaghetti is just about cooked, add the butter to the sauté pan with the guanciale and cook until the milk solids begin to brown. Using a ladle, beat 3/4 cup of the boiling pasta water into the eggs and add about 1/4 cup of the same water to the pan. Drain the pasta, do not rinse, and add it to the pan. Turn up the heat under the frying pan so the water boils rapidly. Using tongs, toss the spaghetti with the guanciale until the noodles are coated with the fat. Transfer the pasta to the bowl with the egg mixture and continue tossing with the tongs until the eggs begin to thicken and the cheese begins to melt so that the sauce clings to the noodles.
Divide the noodles and the guanciale evenly into warm bowls, top with additional grated Pecorino Romano and a grind or two of black pepper and serve immediately.