Ah, carbonara, one of my all-time favorites. Simple yet composed, cheap, quick, pretty easy but still fun to make, and hits all of the major hunger voids all at once: pork, cheese, salt, rich, starch, garlic, pepper. Yeah. A tip for those wanting to impress their one-night stand: Forget about mastering the morning-after omelet (sorry to sound like a dick but you’re probably making it wrong anyway), carbonara is just as easy or easier, and will definitely score you some bonus points. Nudge wink.
Like many of my favorites, it’s one of those dishes that’s rarely done well at a restaurant, which seems often to be the case for recipes with working-class origins. This might be due to its utter simplicity, both in composition and execution. Not including the pasta, we’re talking about five readily available and cheap ingredients (except maybe the cheese)—ideal for home cooking, not so suited for marketing to a paying customer.
Also, because the cook time is so short (less than 10 minutes) and must be done right before serving (can’t really be reheated), it’s not as much of a softball as many other pasta dishes, which can be made using a premade sauce and pre- or par-cooked pasta that can be refreshed in hot water or even nuked. You have to actually pay attention and actively cook (albeit for only a few minutes) with carbonara. As such, I submit carbonara is a quick and reliable barometer of whether a place that specializes in pasta is any good. In fact I will never go back to a certain North Baltimore establishment because its carbonara was so, so fucking bad. At home, if you screw it up, it’s still perfectly edible; you’d just have scrambled-egg pasta instead of a carbonara. Not the worst way to fail.
Although you will often see this dish made with spaghetti, apparently it is also common to use short pastas like penne, because it is easier to toss and mix evenly. I often use cappellini just because it cooks faster.
On the subject of authenticity: I often get shit from my Italian friends that I use standard ’murican bacon instead of pancetta. But let’s be honest: Pancetta is bacon, except not smoked (i.e. less awesome) and rolled up into a circle. Oh, and it’s triple the cost. So I don’t feel too bad about it. But then I get further shit from my other Italian friends who complain that it’s not authentic because I’m not using guanciale, which is also cured pork but made from the cheek. I will admit that guanciale is probably superior to most bacon in a head-to-head, particularly in texture, but for the purpose of essentially garnishing a pasta I don’t see enough of a benefit to make a special trip. Any bits of salty, fatty pork keeps with the spirit of the dish, I feel.
Speaking of garnishes, one thing that is absolutely essential is lots of black pepper, freshly ground if possible, coarse ground at the very least. That peppery pop is a great foil to the rich eggs and cheese. As for the cheese, any hard, salty, non-melty cheese like Romano or even pecorino would work. But I always use Parmigiano-Reggiano, because it is simply the best cheese for such applications and I always have some in the house. Pro tip: Always have some Parmigiano-Reggiano in the house.
Pasta Alla Carbonara
8 ounces dry pasta
2 strips bacon
1 egg, beaten
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoons finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Start a pot of boiling water and add 1 tablespoon of salt.
Cook bacon in a large pan over low heat until cooked but not crisp.
When water is boiling, add pasta and cook according to package directions.
Remove bacon to a cutting board, and chop into small pieces.
Drain all but 1 tablespoon of bacon fat from pan. Keep on low heat.
Drain pasta, reserving some of the pasta water—do not rinse the pasta!
Add garlic and pepper to the bacon grease and fry gently for about 15 seconds. Remove pan from heat.
Add pasta to bacon grease and toss thoroughly.
Add the beaten egg and toss again, adding some hot pasta water to thin the mixture if necessary. Adjust seasoning by adding salt if necessary.
Add the chopped bacon and cheese and toss again. Garnish with additional pepper and cheese and serve immediately.