Spaghetti alla Carbonara

My introduction to spaghetti alla carbonara was nothing less than ignoble. In the early ’90s, I encountered the recipe in a low-fat, low-cholesterol cookbook I had borrowed from my friend Diane, a stick-thin Stairmaster mistress. Diane, who has an impeccable palate, nonetheless wanted slim-down versions of her favorite dishes during the week so that she could splurge on the real thing during weekends. The recipe—which in its unadulterated form is rich with eggs, pancetta, grated cheese, and plenty of freshly ground pepper—was an anemic version of itself. The final dish was a concoction of egg substitute, artificial bacon bits and low-fat grated cheese. After a few bites, I decided to steer clear of the dish—and the book.

Five years later, on a trip to Italy, several friends and I were dining at Vecchia Roma, on the Piazza Campitelli in Rome, and there on the menu was spaghetti alla carbonara. I was resolute in my aversion, and instead ordered risotto with shrimp and whitefish—utterly delicious, but like an ABBA song, I couldn’t get carbonara out of my head.

A week later in Bellagio in the Lake Como region, it appeared again on the menu of a small lakeside restaurant whose name I can’t remember, thanks to a bottle of Franciacorta spumante. I was going to pass it up until I read its description.”Alla carbonara,” the menu said, means “in the manner of the coal miners.” (Carbonara and carbone, the Italian word for coal, both derive from the Latin word carbo.) According to this legend, the dish was popular with miners because the few ingredients could easily be carried or, in the case of eggs, pocketed from henhouses on the way to work. When appetites knocked, a simple campfire in the woods was all that was needed to make an elegant meal. The liberal use of pepper is considered a modern-day metaphor for the specks of coal that would inevitably drop from the miners’ clothing onto the plates of pasta. Others say the name comes from the carbon that rose from cooking the dish over a charcoal fire.

A sucker for a good story, no matter the origin, I committed myself to finding the best spaghetti alla carbonara our trip had to offer. From Bellagio to Milan to Venice, I ordered the same dish, and each time something different was placed in front of me. Some contained cream; others, wild boar; still others had the temerity to sport sauteed onions and garlic, which tipped the balance of flavors.

After arriving home and discovering I had gained 14 pounds (the hazards of research), I briefly entertained the idea of Diane’s denuded version from years ago. But the real thing in all its iterations had wooed me and won. Now, would someone pass the Parmigiano-Reggiano, please?

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Spaghetti alla Carbonara

I’ve made this carbonara recipe with an extra yolk–as well as with all yolks. It’s up to you. The extra fat adds a silky richness to the dish–which no amount of jabber from Weight Watchers can convince me otherwise.–David Leite

Raw Egg Reminder Note

Hey, in case you hadn’t noticed, this recipe contains raw egg. Please be mindful if making it for anyone for whom this is a potential no-no.



Spaghetti alla Carbonara Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 10 M
  • 25 M
  • Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 3 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk, well beaten
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, combined with 1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  • 1. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it ripples. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until crisp. Slide the pan off the heat and forget about it for a few minutes.
  • 2. Meanwhile, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the salt and the spaghetti and cook, stirring often to prevent the pasta from clumping, until al dente. Drain, reserving 3/4 cup of the pasta cooking water.
  • 3. Working quickly, transfer the hot spaghetti to the skillet with the pancetta and place over very low heat. Immediately add the beaten eggs, half of the cheese, and toss well. Add just enough of the reserved pasta water to make the mixture lusciously creamy. Sprinkle generously with pepper and serve at once. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.
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Testers Choice

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Testers Choice
Beth Price

Jan 22, 2010

It was a rainy night, and I had no desire to brave the elements and hit the grocery store. This recipe allowed me to use ingredients that I had on hand—with one minor substitution of regular bacon for pancetta—and create an easy, soul-satisfying meal. The eggs, cheese, and pasta water formed a rich creamy sauce and peppered with the “coal dust” and crispy bacon combined for a real wow factor.

Testers Choice
Leanne Abe

Jan 22, 2010

Don’t be scared of pasta alla carbonara! Just remember to mix the pasta quickly once you add the eggs and add in the hot pasta water slowly (you might not need it all). I’ll never be able to eat the versions served with cream in restaurants again. This was delicious, so easy, so fast (!), and is ideal as a pantry dinner. The longest part really is waiting for the water to boil!

Testers Choice
Alexander Cowan

Jan 22, 2010

This is just one of those wonderful recipes that doesn’t require you to run out and buy a thing. Who doesn’t have pasta, cheese, and eggs laying around? This spaghetti alla carbonara was so simple to make that for my cooking style, it’s what it’s all about: a handful of ingredients with simple preparation with a great tasting result. Perfect.

Next time I make this dish I want to add fresh peas. I think the sweetness of the peas would contrast beautifully with the saltiness of the pancetta. I love that certain “pea-ness” (love you, Iron Chef) that only comes from fresh peas. I’m most certainly adding this to my arsenal. It just doesn’t get much better than this creamy, porky bowl of pasta-love. Great recipe!

Comments
Comments
  1. Judith Baland says:

    This is comfort food at its finest. I have a similar recipe for fideo. Takes me home every time I prepare it. Thanks, David.

  2. grace says:

    great recipe for an italian favorite, david! however, the real reason i’m commenting is because your title is so clever and i wanted you to know that i appreciate such brilliance. :)

  3. Humberto says:

    I will make these tonight replacing the pancetta with bacon. I have some smoked pork used on Brazilian Feijoada could I use this instead?

    On a different subject. David, you have a recipe for pork and beans in your book, the New Portuguese Table. I was wondering if you have a recipe of authentic Brazilian feijoada. The history behind the dish is fascinating, the black beans give a special touch and the bay leaves just complete the ensemble. I was wondering if you would know where the tradition of serving it with orange and fried collard beans come from?

    • Hi Humberto, my name is Leticia, and I’m a Brazilian chef based in the US. David suggested I reply to you regarding feijoada. (Thank you, David).

      To answer your spaghetti alla carbonara question, even though pancetta is unsmoked, yes, you can use any leftover smoked pork from a feijoada, and it will still have a strong enough flavor to stand to the carbonara sauce. (That is, if you have’t tried it already, sorry for being a day late.)

      As for the feijoada, I agree with you, it is a fascinating dish, with lots of history behind it. Collard greens are most often served braised rather than fried. The tradition of serving oranges with feijoada is based on the idea of “cutting through” some of the fat, which is left in the beans from all the meats cooked in pot. Some Brazilians serve orange segments on the side; some throw an orange cut in half into the beans; some even squeeze fresh orange juice and add it to the beans. My theory is a little different: if I use a lot of salted and/or fatty meats, the beans will end up fatty anyway, and no amount of orange or juice will fix that. So I like to make another batch of black beans to serve. In other words, the beans that the meats are cooked in aren’t the same beans served. But, of course, it all depends on what kinds of meat you use and how fatty the beans get.

      If you would like more info on the subject, my cookbook The Brazilian Kitchen is coming out this February and features a great recipe for feijoada. If you have more questions, please feel free to contact me leticia@chefleticia.com.

      • humberto says:

        Thanks Leticia
        I did the recipe with smoked pork and my wife loved it. I am sure going to check the Brazilian Kitchen book as I am Brazilian as well and I love to cook.
        Thank you.

  4. Laura says:

    I love spaghetti alla carbonara, but I never heard the story of the campsite before. Like most culinary things there is plenty of stories around each recipe.

    I have a hard time finding pancetta in the town where I live so I make this dish with bacon, but it is never the same. I also use onions, to add a little sweetness to an otherwise very earthy dish.

    I periodically check the site to become a tester without luck. Now going back to check more entries.

    Happy cooking!

  5. Amedy says:

    delicious recipe, everyone. loves it.

  6. Al says:

    What I loved about this recipe was that all the ingredients are readily available in our household and can be made on a whim!

  7. trevor says:

    great recipe i cooked it in culinary arts for eighth grade it was a two-day lab and it turned out great we all got A’s thanks!

    • David Leite says:

      Trevor, you’re welcome. So tell me: Are you interested in culinary arts? (Congrats on the A, btw.)

  8. Sharday says:

    Finally! Spaghetti alla carbonara the right way!! I lived in Italy for 3 years (I’m a military brat) and I would eat spaghetti alla carbonara every time we went to a restaurant off base because I loved it so much. When I moved back to the States, no one makes it right!! Thanks so much for this recipe!

    • David Leite says:

      Sharday, thanks for the kind words. I, too, adored spaghetti alla carbonara in Italy and was so disappointed when I got back to the States. So I researched for months until I found the traditional way to make it. This recipe is the result!

  9. Jenny says:

    Your blog is my one-stop-shop for recipes. Ever since you posted the ultimate chocolate chip recipe, I thought, “Wow. This is the first legit chocolate chip recipe I’ve ever tried.”

    2nd in line was the pasta carbonara. I haven’t had the opportunity to travel to Europe and visit Italy, which I hope to one day get to do…But I have had plenty of what many would claim to be pasta alla carbonara. I grew up in the Philippines, and had my fair share of watered-down white sauce, claiming to be carbonara….And perhaps because I was used to it, I enjoyed it to a degree.

    But when I read your blog about the story behind the pasta alla carbonara, I also couldn’t resist a good story. Strangely enough, I don’t read most blogs. I’m not much of a reader to begin with, but I did read this one. And then I watched the video and was thrilled to learn how quick this dish could be made…

    So, needless to say…I made it…Again…and again…and again.

    It’s incredible. So, simple, so rich… so easy. I only wish that reheating leftovers the next day was as impressive as it is straight out of the pan. But that never deterred me. I’ll eat it anyway!

    Now I plan on making it again, while attempting to make fresh pasta as well.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say that your chocolate chip cookie recipe and this carbonara recipe sparked my fondness for Leite’s Culinaria. While everyone else is recipe hunting on food network, I feel like I’ve discovered a secret gold mine.

    Thank you for all the inspiration!

    • David Leite says:

      Jenny, few people leave me speechless. But your comment has me gobsmacked. Just gobsmacked! Thank you so much for your kind words. This was my goal when I started the site in 1999. We hope you find many more recipes that delight.

  10. Beth says:

    David, I wrote your recipe in my food journal several years ago. It is absolutely the BEST. I have excluded pasta from my diet for the last few years and dream about this recipe constantly. The last time I made it was during a blizzard. I was home alone and am ashamed to say that I ate the entire (yes!) batch myself during that 24 hour storm. Hence the reason for the pasta embargo. Anyway, I recall you recommending putting a lid on the assembled dish for 5 minutes to cook everything and to create a silky sauce. I don’t see this now. Is there a reason for this because it was magnificent. I have passed this tip on to friends and they agree.

    • David Leite says:

      Beth, thank you for your kind words. I think I may have removed that tip for health reasons: the use of raw eggs. Yet I personally still do it myself. IF you chose to unembargo (disembargo?) pasta, don’t put the pan back over a low flame. Just toss the hot noodles and egg mixture together, cover, and let sit for several minutes, stirring occasionally.

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