Smile Politely

An Aged But Ageless Italian Classic

This past Thursday, Itchefs-gvci (Virtual Group of Italian Chefs), an organization made up of Italian chefs cooking abroad, kicked off the First International Day of Italian Cuisines around the globe. Itchefs-gvci rallied chefs, foodies and lovers of Italian food to celebrate the authenticity and quality of Italian cuisine by cooking or eating pasta alla carbonara according to the original recipe.

Now, I don’t need a holiday as an excuse to make pasta alla carbonara, as I became addicted to this sensational dish while working at the Great Impasta restaurant here in Champaign. There are many versions of pasta alla carbonara being prepared in professional kitchens around the world today, and every chef seems to have an individual version. According to the chefs of Itchefs-gvci, pasta alla carbonara “is in fact the symbol of counterfeit Italian cuisine in the world at large.”

The “authentic” recipe for pasta alla carbonara is quite simple, a quintessential Italian dish composed of only a handful of ingredients. Pasta alla carbonara hails from the region of Lazio and is made from eggs, cheese, guanciale, black pepper and extra virgin olive oil. American versions of the dish tend to add cream and/or peas and garlic, and often use pancetta or bacon in place of the guanciale, which is often difficult to find here in the U.S. I prefer the Italian version and if prepared properly, spaghetti alla carbonara is rich and velvety with the egg and cheeses forming a sauce that judiciously coats each individual strand of pasta.

There are many legends surrounding the origin of pasta alla carbonara. “Carbonara” in Italian refers to charcoal and some believe the dish was originally created as a meal for coal miners — simple and hearty. Others believe “carbonara” refers to the abundance of freshly cracked black pepper in the dish, which looks like little flecks of carbon. Yet others still suggest the dish was created during World War II when American soldiers stationed in Rome mixed their eggs and bacon with their pasta and a famous Italian dish was born. While the origin and preparation of pasta alla carbonara may be debatable, I’m sure Americans and Italians can agree that it is a successful pasta dish that should be celebrated more than once a year.

Pasta alla Carbonara

• 2 oz. spaghetti freshly cooked al dente
• 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
• 1 oz. flat guanciale or pancetta, diced small
• 1 whole egg or one egg yolk
• 1 oz. freshly grated Pecorino Romano and/ or aged Italian Grana Padano or Parmigiano Reggiano
• Freshly ground black pepper

1. Begin by bringing a large pot of salted water to a rapid boil.
2. Slowly render the guanciale in the olive oil in a medium sauté pan over medium low heat.
3. While the guanciale is frying, boil the spaghetti.
4. In a small bowl beat the egg and cheese together well.
5. When the guanciale has given up most of its fat and has become crispy, drain the cooked pasta from the water and add immediately to the pan with the guanciale. (Before draining save a small amount of the pasta water.)
6. Toss spaghetti with the guanciale until the pasta is evenly coated with the rendered fat.
7. Remove the pan from the heat and add the eggs and cheese. Stir rapidly until the eggs and cheese are fully incorporated into the pasta forming a creamy sauce. (The timing on this step is very important as the heat and moisture from the pasta is necessary to cook the egg.)
8. Toss the pasta with freshly cracked black pepper and if the pasta seems
dry add the reserved pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time until desired creaminess.
9. Serve immediately in a warm bowl with plenty of extra grated cheese and black pepper.

Serves one.

Note: Guanciale is the jowl, or cheek, of a pig which is salted and cured with coarsely ground black pepper. Pancetta is similar to guanciale, as it is cured and also un-smoked, but it is made from the belly of the pig like American bacon. American bacon is cured and smoked and can be found with or without black pepper. Triple S farm now has a cured pork jowl product for sale that I find very similar to the authentic guanciale (minus the pepper) and amazingly good. Don’t let the lack of pancetta or guanciale prevent you from trying this dish as you can use American bacon, like the Great Impasta does, with great success.

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