The world's best spaghetti alla carbonara (and lots of gratuitous sex)
If I were told I could eat but one thing for the rest of my days pasta would be it, yet it occurs to me I have yet to write even one word about it. How the hell did that happen? How could I have possibly neglected my favourite, if you had to pick your last meal, meal, to this point? Beats me, but I guess I should explain how it all started.
As a university student, pasta was little more than a cheap, easy way to feed myself. My pasta specialty -- I can't believe I'm admitting this -- was a concoction of overcooked penne drowning in a sauce of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and hot sauce. ("Robert, for crimes against good taste you are hereby sentenced to a lifetime of Chef Boyardee.") Did I enjoy it? Much to my shame, I did, but I like to write it all off as typical college-age experimentation.
My love affair with pasta really began with two dinners in Rome. The first meal was at Hostaria Isidoro, near the Colosseum, where my wife and I enjoyed a pasta assagini, or tasting. I remember our server telling us that he would continue to bring us different pastas until we finally admitted defeat by saying "basta!" And so it began. Scampi, mussels, clams, lobster, gorgonzola, broccoli, artichokes, and eggplant, served with spaghetti, penne, bucatini, gnocchi, cavatappi, and rigatoni.
We ate, and we ate some more. Believe me, I tried to make up for all the overcooked pasta smothered in cream of mushroom soup I ate in university. Sins forgiven and stomach full, I relented after eight wonderful bowls of pasta. "Basta," I gasped (my wife uttered not a word, having already succumbed to gastric torsion), "no more."
Then I asked for the bill. What I got was a calendar, but not just any calendar. No, this was a calendar with a drawing of a different sexual position for each day of the year (a sexual assagini, if you will). Now that's using your noodle (stop me before I pun again)!
The second unforgettable meal was at Pommidoro, a wonderful Roman trattoria with a traditional wood oven, or brace, in which they make some of the finest pork dishes I've ever eaten. What really blew our minds that night, however, was the spaghetti alla carbonara, a Roman staple that is probably the most enjoyable bowl of pasta on the planet. The carbonara at Pommidoro had wonderfully crispy, salty, pan fried nuggets of guanciale -- Italian salt-cured pig jowl -- and loads of pepper and pecorino romano. This dish is not for the faint of heart: the key to the dish's richness is eggs, egg yolks, and a remarkably forward pepper hit.
Guanciale is a food beyond compare, but I'm going to make a comparison anyway. It's most comparable to bacon, I suppose, or, really, pancetta. Every time I try it, the flavour reminds me of Kentucky Fried Chicken skin, which, let's face it, is so good Colonel Sanders should be made a five-star general in tribute. When it's pan fried guanciale develops a wonderfully crispy texture on the outside, while retaining a satisfying, tender chewiness inside. There are many staples of Italian cuisine I wish were available in North America, and guanciale tops that list because it is so delicious. After discovering Mario Batali's recipe for it, I planned to make some of my own, but there is no room cold enough in my apartment to do so, and my wife has what can only be described as an irrational objection to me trying any food preparation technique that has a better chance of ending up maggot food instead of human food.
That doesn't mean I (or you, for that matter) can't make lip-smacking spaghetti alla carbonara, of course, just like I did the other day. Damn, was it good. I've always had trouble preventing my eggs from scrambling ever so slightly when I've made this dish, but I made a few simple adjustments, and we were in Yummytown (population: 2). The eggs made a beautiful, creamy sauce, the pancetta was crispy outside and tender inside, and the entire dish had a pronounced peppery bite. If I had a sexy calendar, I would have given it to myself.
Spaghetti alla carbonara
There are a couple of keys to producing a creamy sauce, not scrambled eggs:
1. Use room temperature eggs
2. Temper the beaten eggs with a bit of the pasta water
3. Try and cook the guanciale slightly before the pasta, so the eggs are added to a warm, not hot, pan.
500 grams spaghetti or bucatini
4 room temperature eggs, beaten
200 grams guanciale, pancetta, or best bacon cut into 1.5 cm (approx 3/4 inch) lardons
30 grams (approx. 3/4 cup), finely grated pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano
pepper to taste
1 tsp olive oil
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When water boils, add a generous amount of salt.
Heat a saute pan over medium high heat. Add olive oil and guanciale, and saute until outside is crispy but inside remains slightly chewy, approximately 3-5 minutes. Drain desired amount of fat from pan (guanciale fat tastes good, so I try to leave a generous amount in the pan).
Place spaghetti in boiling pasta water. Prepare as per package directions. Reserve at least 250 ml (1 cup) of the pasta cooking water.
Add pepper to taste to beaten eggs. Add a couple of teaspoons of scalding hot pasta water to the eggs to temper them.
When spaghetti is al dente, place saute pan with guanciale and fat back over low heat. Drain the spaghetti and add it to the saute pan. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the noodles, tossing constantly (I find a good set of tongs work best). Add pecorino and more pepper, if desired. Mix well, adding pasta water to loosen the sauce, if necessary.
Serve promptly with additional pecorino and pepper.