FORGET THE BACON BITS

Seems like everywhere I went in Italy in September I came across a new and different version of Spaghetti Carbonara.  This surprised me since I believe in leaving well enough alone, and a classic Spaghetti Carbonara is just perfect.  Why mess around with it?

The first new version I came across substituted cubes of swordfish instead of guanciale.  It sounded so weird, I had to try it.  What was I thinking?  Of course, the poor swordfish was completely overwhelmed by the pecorino and did not belong on the same plate.   The other versions I came across also found substitutes for the guanciale.  Is there a shortage somewhere of cured pork cheeks?  I don’t get it.

In an Italian cooking magazine, I spotted a version made with zucchini, which probably tastes okay, though maybe a little bland.  In a Roman restaurant, the waiter said the day’s special was a mix of Carbonara with la vignarola, the Roman vegetable stew that contains artichokes, peas, fava beans and onions.  That sounded like it had potential, though I did not order it. Nor did I try another variation that was being served at Michelin-starred Roman restaurant that involved a quail ragu ala Carbonara.   I was still scratching my head about that one back at home when a friend described to me a famous chef’s “diet version” of Spaghetti Carbonara, made with yogurt and bacon bits.

Basta!  That’s enough!   Spaghetti Carbonara is made with just a handful of ingredients:  guanciale (cured pork cheek) or pancetta (or bacon if you can’t find either), olive oil, eggs, pecorino romano, and black pepper.  Notice I did not say cream, which is an Americanizzazione. Some chefs here add it to keep the eggs from curdling, but it really detracts from the flavor.

I don’t think something as rich as Spaghetti Carbonara is something you should eat often, but if you are going to eat it, treat yourself to the real thing.  The rest of the time, you can have a perfectly satisfying but less calorific dish of pasta and vegetables.  And forget the bacon bits.

SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Romans credit the hard-working charcoal deliveryman as the inspiration for this quickly made pasta. They say the generous grinding of black pepper resembles specks of coal dust!

4 ounces guanciale or pancetta, cut into thick slices

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 large eggs

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 pound spaghetti or linguine

3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Cut the pancetta into 1/4-inch pieces. Pour the oil into a skillet large enough to hold all of the cooked pasta. Add the pancetta. Cook over medium heat, until the pancetta is golden around the edges, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat.

2. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a generous amount of salt and pepper.

3. Bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, then the pasta, gently pushing it down until the pasta is completely covered with water. Stir well. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, tender yet still firm to the bite. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water.

4. Place the cooked pasta in the pan with the pancetta and toss well over medium heat. Add the eggs and a little of the cooking water. Toss gently until the pasta looks creamy. Sprinkle with cheese and more pepper. Toss well and serve immediately.

© 1,000 ITALIAN RECIPES by Michele Scicolone, John Wiley and Sons, 2004

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    • Michele Scicolone