The Quest for the Perfect Spaghetti Carbonara
Ann Hood, the author of the new book ‘Kitchen Yarns,’ recounts how she first discovered this creamy pasta dish and shares her personal recipe for it.
In the Italian American household where I grew up, red sauce ruled. Every Monday, my grandmother Mama Rose made gallons of it in a giant tarnished pot. She started that sauce by cooking sausage in oil, then frying onions in that same oil and adding various forms of canned tomatoes: crushed, pureed, paste. Without measuring, she’d toss in secret ingredients. Red wine. Sugar. Salt and pepper. Parsley from her garden. Always stirring and tasting and shaking her head, dissatisfied, until finally she got it just right. At which point the sauce simmered until, as Mama Rose used to say, it wasn’t bitter.
On Mondays, my after-school snack was always that freshly made sauce on slabs of bread, a taste sensation that I have never been able to duplicate. For the rest of the week, red sauce topped chicken, veal, pasta, meatballs, and even fried eggs for those Eggs in Purgatory, which we ate on Friday nights when we Catholics had to abstain from meat. We ate our pasta and all of our parmigianas, from chicken to eggplant, drenched in sauce. There was always a gravy dish of extra sauce on the table, and we used it liberally.
Such were my southern Italian roots. And until I was out of college and working as an international flight attendant for TWA, to me Italian food was always red. I had no idea that Italy was really a country of regions, with each region proud of and exclusive to its own cooking. Of course I had general knowledge of Italian history, and I could place Florence and Rome and Venice correctly on its boot shape. But the particulars of each region and its cuisine were a mystery to me.
In those days, I was ignorant about a lot of things. I’d led a fairly protected life in my small hometown in Rhode Island, surrounded by other southern Italian immigrants. We went to what was called the Italian church. Little old ladies dressed in black walked the streets of my neighborhood clutching rosary beads. The music there was the sound of our harsh Neapolitan accents, the perfume the smells of the grapes and tomatoes that, just like in the old country, grew in our backyards. Wine was red and made in basements, served cold. It was so bad that I never even considered ordering wine at a restaurant until I was well into my twenties.
Suddenly, at the age of twenty-one, with a degree in English from the state university, I found myself in a Ralph Lauren uniform flying all over the world feeding passengers on 747s. I learned how to get around Paris on the Métro. I tasted razor clams in Lisbon and moules frites in Brussels. I got used to buying Chanel No. 5 and Dom Pérignon in duty-free shops in international airports. Still, whenever I went home for a visit, I wanted spaghetti and meatballs in red sauce for dinner. Mama Rose had died by then, and now it was my mother stirring that pot of sauce until she got the perfect combination of flavors, simmering it all day, and letting me dip bread into it when it was finally ready.
The first time I had a layover in Rome, I imagined that the food there, the spaghetti, would somehow be even more heavenly than what I had grown up eating.
Struggling with the unfamiliar items on the menu, for some reason I ordered spaghetti carbonara. I suppose I thought that spaghetti would be safe, familiar. Because for all my newly found confidence and sophistication, truth be told I was often struck by homesickness during those early days of flying. Jet lag kept me up all night in unfamiliar hotel rooms. My junior status kept me on reserve, so that I never knew when I would be working or where I’d be going, which led to me flying with different crews every time. Many layovers found me on my own, wandering the streets of a foreign city, trying to muster the courage to go into a restaurant or café or museum alone. Eventually, I grew used to this upside-down life spent mostly by myself, but for the first year or so, thrust into the big, wide world after such a sheltered life, it was often difficult.
Perhaps on that afternoon in Rome, I believed spaghetti would span the miles between me and my family, connect us in some way.
Instead, what the officious waiter in the bow tie put in front of me was yellow. And speckled with brown instead of red.
“Uh,” I managed, “I ordered the spaghetti carbonara?”
What followed was a rush of dramatic Italian, much pointing to the menu and the spaghetti, and then the waiter’s departure, in a huff and without my plate of spaghetti.
I was hungry.
I was alone in Rome, the rest of the crew asleep or off shopping for cheap designer handbags.
What could I do, but eat?
I took my first tentative bite, and what I tasted was maybe the most delicious thing I had ever had. Salty with cheese and bacon, creamy with eggs, the spaghetti perfectly al dente like nothing I had experienced before. I tried to thank the waiter, to explain my folly in trying to send it back, but he ignored me. I didn’t really care. I had discovered something new, something delicious. I left that restaurant in love with spaghetti carbonara.
In those days, I was not much of a cook. But I knew I needed to learn to make carbonara. I scoured cookbooks and tried different versions of the dish. Back then, Italian cookbooks were few, and for some reason I could only find terrible recipes that used cream, or added mushrooms or onions. None of them were even close to the blissful dish I’d eaten in Rome.
Then, one day in a bookstore in Boston, I found an old cookbook filled with the recipes of Rome. I looked at the one for spaghetti carbonara; it was devoid of anything except bacon, eggs, and cheese. I bought the book, and the ingredients, and made it that very night.
We all know that when we have a perfect meal in a perfect faraway city, we can never quite duplicate the taste. But that night, I came close. And I used that recipe for every dinner party I had over the next couple of decades. Or, I should say, some version of it, because over time I lost that cookbook. Though it didn’t really matter, because by then I’d tweaked the recipe enough—increasing the bacon, decreasing the cheese, changing the proportions each time—to make it my own, just like my mother did with her meatballs.
Spaghetti carbonara has become my comfort food, the food I make when I’m lonely like I was that long-ago afternoon in Rome, the food I make when I want to welcome others into my home. I still love my red sauce, and I dip my bread into that simmering pot on my mother’s stove. But to me, spaghetti carbonara is the food not of my youth, but of my first steps into adulthood.
I am begging you, please do not put cream in your carbonara sauce. Don’t even order carbonara in a restaurant if cream is used. The creaminess comes from the magical alchemy of Parmesan cheese and eggs and pasta water. Once I went to a dinner party where carbonara was served and it not only had cream, it also had mushrooms! Which is, I suppose, fine, if it’s not called carbonara but instead is described as pasta with a mushroom-and-bacon cream sauce. However, feel free to use a pasta other than spaghetti, such as rigatoni or anything with the shape and ridges to hold the sauce. In Italy, there are somewhere between 260 and 350 types of pasta—the number varies with your source—and they are specifically designed with the purpose of clinging to a particular sauce in mind. It is said that the best carbonara is made with guanciale, which is cured pork jowl, or cheeks. Since this isn’t typically available at your local Stop & Shop, pancetta can be substituted. But I am a big advocate of using very good bacon. Do not put butter or oil on the cooked pasta—that prevents the sauce from clinging to the pasta. And be sure to cook the pasta only until al dente, which is usually about 9 minutes. But you can only be sure by tasting. I once had a date fling some spaghetti against the kitchen wall to see if it was cooked; this method, though dramatic, proved fallible.
- 1 pound Spaghetti or other pasta
- A drizzle of olive oil
- 1 pound Bacon, chopped
- 3 eggs, with another 1 or 2 optional
- Black pepper
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling on top
- Cook the spaghetti in rapidly boiling water to which a big handful of salt has been added.
- While the pasta is cooking, pour that drizzle of olive oil into a frying pan and heat it until hot.
- Add the chopped bacon and cook over medium heat until browned.
- Remove from the heat.
- Beat the eggs until yellow and frothy.
- Drain the al dente pasta, saving 1⁄4 cup of the cooking water.
- Put the drained pasta in your prettiest bowl.
- Add the cooking water and eggs and toss vigorously. Add the cooked bacon and toss vigorously again.
- Add the black pepper and the cup of cheese and toss yet again.
- If the pasta does not look creamy enough or you just feel decadent, add 1 to 2 egg yolks and toss again.
- Sprinkle with more cheese.
- Eat and swoon.
I love the carbonara at Otto in Greenwich Village. There they add curls of scallion on top, which looks pretty and adds a little kick to the dish.
Reprinted from Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food by Ann Hood. Copyright © 2019 by Ann Hood. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.