Spaghetti alla Carbonara

In matters of pasta, I will usually defer to Marcella Hazan; she is as close to a food god as I know. But for this dish, I must disagree with her. She doesn’t like using bacon, because the smoky flavor “adds a sharpness that wearies the palate after the first bitefuls.” She’s wrong about the bacon, but I wish I could write like that! Hazan says that pancetta is the only way to go. While pancetta makes a good carbonara, try both and you will see that the smokiness of good bacon adds a wonderful component to the egg and cheese flavors.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 pound dry spaghetti or linguine.
8- to 12-ounces bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips
2 ounces extra virgin olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 extra-large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Black pepper (Fresh!)
½ cup Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, chopped

Cook the pasta in a large quantity of salted water until it is al dente, or firm to the bite. Drain it, reserving a cup or so of the pasta water.

While the water for the pasta is heating, put the bacon into a large sauté pan, along with an ounce or two of good olive oil. Cook the bacon on medium heat until it just begins to crisp, then add the chopped garlic. Turn the heat down a bit and continue cooking until the bacon is crispy and thegarlic is soft. Be careful — if the garlic browns too much or burns, it will add a bitterness to the dish that can only be masked by several large glasses of a good Chianti. Try to time it so that the pasta is finished cooking at the same time as the bacon and garlic.

Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and whisk them until they start to become frothy. Add the Parmigiano-Reggiano and whisk until the cheese is completely absorbed by the eggs.

Add the pasta to the bacon and toss until the spaghetti is completely coated with the bacon fat and olive oil. Add the egg and cheese mixture (do this off of the heat), spreading it over the pasta as you pour, and toss again, coating the pasta and lightly cooking the eggs. This is the tough part. The pasta has to be hot enough to barely cook the eggs as they coat the pasta, but not too hot; otherwise, you will have scrambled eggs. That’s not a bad combination, but it isn’t Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Crack some black pepper into the pasta and toss again. I like tossing the parsley in with the pepper, but you can also use it as garnish after you serve it. If the sauce seems to be too thick, add a bit of the reserved pasta water.

As for serving? I use a pair of tongs and try to get a bit of everything into the serving. It looks great if you twist the tongs as you lower them into the plate. It mounds the pasta and makes you look like a professional.

2 Replies to “Spaghetti alla Carbonara”

  1. Have you considered how difficult it is to find good bacon in Italy? I suspect Marcella Hazan’s reluctance to replace pancetta with bacon is due solely to availabilty…

  2. That’s a good point. But Marcella Hazan cooks in New York, and has lived here for years. The full quotation from her recipe is:

    “While there are inumerable minor variations in the way people make this celebrated Roman dish, there are really only two substantially different schools of thought. One maintains that pancetta, a mild, cured, unsmoked Italian bacon, is the only correct bacon to use. The other school insists on the smoked American variety. Both are good, and both are popular in Italy, but the version I prefer is the one with pancetta. The flavor of smoke is not usually associated with Italian food; certainly hardly ever outside of Alto Adige, a German-speaking region in the North that was once part of Austria. In this dish, I find that smoked bacon adds a sharpness that wearies the palate after the first bitefuls. Try it both ways, and decide for yourself.”

    * * Marcella Hazan, More Classic Italian Cooking, page 122, Ballentine Books, 1978.

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