Over the course of my culinary career I’ve learned how to make many different sauces to accompany pasta.
Off the top of my head here are a few sauces I like: Pesto, Marinara, Alfredo, Vodka, Puttanesca, Aglio e Olio, Creamy Marinara (aka Pink Sauce) and Ragu.
But my favorite pasta of all time is, hands-down, Pasta alla Carbonara
Why is Carbonara my favorite?
- It’s got pancetta, aka really tasty Italian-style bacon
- It’s got Parmesan cheese
- It’s got eggs
- It’s got a nice kick from the pepper to balance the creamy Parmesan, bacon and egg flavors
- It can be made in under 15 minutes
- It’s got pancetta
Going Back to Italy
In February 2007, I was studying abroad in Italy and had the opportunity to transfer to Padova, a large city about 45 minutes by train from Venice. I would finish the school year there.
The previous semester, while living in Trento near the mountains, I lived in a 4-bedroom apartment shared with 6 tenants, all from different corners of the world from Tanzania Africa to France. For my last semester, I wanted to mix it up and live with an Italian family.
Little did I know it would be the BEST decision I made the entire trip
In Padova, I was chosen to live with Simonetta Valerani, a mother of two daughters, Margherita and Mariana. The three women lived in an apartment with a spare bedroom that would soon be mine. Simonetta was born in Rome and brought with her the flavors of Southern Italy and a warm, friendly disposition.
And one other thing.
She was an INCREDIBLE cook.
Everyday she prepared two 3-course meals for her family (and me, the 4th wheel).
Breakfast: Coffee with a bit of toast or yogurt. Italians eat very light breakfasts.
Lunch: 1st Course: Pasta; Second Course: Meat with Vegetables; 3rd Course: Dessert such as fresh fruit, cookies or a bit of chocolate. This was followed by a nap, espresso and then I’d go back to school.
Dinner: Same as lunch, with pasta, meat, vegetables, dessert and vino
She lived to cook and serve her family. I would often watch her cook and learn tips and tricks. These unofficial lessons would later ignite my passion for cooking.
I spoke to other students and found out that their situations were very different. Their families weren’t always as warm. Also, the food they served wasn’t as delicious.
My favorite dish that Simonetta made, when it came to the pasta course was, (you guessed it) Pasta alla Carbonara.
She made Carbonara in a distinctly Roman style. In the North, Carbonara might have garlic, heavy cream and/or peas in it.
But from Rome, Carbonara is as it’s most pure: Good-quality pancetta, Parmesan, eggs and pasta.
When you eat it, you just want to smile. You get the wonderful tastes of the pancetta, the bite of the Parmesan and the eggs add a smooth and creamy texture.
The Reason It’s Called “Carbonara”
There are 3 believed reasons on how Carbonara came to be:
- “Carbonara” refers to “carbon” miners who enjoyed this hearty, heavy dish after a long day of working in the mines.
- “Carbonara” could also refer to the black pepper flakes in the dish look like small pieces of “carbon.”
- In the 1940s when American and British troops were stationed in Rome during World War 2, “Carbonara” came about because it was combination of popular English breakfast staples: eggs and bacon, with common Italian staples: pasta and Parmesan.
The point is, it doesn’t matter how it came about, just that Carbonara is around and it’s fantastic. Here’s my go-to recipe.
Last week I was hired for a Cooking Private Lesson and we made Fresh Fettuccine Noodles, Pasta alla Carbonara, Roasted Parmesan Broccoli and Tiramisu for a group of 8 teenagers. It was in honor of them all graduating high school and having a fun and educational cooking class experience before they went to college.
Pasta alla Carbonara
5 oz. Italian pancetta or good-quality bacon, cut into bite-size pieces (Whole Foods has great pancetta)
2 Tbs olive oil
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated + extra for serving
2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks
1 lb dried pasta such as Spaghetti or Rigatoni
ground black pepper, about ½ tsp
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season with a small handful of salt. Add pasta and cook for 1 minute less than package instructions, reserving a half cup of starchy water.
Meanwhile, in a large pan, add olive oil and cook pancetta on medium heat for 3-4 minutes, until cooked and the fat begins to render (which means it melts into the pan).
While the pancetta cooks, in a large bowl add eggs, 1 cup Parmesan, ½ tsp pepper and whisk together.
Add the drained, hot pasta directly to the pancetta and cook for 1 minute. Toss pasta and pancetta in the bowl with the egg mixture and use tongs to mix thoroughly so that the pasta absorbs the eggs to form a silky, golden sauce. Add a few splashes of pasta water to loosen the sauce if it’s too dry.
Serve immediately topped with extra Parmesan, black pepper and dream of Rome!
READ MORE: Veggie Pasta Carbonara with Peas and Spinach