Pasta alla carbonara – a controversial recipe

Pasta alla carbonara is probably the most controversial pasta recipe in Italy.  There is no “official recipe” like, for example, for the pasta all’Amatriciana.  And the origins of this dish are also not clear.

Spaghetti alla carbonara
Photo by Stefano Angeli

Today in Rome every restaurant will tell you that the Carbonara has just these ingredients:  spaghetti, eggs (mostly yolks), guanciale, pecorino romano cheese and black pepper.  That’s it.  Nothing less, nothing more!  Absolutely never ever think to use cream! You have to learn how to make it creamy by using just eggs, pecorino and some cooking water!  Never ever use onion and/or garlic! Never ever use other cheese: only “pecorino romano”!!

But…  the problem is that there is no proof that the recipe above is the “real” carbonara. There is no official recipe at all.  So we need to do some research to understand its history, its origins and what ingredients should (or could) be used.

There are at least 3 different theories.

The most “creative” one tells us that the Carbonara recipe was born in Rome in the ’40s.  More precisely when Rome was freed by the allied troups (mostly US soldiers) in 1944.  Soldiers brought bacon to Rome and asked to make a pasta dish with some of their favourite ingredients: eggs and bacon.  So the early carbonara used bacon, or the italian pancetta, and only later on replaced by guanciale (which is completely different from pancetta or bacon).  This theory is supported by the fact that in 1930 Ada Boni, a culinary journalist and writer, wrote a couple of books.  One was about italian recipes in general (Il talismano della felicità).  The other was about Rome’s traditional recipes (La cucina romana).  None of the two books has the carbonara recipe!

Another theory about carbonara’s origins tells us that this dish was an evolution of the “cacio e ova”.  The carbonai (charcoal burner), who worked on the charcoal klins on the moutains between Lazio and Abruzzo, probably modified the recipe.  They added to the “cacio e ova” pasta (cheese and eggs) one ingredient: guanciale or pancetta.

The last theory starts from Neaples.  A 1837 cooking book showed a recipe that could be considered the early version of the carbonara. But there was not any guanciale or pancetta.  Probably, according to this theory, this dish arrived in Rome and some restaurant modified it by adding the guanciale.

Other hints about carbonara origins

Things get even more foggy if we try to find all the carbonara recipes published on old italian cooking books.  In 1968 edition of the “Talismano della felicità” lists also these ingredients : onion, butter, parmigiano cheese (not pecorino romano) and parsley!   The same book in the 1999 edition gives the following ingredients:  eggs, pancetta (not guanciale), butter, oil, parmigiano or pecorino (!), pepper.

I am still trying to find more information about its evolution in time.