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.

Basic hints for cooking pasta

Basic hints for cooking pasta the italian way.

Let’s start!  One of the best known italian food in the world is “pasta”.  With the word “pasta” we identify dozen and dozen different kind of pasta, they may differ for shapes, cooking times and what it’s made of (durum wheat – grano duro – flour is the most common).

But the rules to cook pasta is more or less always the same.  You will need a large and tall cylindrical pot, water, cooking salt and obviously the pasta you want to cook.

Spaghetti pasta

I will not write about the sauce used to complete the pasta dish here.  I would just like to explain how pasta should be cooked in the right way.


The 1-10-100 rule

There is a rule we use, called 1-10-100.  It means that for every 100g (3.5oz) of pasta you need 10g (0.35oz) of cooking salt and 1lt (0.22gal) of water.  Obviously these can not be “fixed” numbers, it will depend on the shape and dimension of the pasta used and the cooking time.

For example if you want to cook 100g of spaghetti you will probably need more than just 1lt of water (probably even 2lt).  If the cooking time is longer than the average you will need to use a little less salt (water will evaporate a little if the cooking time is longer and the percentage of salt in the water will become higher).  If the kind of pasta is very large (paccheri, fusilloni are just a couple of example) you may need a little more water 1,1-1,2lt instead of 1lt.

Also, according to latest health reccomandation some chefs are suggesting to reduce the salt quantity for each litre of water to 6-7g (0.20-0.25oz for 0.22gal).

So it’s better to keep the 1-10-100 rule as a hint from where you should start, and then fine tune depending on your needs.

Time to cook!

Some people will tell you to use a little of oil in the water to avoid that pasta will stick.  This is not needed and actually it may create some problems with the sauce not being able to stick to the pasta due to the fact that the added oil create a film on each piece  that will not allow the sauce to combine.

So, put the water in the pot and bring it to boil.  Right the moment it starts to boil, add the salt and the pasta.  Stir well for a few seconds.  Then check every now and then it does not stick and stir again from time to time.

What is the right quantity of pasta?  The normal serving quantity for each person is usually around 80g (2.82oz) for the dried pasta (the whole wheat flour one). For the fresh made pasta (the one made with eggs or “pasta all’uovo) is around 60g (2.12oz) .

The right timing

Read carefully the cooking time on the package!  That is the time you need to cook to get the pasta cooked “al dente” (it’s almost cruncy to your teeth).  Try not to overcook it.  Do not exceed the cooking time on the package, otherwise you will end up with a pasta “scotta” (ovecooked).

Pasta “scotta” is not the way we eat pasta in Italy, and it may give you some troubles.  First of all it’s harder to digest.  Second, but probably more important, you need to complete the cooking process with the sauce. Usually  this means you will have to cook it a little more in the sauce.  This will result in a very overcooked pasta that will taste like “colla” (glue).

So please, stick to the cooking time on the packaging and do not exceed it.

Some links (in italian) about it.

Welcome 2018

Welcome 2018, welcome to my blog.

Today, January 1st 2018, I am starting this trip.  A journey, a culinary journey, around the italian cuisine, its recipes, its food.  But not only.  In this blog I want to write about what I am learning in every aspect of gastronomy.

I will write about traditional italian recipes, what ingredients are needed (the right ones and the wrong ones), what techniques are required, the history of the recipe and all of this will also bring me to examine in depth the italian food products, how to chose them, where to find them, how to use them.

I have been cooking all my life, for almost 30 years all by myself.   But I have never really studied “cooking”.  I read a lot of book, tested a lot of recipes, but never with the right focus, with the right purpose.  I never realized that cooking for me was a passion.  After 30 years I finally got it.  And this discovery came with some pain, with some disappointment:  the moment I realized all I wanted was to cook, I also realized that I did not know how to do it right.  All the things I learned in 30 years were useless, wrong or not enough studied.  I needed to restart all over again, from scratches.

30 years ago

In 1988 I left my parents home and went to live by myself in Milan, in a small apartment.  I started to cook for myself, for my friends, testing new recipes and using my friends as “guinea pigs”.  30 years ago.  Then in 2000 I got married and I started to use my wife as “guinea pig” (do not tell her I called her this way).

I would like to thank all my friends and most of all my wife for all the patience in these years, while I was trying to learn.  I did it in the wrong way.  But all of you were always very supportive.

Exactly 30 years later it’s time to change.  I want to approach cooking in a completely different way.


Today my culinary trip is set to start again, this blog will be my logbook.  If you want to travel with my I will feel honored to bring you with me in this new adventure.

Time to start!

Stefano Angeli