My Citizens – there has been much rancor and brouhaha across the InterWebs over the weekend regarding a true travesty of cuisine and the Italians are justifiably in an uproar! ANYONE who dares to mess with their beloved and seminal pasta recipes deserves the unhallowed fate awaiting them from millions of irate Italians giving them the fig amidst a virtual salute of profanity-laced diatribe! Not familiar with what I’m expounding on? Well – before we dive into today’s recipe, please read this and give a visceral shudder as you read how the Italians mobilized online and turned the NY Times into a quivering panna cotta of terror!
Now – with that out of the way, let’s discuss the history of spaghetti carbonara – you may be surprised this is a recent dish in the culinary timeline, only going back to the early 1950’s!
Carbonara is an Italian pasta dish from Rome made with egg, hard cheese, cured pork, and black pepper. The dish arrived at its modern form, with its current name, in the middle of the 20th century. The cheese is usually Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a combination of the two. Spaghetti is the most common pasta, but fettuccine, rigatoni, linguine, or bucatini can also be used. Normally, guanciale or pancetta are used for the meat component, but lardons of smoked bacon are a common substitute outside Italy.
As with many recipes, the origins of the dish and its name are obscure; however, most sources trace its origin to the region of Lazio. The dish forms part of a family of dishes involving pasta with bacon, cheese and pepper, one of which is pasta alla gricia. Indeed, it is very similar to pasta cacio e uova, a dish dressed with melted lard and a mixture of eggs and cheese, which is documented as long ago as 1839, and, according to some researchers and older Italians, may have been the pre-Second World War name of carbonara.
There are many theories for the origin of the name ‘carbonara’, which is likely more recent than the dish itself. Since the name is derived from carbonaro (the Italian word for ‘charcoal burner’), some believe the dish was first made as a hearty meal for Italian charcoal workers. In parts of the United States, this etymology gave rise to the term “coal miner’s spaghetti”. It has even been suggested that it was created as a tribute to the Carbonari (‘charcoalmen’) secret society prominent in the early, repressed stages of Italian unification in the early 19th century. It seems more likely that it is an “urban dish” from Rome, perhaps popularized by the restaurant La Carbonara in Rome.
The names pasta alla carbonara and spaghetti alla carbonara are unrecorded before the Second World War; notably, it is absent from Ada Boni’s 1930 La Cucina Romana (‘Roman cuisine’). The carbonara name is first attested in 1950, when it was described in the Italian newspaper ‘La Stampa’ as a dish sought by the American officers after the Allied liberation of Rome in 1944. It was described as a “Roman dish” at a time when many Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by troops from the United States. In 1954, it was included in Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, an English-language cookbook published in Great Britain.
Interestingly, I came across this fascinating history of the dish on toscanadivino.com:
Carbonara holds the secret to its original recipe, then, but also that of its origins. “It was invented during the years of the Carboneria,” some say; “no, it was the American GIs who inspired it.” Theories about who invented carbonara, and when, abounded, but nothing appeared certain.
Or so the majority of we Italians thought.
Then a couple of days ago, here comes, on the 8 o’clock news, Renato Gualandi, a 96-year-old chef from Bologna who, history teaches us now, invented carbonara. I was astonished, as I had never heard of him, even though it has been – I have now learned – one of the most influential chefs and restaurant owners of post-war Italy.
And yes: apparently he invented carbonara, guys.
Born in 1921, Renato Gualandi started early to work as a delivery boy for one of Bologna’s best known butchers. In 1932, he was an assistant at a local deli shop, Palmirani. Aged 18, he won his first culinary price in Catania, Sicily. Towards the end of the Second World War, he cooked both in Bologna, at Baglioni’s, and Imola, at the Albergo Grand’Italia: it was in this period, Gualandi says, that he created carbonara.
In 1952, he opened his own restaurant in Bologna, the legendary 3G. Gualandi’s approach to food was quite innovative for a time when culinary trends were largely dictated by the kitchens of Europe’s most famous five-star hotels. He ditched novel ingredients and complex flavors to return to the simplicity and authenticity of the dishes of his land, Emilia Romagna, and of Bologna in particular. He certainly had a lot to take inspiration from, considering the culinary patrimony of the region.
In 1959, his restaurant could sit 150 and by the time it closed, 12 years later, there were 7 “sfogline” (women who rolled pasta and pasta dough by hand) working in its kitchens. Very popular was also the 3G deli, annexed to the front section of the restaurant: with its large spit always going, this was where the bolognese went to pick up Gualandi’s creations to bring home.
Throughout its glorious career, Gualandi cooked for the Queen of the Netherlands, Charles de Gaulle, Enzo Ferrari, Wanda Osiris (immense Italian soubrette, singer and actress of the 1920s-1940s), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Tyrone Power.
Today, at 96, Gualandi is still well and cooking: he minds his vegetable and herbs garden in the hills around Misano, in the Rimini province, and still likes to entertain and cook.
It is Gualandi himself to tell how carbonara came to be. It was 1944 and Italy was still torn by the war. In those months, Gualandi had been working in Riccione, a seaside town on the Riviera Romagnola, today known for its beaches and nightlife. When Riccione was freed, the Allied decided to celebrate with a banquet: Gualandi was put in charge of it. There were quite some names attending, among them Harold Mac Millan, at the time in charge of the British forces, stanced in the Mediterranean (who was to become Prime Minister 13 years later) and UK generals Harold Alexander and Sir Oliver Leese.
With such guests, and for such an occasion, Gualandi had to put together something tasty, but only with what was available in town, mostly army rations of dried foods and a little meat. Gualandi admitted he wanted to create something new, that could bring together Italian and Anglo-Saxon cuisine; with a bit of help from Slovenian culinary tradition (he said to have been inspired by a soup popular in Isdria, callled “spikrofi”), he concocted a sauce for spaghetti made of bacon, cream, processed cheese and dried egg yolk, topped with a sprinkle of freshly ground pepper.
Needless to say, Gualandi’s dish was a success.
Regardless of the accuracy of Gualandi’s claim, the modern version of this recipe is truly rich, divine and delicious! The pasta is cooked in moderately-salted boiling water. The guanciale is briefly fried in a pan in its own fat. A mixture of raw eggs (or yolks), grated Pecorino (or a mixture with Parmesan), and a liberal amount of ground black pepper is combined with the hot pasta either in the pasta pot or in a serving dish, but away from direct heat, to avoid curdling the egg.
The fried guanciale is then added, and the mixture is tossed, creating a rich, creamy sauce with bits of meat spread throughout. Although various shapes of pasta can be used, the raw egg can only cook properly with a shape that has a sufficiently large ratio of surface area to volume, such as the long, thin types fettucine, linguine, or spaghetti.
Guanciale is the most commonly used meat for the dish in Italy, but pancetta and pancetta affumicata are also used and in English-speaking countries, bacon is often used as a substitute. The usual cheese is Pecorino Romano; occasionally Parmesan. Recipes differ as to how eggs are used—some use the whole egg, some others only the yolk, and still others a mixture.
Cream is NOT used in most Italian recipes and is an abomination – similarly, garlic is found in some recipes, all of them outside Italy. ESCHEW THEM!!! Outside Italy, variations on carbonara may include green peas, broccoli, broccolini, leeks, onions, other vegetables, and/or mushrooms, and may substitute a meat like ham or coppa for the fattier guanciale or pancetta.
These are all proof that Satan exists and is scheming to destroy your immortal soul – again, avoid these mutagenic horrors! The so-called ‘Carbonara sauce’ often sold as a ready-to-eat convenience food in grocery stores in many countries is thickened with food starch, and has the consistency of library paste. <cue the image of TFD vomiting profusely here>.
Now – for a recipe with only 5 ingredients (and trust me, this may be the lowest ingredient-count recipe on TFD!), those ingredients MUST BE THE BEST OF THIER KIND! Nothing less will do, and TFD wants only the ultimate recipes under His nom de guerre to circulate amongst you! So – let’s establish where you will be purchasing each ingredient! For the spaghetti, the best in the world is this one – the ultimate pecorino romano is here – the supreme guanciale IMHO is this one – the undisputed best butter in the world may be purchased here and lastly, this is the best black pepper on the planet!
Don’t mess with my ingredient choices, as TFD has been known to hire hardened mercenaries to hunt down those who DARE mess with perfection! 😉
I have every confidence that My Italian Citizens will be well-pleased with my personal rendition of the classic carbonara recipe of Rome – I hope you will see fit to indulge in the TRUE recipe for a great pasta primi (first) course – this is too rich to serve as an entree! Try it followed by a refreshing sorbet as a palate cleanser before a main dish such as this one for a lovely Italian meal! As always, my chosen sobriquet is the window into my soul – I am a Dictator who is looking out for His beloved Citizens and I want you to enjoy not only authenticity, but the BEST!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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