Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®

January 2005
© 2005 by Bret S. Beall


I love Pasta alla Carbonara. I use the generic "pasta" because so many pasta shapes are useful in Carbonara (though, admittedly, the traditional spaghetti is one of the best shapes to use!). Also, I frequently use the abbreviated name, Carbonara, as the name of this dish; please don't let my vernacular confuse you.

Originally from Rome, Spaghetti alla Carbonara is prepared differently in every kitchen. No single recipe stands out from the rest as the "ur" Carbonara. In fact, for years, I relied on a version by James Beard that brought me much happiness and joy. However, I went on to try other people's versions, and to create my own. I identified lots of variables: smoked or unsmoked bacon? Garlic? Onions? For me, the most annoying variable was how dry some versions were. I assure you that the abundance of ingredients in my version below, and in the accompanying variations, will ensure that this Pasta Alla Carbonara will not be dry.

You will note that I have included wine, vinegar or citrus juice as an optional ingredient in the basic recipe. These are non-traditional ingredients, but they are important for overall flavor balance. I consider them optional because I usually serve Carbonara with just a simple side salad with a vinaigrette, and that balances the overall flavor profile.

In a medium hot skillet, heat the oil and add the chopped pancetta; sauté until the fat is rendered and the pancetta is beginning to crisp. While pancetta is cooking, bring the pasta water to a boil and cook the pasta. Beat the egg(s), water and black pepper in a bowl.

When the pancetta has reached the desired stage of doneness, turn off the heat. Add the wine, vinegar or citrus if using. Drain the pasta and immediately add it to the pancetta skillet, tossing to coat the pasta with olive oil, pancetta pieces and rendered fat, about 15 seconds. When the pasta is coated, pour the egg mixture over the pasta and immediately start stirring to allow the egg mixture to coat all of the pasta and to begin cooking from the residual heat. After about 30 seconds, add the grated cheese and stir to incorporate evenly throughout the pasta. Serve immediately with additional ground pepper and grated cheese.

Variations (per serving, as above):

Smokey Carbonara: Substitute any smoked bacon or pork product for the pancetta.

Carbonara di Parma: Substitute prosciutto di Parma for the pancetta in the Basic Carbonara recipe, and be sure to use real Parmigiano Reggiano as the cheese of choice.

Carbonara con la Salsiccia: Based on a suggestion from James Beard, this Carbonara substitutes Italian or other bulk pork sausage for the pancetta or prosciutto.

Carbonara di Mare: Substitute any of your favorite seafood (shrimp, scallops, lobster, fresh fish) for the pancetta; be certain to NOT overcook the seafood.

Smokey Carbonara di Mare: Use smoked salmon, smoked mussels, kippers or other smoked seafood.

Anti-Vampire Carbonara: Add one clove of finely minced garlic (up to 1 t) to the Basic recipe. Alternatively, add up to 2 T of roasted garlic per serving. Both of these versions can be made vegetarian by eliminating the pancetta, doubling the amount of garlic and gently sautéing the garlic in the olive oil over low heat.

Anti-Social Carbonara: Add ¼ c thinly sliced onion (any type) to any version of Carbonara. Letting the onions caramelize will allow more social acceptance (and flavor!). If using onions without other ingredients, double the amount of onions per serving.

Carbonara con le Verdure: Add ¼ c (or more, to taste) of any vegetable to any version of Carbonara. I like asparagus, broccoli, beans, spinach, arugula, any other greens, roasted red peppers, peas, even cubes of roasted squash. Sauté the vegetables until tender in the olive oil before adding the hot pasta, egg mixture, and cheese.

Carbonara con i Funghi: Add ¼ c (or more, to taste) of your favorite mushrooms to any version of Carbonara, or let them star by replacing the meat or fish with an additional ¼ c of mushrooms. You can use domestic or wild mushrooms, or both. Using caramelized or roasted mushrooms will add even more flavor.

Vegetarian Carbonara: As for Carbonara con le Verdure, any vegetable can be used, but double the amount to a total of ½ c per serving.

Carbonara con Formaggio: You can truly personalize any version of Carbonara by using the cheese of your choice instead of the parmesan or pecorino. Fresh or aged goat cheeses, bleus, artisanal cheddars, brie, or your personal favorite will place your unique mark on this variation.

Carbonara with Asparagus and Prosciutto: This is a beautiful and delicious take-off of the classic appetizer, Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus spears. Just follow the basic recipe using 2 oz of prosciutto and ¼ c asparagus cut into ½ pieces, and sauté together before adding the hot pasta, egg mixture and grated parmesan.

Carbonara Arrabbiata: Literally, "Angry Carbonara," this adaptation allows us to add some heat and spiciness to the soothing flavors of any version of Carbonara (beyond the slight bite of the abundant black pepper). This is done by adding 1 t (and up to 1T for true heat and spiciness) of red chile flakes to the hot oil during the sauté stage of the recipe in any of the above adaptations.

Whether you vary the meat, the vegetables, the seasoning or the cheese, you will have versions of Carbonara to last you for days, weeks and months. How many will you try? I hope you'll let me know. Since this is one of my favorite basic recipes, I really want to know how much you enjoy it and the abundant adaptations! Contact me at 773.508.9208 or email me. Buono appetito!