Italians find amusement in stories about the origins of their traditional dishes. Popular traditional recipes resided for centuries in the consciousness of those who cooked in the home and in the trattoria, and rarely did the stories – never mind the ingredients and methods – ever get written down. They were passed down by rote.
The carbonara story is different. It has a plausible history.
Before the introduction of beans and tomatoes, and after the advent of dried pasta, during a time when the apennine shepherds and woodsmen carried their mid-day meal in their back-packs, a tradition defined two rural dishes – pasta alla gricia, shepherd pasta, and pasta all’Amatriciana, the pasta of Amatrice, a town in the central apennine provence of Rieti, bordered by Abruzzo and Lazio.
Nowadays Amatrice guanciale (cured seasoned pork cheek and neck) is a product lauded for its authenticity and flavour. When those shepherds and woodsmen embarked on their trips it was an essential ingredient in a meal they made with cheese, eggs and dried pasta. Eventually tomatoes were added. It became known as pasta all’Amatriciana.
Because guanciale was preserved with black pepper, when it was added to pasta all’Amatriciana or to pasta alla gricia, it produced dark specks that resembled charcoal. Carbonada was the Abruzzese word for pancetta. It became the name given to their guanciale dish and, because they were also very fond of the pasta dishes of Amatrice, to their version of la gricia. The charcoal farmers of the region were also known as the Carbonari.
That pasta dishes should be made with preserved pork, cheese and eggs – ingredients associated with the type of pastoralism practiced in the hills and mountains of Abruzzo, Lazio and Rieti – that such dishes should have a generic name among the people, and that migrant workers from the Apennines should bring them to Rome is plausible.
Not so plausible is the argument that this combination was known among the chefs of the city.
Pasta alla carbonara did not become generally known until the 1950s, when variations of the recipe began to appear in cookbooks.
PRODUCE / PRODUCT: Pancetta / Guanciale, Pecorino Cheese
RECIPE: PASTA ALLA GRICIA string pasta, cheese and guanciale
Via di Ripetta radiates from the Piazza di Popolo, the poplar tree lined square at Rome’s northern gate, continues away from the chapel of the miracle toward the tomb of Augustus and the museum of his solar clock, the ara pacis, parallel with the meandering Tiber. Here street and river depart, the Tiber twists like a snake toward the Vatican City, the Ripetta runs straight as a die into an odd-shaped four-sided junction and becomes Vicolo della Scrofa, the alley of Scrofa.
American soldiers arriving in the city from Anzio in the south-west and Cassino in the south, attracted by the ruins of the Colosseum and the Forum, the contrast of modern and contemporary Rome with Michelangelo’s hilltop square, the marble temple monument to the fallen of the First World War, the statue of Vittorio Emanuele II – Italy’s last king, and the expansive Piazza Venezia would have drifted into a warren of streets around the high-sided domed Pantheon. And found themselves in a nearby street known for its taverns and trattoria – the alley of Scrofa.
Here, in June 1944, a cook in a trattoria produced a pasta dish dressed with bacon, cheese and eggs to feed the liberators, believing they would devour anything with eggs and bacon. The dish spread through the city and became known as spaghetti alla carbonara.
A nice story, yes? True? Let’s look at the evidence.
American quartermasters would have had access to smoked bacon and eggs (fresh and powdered). American soldiers’ Italian girlfriends graciously repaid gifts of bacon and eggs with a pasta dish that was a wonderful repast compared to war rations. Did a trattoria chef benefit from this arrangement? And produce an iconic dish?
This brings us to the ‘American origin of spaghetti alla carbonara.
Before the Anzio landing in January 1944, the Americans found themselves in Naples, with ample time to frequent the port city’s alleys and lanes. Along with folded pizza, spaghetti was a Neapolitan street food served with a meagre garnish of grated black pepper and grated pecorino cheese. According to legend an American G.I. tasted the spaghetti and decided it needed more flavour. This ingenious soldier added some powdered egg, a little smoked bacon and canned evaporated (condensed) milk.
Italians like to believe spaghetti alla carbonara comes from both traditions.
The Americans arrived in the province of Lazio at Anzio on the coast, and at Cassino in the mountains, in January 1944. They fought a battle for the abbey at Monte Cassino and gradually moved through the valleys of Lazio to arrive in Rome in early summer. During almost six months in central Italy they adapted the traditional pasta dish known as carbonara in Abruzzo, and thrived on it.
They replaced guanciale with their smoked bacon, they added condensed milk but they preferred the local version made with fresh eggs. Remembering the name the dish was known by in the mountains, they adopted it. Within a year of the ending of the war, trattoria in Naples and Rome were offering pasta alla carbonara.
In 1947 the English cookery writer Elizabeth David began to compile recipes for her A Book of Mediterranean Food. She mentioned three spaghetti dishes, vis:
Neapolitan with garlic and olive oil;
Neapolitan with garlic and tomatoes; and
Sicilian with anchovies, bacon, garlic, mushrooms, olives, onions and olive oil.
In 1954 David returned to Italy to research her Italian Food cookbook. She mentioned the various types of pasta and she gave a recipe for maccheroni alla carbonara. She said it could also be made with the long tube pasta called maccheroni or with the short tube pasta called rigatoni.
Her version, for four people, included two eggs beaten, cured pork cut into strips fried in butter and grated parmigiano. She suggested mixing the pork into the eggs and adding the mixture to the hot cooked pasta, stirring until the eggs thicken and ‘present a slightly granulated appearance’.
She said it was ‘a Roman dish’.
There is a coincidence here.
Maccheroni dishes feature pasta tubes. In the mountains they had a dish called pasta cacio e ova, made using the same method for carbonara, with black pepper and cheese added to the beaten eggs. The pasta used today for this dish is usually tubetti, which has a short tube shape, but spaghetti is also preferred. The pasta dishes of Amatrice are made with bucatini pasta, a string pasta thicker than spaghetti.
As for the authenticity of carbonara, we would like to think there are two distinct versions, one that is traditional to apennine rural life (including Rome) and one that is traditional to the event that was the American liberation (Naples).
Today the choice of pasta is crucial, it should be a thin strip pasta that can hold the egg or cream-egg mixture, macaroni and penne are too thick!
The Roman recipe is simple, it is as much pasta as you like, one egg per person, a good quantity of pancetta or guanciale and as much grated cheese as you want.
The Neopolitan recipe is only different because any type of bacon can be used, with cream to make the dish rich enough to fill empty bellies.
PRODUCE / PRODUCT: Flour / Pasta, Cheese, Bacon
RECIPE: SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA spaghetti with bacon and cheese
This is an extract from THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE.
Text & Carbinara Photo © Fricot Project 1998-2020