Legend has it that in 1944 when the U.S. Army arrived in Rome, American soldiers enjoyed their scrambled eggs with bacon and pasta. The Roman dish Pasta alla Carbonara was born.
I referred to “La Cucina, The Regional Cooking of Italy” by the Italian Academy of Cuisine to confirm that American G.I.s in Italy during World War II had a habit of taking their daily rations of eggs and bacon to local restaurants where the cooks combined them with Italian food to create an American style meal.
Without a doubt, this is a legend because after doing some extensive historical research in my cookbook room at Jasper’s this past week, I found that carbonara dates back to 1837 where a recipe was noted in the cookbook “La Cucina Teirico Pratica.” The recipe does not contain guanciale or pancetta, but lardo. What is lardo you may ask? It is the cured piece of pig fatback that is aged with rosemary and fresh herbs.
I then wanted to research what the name ‘carbonara’ referred to. It comes from the word ‘carbone’ which when translated means charcoal. The Roman ‘carbinai,’ or what we call coal miners, also lived on a ration of eggs and bacon along with pasta. Other people claim the name comes from the cooking of the guanciale where it almost looks like a piece of coal. Many Romans claim this also to be a legend. Who knows?
Let’s discuss ingredients. The dish contains eggs and pancetta (Italian pork belly), guanciale (cured pork cheeks) and Pecorino Romano, along with olive oil and freshly ground black pepper. That’s it.
Never ever would you add cream. This is considered to be sacrilegious. Seriously, don’t even play games with this. If you go to a restaurant, and they add this to the dish, politely ask the server for your check and leave immediately.
As for pasta, the original cut was rigatoni but, in the past few years, many restaurants serve this dish with spaghetti or bucatini. When I visited the famous La Carbonara Ristorante in Rome this past year, they would only serve the dish with rigatoni.
As for this chef, I do know that I absolutely love this dish and have my own story about how my father discovered the perfect recipe back in 1970 while traveling through Italy and visiting Rome.
My mother and father were dining in a restaurant that supposedly claimed to be the original restaurant where American G.I.s would gather during World War II for dinner that specialized in this now famous dish.
My father ordered Pasta alla Carbonara and absolutely loved the flavor and combination of eggs and bacon with pasta. The next day when they were trying to decide where to go eat that night, my father wanted to return to the same restaurant.
This happened five nights in a row and finally on the last night, during the middle of my father eating the Carbonara, he shouted to my mother, “Onions, damn it, onions, who knew! There are onions in this dish. I only thought there were eggs, bacon and cheese, but there’s also finely minced onions that are caramelized.” He finally broke the Roman secret that no chef would give up and still to this day won’t admit.
Mom and Dad returned to Kansas City, and my father worked on the recipe for several weeks with his longtime chef, Manuel Cervantes. I still love to tell the story to my customers that my father was the first one to bring Pasta alla Carbonara to Kansas City. And my father was not one just to serve this dish directly from the kitchen. Oh no, he had to do it table side and it was a production and one dish that customers would line up to watch him prepare.
I still can see the smile on his face as he sautéed the onion, pancetta and guanciale and then tossed the egg and cheese mixture with the pasta, taking it off the burner at the exact moment so the eggs would not scramble and then offering fresh cracked black pepper on top of each dish, not even asking the customer if they wanted it. Ha, he knew the way it was supposed to be served and it was his mission to let people experience this unique pasta dish.
I remember one time a customer asking him to add cream to the dish and my father threw the spoon and fork into the frying pan and walked away from the table visibly upset. True story. As I said, it is sacrilegious.
My brother Leonard still likes to tell the story of the famous actor and comedian Godfrey Cambridge eating the famous dish at Jasper’s in the 70s after his show at Starlight and calling it “pasta with the bacon and eggs.” He too knew of the legend of this famous dish from Rome.
Here is my father’s original recipe for Pasta alla Carbonara. I do hope you enjoy it as much as my family has over the years.
A huge grazie mille to the American GI’s who helped create this dish, legend or not, and a special thanks to my father for bringing it to Kansas City for our customers and friends to enjoy.Pasta alla Carbonara 1 pound of rigatoni 2 tablespoons of olive oil 1/2 cup of minced onion 4 ounces of guanciale 2 ounces of pancetta 1/2 cup of Pecorino Romano 2 egg yolks 1 whole egg Fresh Cracked Black Pepper
Cook pasta until al dente in salted water. Strain and set aside. In a large sauté pan, add olive oil and heat. Add minced onion and caramelize. Add pancetta and guanciale and cook until well browned. Mix eggs and cheese in a mixing bowl. Take pan off your fire. Add pasta. Gently toss. Add egg mixture. Make sure eggs do not scramble. Gently toss. Place in plate and generously add crack pepper to taste.
As my father always used to say “Bere, Mangiare e Bene!”
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.