The history of pasta alla carbonara is not set in stone. The word carbone means charcoal, leading people to refer to this dish as a pasta cooked by the coal miners.
However, we do know that this pasta is an original Roman dish prepared by shepherds, a variation from the old cacio e pepe or cacio e uovo (cheese and pepper and cheese and eggs).
Many food historians believe the pasta was invented for American soldiers during World War II. To make the soldiers feel at home, they added pancetta. Today we know the recipe was not present during the 1927 classic La Cucina Romana by Ada Boni.
Most food historians, and myself, think it was created as a tribute to the Carbonari — “charcoalmen” — a secret society prominent in the early, repressed stages of Italian unification. I was always taught to make the pancetta as crispy as possible so it looks just like coal along with black cracked peppercorns. The sauce is silky and glossy and in Italy, so yellow because of the rich egg yolks. With the crispy pancetta and creamy eggs, you really get a sweet/savory finish.
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At the original Jasper’s Ristorante on 75th Street, my father was one of the first to introduce this dish to Kansas City. He had a special cart designed. The servers would roll by the tables and he would actually saute pancetta and guanciale — cured pork cheeks — with olive oil in a pan and toss the pasta with fresh eggs and grated Romano. A quick grind of black pepper, and voila.
Whenever actor and comedian Godfrey Cambridge, best known from the movie “Watermelon Man,” visited Kansas City, he would come to Jasper’s and order pasta alla carbonara. He would ask the server for spaghetti with bacon and eggs. When the order came into the kitchen, my father knew immediately Godfrey was in the dining room.
Many feel that heavy cream should be added to this dish and many Italian restaurants wrongfully do this. Sacrilegious and such a shame, to say the least. I stay true and pay tribute to the original recipe certified by the Italian Federation of Chefs in America.
If you are traveling to Rome, I highly suggest da Danillo in the Esquillino area, la carbonara in the Campo di Fiori for the traditional recipe and also Roma Sparita. Just don’t ask to add cream as you will be looked at as a tourist.
By the way, don’t ask for spaghetti with bacon and eggs — that’s only at my family’s restaurant.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
1/2 pound spaghetti freshly cooked al dente
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 ounces pancetta or guanciale
4 local egg yolks
4 ounces freshly grated Pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper
Mix the beaten egg with grated cheese and grounded black pepper. Cut the pancetta into rectangular bites. Slowly fry the pancetta in the extra virgin olive oil in a nonstick pan until crispy. If the pancetta has enough fat you will not need to add oil.
Add the spaghetti with some of the cooking water, do not fry the spaghetti but rather just let it absorb the flavor of the pancetta. Simmer gently until the water is almost gone.
Remove the pan from the stove. Add the egg, cheese and pepper mixture to the pasta and stir quickly making sure the egg does not overcook but remains creamy. It shouldn’t pass the 158-162 degrees, which is the point at which coagulation starts.
Place in a hot pasta bowl. Season with ground black pepper. Serve immediately. Offer more black pepper and more grated cheese at the table.
▪ You cannot make a carbonara with cooked pasta.
▪ Cream is not an option but a gimmick. Avoid it. It is sacrilegious.
▪ If you like, you can mix the two cheeses.
▪ Timing is important when you serve this dish.
▪ Make sure the plate or bowl is hot.
▪ Do not overcook the egg, otherwise you will make spaghetti with scrambled eggs.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old 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 is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.