A few years ago we went to Italy for the first time. Needless to say, we had a lot of memorable meals. One dish, though, stood out. It's the one we talk about the most. It was spaghetti carbonara at a little unassuming place in Rome called Ai Tre Scalini.
Sitting in the shadow of the Coliseum we really didn't expect much (not that a bad meal in Italy isn't excellent by most barometers). In fact, we only stopped in because the restaurant that we had planned on visiting had a line out the door, which was probably a bad sign anyway. Boy did we make the right choice. The carbonara was so pure, and simple, and perfect. Al dente pasta (obviously), crunchy yet soft and luscious pieces of guanciale that burst with flavor when chewed. It was like no carbonara I'd ever eaten. We liked it so much that we walked, literally, 5 miles in the rain later in the week just to order it for lunch again (you'd do the same). This time it was fettuccini.
I've tried several times to duplicate this dish, with just OK results. I think I'm actually getting close. Finally.
Here in the states, you see a lot of "light cream sauce" when describing carbonara. That's not carbonara. I don't know what it is, but I know it's not good. I often say that can judge an Italian restaurant by its description of carbonara: if I see "cream", I know I don't have to bother trying the place (La Cambusa in Ridgewood and Fairlawn, NJ, note in the description of their carbonara dish that it's "cream-less". Good for them. They obviously get it).
There's no cream in carbonara. Not even "light cream." The no cream thing is simply not debatable. Most other elements could be, though. Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, whose opinions on Italian food I trust implicitly, have recipes calling for onions, garlic, parsley, and maybe some other stuff here and there. For me, it's just pork, pasta, eggs, cheese, and cracked black pepper. Simplicity oftentimes leads to the greatest reward.
After reviewing several recipes online, and consulting with the "bible" of Italian Cooking, The Silver Spoon, I figured I'd just wing it.
- Pancetta chopped into little cubes or strips
- 2/3 lb spaghetti
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 C grated parmesan and 1/2 C romano cheeses
- cracked black pepper and salt
- red pepper flake
The (simple) process:
Heat a bit of butter in a pan and add the pancetta. Get some color on the pancetta and then turn down the heat so it gets soft on the inside, while not burning on the outside. If you end up with too much fat in the pan, drain some off. But for cryin' out loud, it's pig fat, so don't pour off too much.
In the meantime, lightly beat the eggs. Add half of the cheeses and a bunch of cracked black pepper and hot pepper flakes to taste. I think the cheese and the eggs help keep the eggs from scrambling when they hit the pasta.
Cook the pasta to just shy of al dente, and use tongs to plop it in the pan with the pancetta. Don't bother draining the pasta because you'll just forget to save the pasta water which you need for this dish.
Ladle in some pasta water and toss for about a minute to finish cooking on low heat.
Slowly add some pasta water to the egg/cheese mixture to bring it up to temp (this will help make sure it doesn't scramble, too).
Take the pan with the pasta and pancetta off the heat and slowly add the egg/cheese mixture to coat, adding more cheese if you'd like.
Serve, topping with some cheese and pepper and salt to taste.
I served this with a 2004 Mezzogiorno Nero d 'Avola. I really can't figure out the producer on this bottle. Mezzogiorno is the southern section of Italy, which includes Sicily, which is where this wine is from. But I can't find any other words on the bottle suggesting who is actually making it. I'm very confused, and clearly don't know enough about wine.
Ruby red like most Nero d'Avola. Dark berry fruit. A litte earthy note, maybe leather. Mellow tannins. Reasonable acidity. Quick and thin on the finish. A nice weeknight red. Would also be great with sausage pizza or a burger. 13% ABV. And for $6.99 at Jerry's Gourmet in Englewood, you just don't have any excuses.
So get yourself to Ai Tre Scalini. Short of that, get yourself to Jerry's Gourmet for the wine and your local supermarket for the other 4 ingredients.
Ai Tre Scalini : Via SS. Quattro 30, Rome, Italy : Phone: 06/7096309
Jerry's Gourmet : 410 S. Dean, Englewood, NJ: 201.871.7108