When I was 18, I lived in Florence for a school year. That time spent in Italy was pivotal to my view of the world and to my culinary education. There was a small trattoria down the street from the villa where we lived, and a friend and I would go there as often as we could. It was at this trattoria that I first learned about spaghetti carbonara. It was transcendant.
According to Marcella Hazan's The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, an Italian food historian alleges that this dish become popularized during World War II when American soldiers would bring local families a gift of bacon and eggs. The Italians - more specifically the Romans - would make a pasta dish with the bacon, eggs, and very few other ingredients. Ms. Hazan's classic recipe calls for pancetta, garlic, wine, olive oil, romano and parmigiano-reggiano cheese, pepper and parsley to be added to the spaghetti and eggs. Often, recipes call for peas which are especially delicious and considered a classic part of the dish.
This is a dish that emphasizes ingredients. Every good recipe for spaghetti carbonara talks about the importance of choosing your bacon carefully, exactly which pasta types to use, and the proper choice of olive oil.
When I returned to the States, I was disappointed time and again by American dishes that would claim to be spaghetti carbonara but would add miscellaneous items. I am a purist when it comes to classic dishes, and I expect restaurants to either abide by the tradition or to make it obvious that the dish is not a traditional rendition: caesar salads should have anchovies but not tomatoes or chicken, macaroni and cheese should be just that , and spaghetti carbonara should have very few ingredients beyond bacon and eggs.
It wasn't long before I gave up entirely on trying to order spaghetti carbonara in the US, frustrated with the interpretation of the classic, and with the fact that I was mostly disappointed.
Recently, I found a recipe for spaghetti carbonara on Epicurious.com. The recipe was fine, but it was the comments that really made me consider how people enjoy completely bastardizing classic recipes:
"This was great! I added crumbled sausage and garlic ... "
"This is the straightforward classic ... I also use veggie bacon and shallots - yum!"
"Great with the egg beaters ... Also used whole wheat pasta! Good Health to all!"
"This is a good basic carbonara. I added asparagus, shrimp and mussels. Chicken and cored baby zucchini and yellow squash are nice additions too."
"I used the ready crisp bacon from Costco. It was probably a bad idea."
Don't agree yet with the fact that we tend to take recipes to the extreme? Consider Quizno's "Chicken Carbonara Sub" which is "Chicken, bacon, mozzarella, mushrooms, Creamy Bacon Alfredo Sauce". In a move that can only be considered taking one for the team, I went to Quizno's and ordered a Chicken Carbonara Sub in order to evaluate whether it is anywhere near our classic carbonara dish. The tangy, overly sweet "bacon alfredo sauce" is squirted from a squeeze bottle onto what seem to be microwaved bacon bits, and that is all put on top of chicken and mushrooms, topped with a piece of provolone cheese, and put through the Quizno's oven. This sub is about as far away from my trattoria in Florence as you can get.
Last year, when The Zuni Cafe Cookbook was released, I finally found the recipe to end all recipes for me. Judy Rodger's recipe from that book contains ricotta cheese, which I had never seen before, but which gives the effect of crumbly clumps of cheese and egg that I craved from the Italian renditions. Next time you are anxious to try a true spaghetti carbonara, I suggest that you make it yourself using the recipes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook or the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
In San Francisco, you can also get good renditions of spaghetti carbonara at Ideale restaurant in North Beach and at Zuni Cafe.
1315 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA
1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA