Prep time 15 mins
Cook 15 mins
Gastronomic travel in search of the “best” version of a dish is nothing new. For centuries, travellers to Italy would visit a city and seek out food that bore names declaring its location of origin--trippa alla romana (Roman style tripe), fegato alla veneziana (liver in the style of Venice), and pesto genovese (a dish so famous it transcends the need for translation). Consuming each in situ was considered as fundamental to fully experiencing a place as visits to museums, archaeological sites, and pilgrimage destinations were.
As culinary tourism has boomed, the litany of dishes one must eat on holiday in the Italian capital has expanded beyond the alla romana formula: cacio e pepe, amatriciana, gricia, rigatoni con la pajata, coda alla vaccinara, and, perhaps the most iconic at the moment, carbonara.
Today, pasta alla carbonara is generally made with spaghetti or rigatoni, guanciale or (less commonly) pancetta, Pecorino Romano (occasionally mixed with or substituted by Parmigiano-Reggiano), and egg (whole, yolk only, or yolks with a bit of white). The exact recipe and the technique that brings together the sauce depends on the chef or home cook but rarely diverges from the aforementioned options.
While there are few convincing documents supporting its origins- -some say it was developed to satiate American soldiers’ hunger for bacon and eggs, others claim it was the go-to dish for carbonari (charcoal makers), still others suggest it is the descendant of a centuries-old Neapolitan dish - there are plenty of recipes from the mid-20th century that prove carbonara has evolved since its apparent invention in that period to exclude the butter, oil, and even garlic that appear in the earliest published recipes.
In spite of obscure origins, carbonara has been firmly planted in the Roman culinary canon and one of its most dependably spectacular versions is served by chef Nabil Hadj Hassen at Salumeria Roscioli, a deli/ wine bar/restaurant/cult destination in central Rome located on Via dei Giubbonari, a well-trodden path between the Jewish Ghetto and Campo de’ Fiori. Twirling spaghetti alla carbonara around a fork, stabbing a bit of guanciale to accompany each luscious bite has become a gastronomic rite of passage for travellers to Rome. They, like well-heeled locals, recognize Roscioli’s superlative version of the classic that masterfully contrasts the textures of al dente pasta, silky egg and cheese sauce, and crispy guanciale cubes, while balancing salty Pecorino with a round and nutty heritage cow Parmigiano-Reggiano, all seasoned with aromatic Malaysian black pepper. Chef Nabil Hadj Hassen’s version is worth a trip but with the right ingredients you can get pretty darn close to the real thing in your home kitchen with a bit of practice and a careful attention to the temperature of the ingredients while assembling.
This recipe originally appeared in the Pasta edition of Eatable magazine, on sale here in print and digital.
300g piece of guanciale (cured pork jowl; see note), external seasoning sliced off, then cut into 2-cm cubes
1 whole egg and 5 yolks
200g finely grated Pecorino Romano
100g finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
20g freshly ground black pepper (preferably Sarawak)
1. Add the guanciale to a hot pan over low-medium heat and cook until it is tender on the inside, crisp on the outside, and has decreased in size by about 30%. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the guanciale cubes and a tablespoon of the rendered fat to a heatproof bowl. Set aside to cool.
2. Once the guanciale has cooled, add the eggs, 150g Pecorino Romano, 50g Parmigiano-Reggiano, and 15g black pepper. Mix well.
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. When the water boils, lightly salt it. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Transfer the spaghetti to the bowl with the guanciale mixture, leaving the water boiling in the pot.
4. Stir the mixture vigorously with tongs, adding pasta cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce. Set the bowl over the pasta water like a double boiler and continue mixing until the sauce is silky and smooth, adding pasta water a spoonful at a time if needed.
5. Mix the remaining Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano- Reggiano together.
6. Serve the pasta immediately with the cheese mixture and the remaining black pepper sprinkled on top.
N O T E
Use slab pancetta is guanciale is unavailable.
Photography and words Katie Parla. Recipe by Nabil Hadj Hassen of Rome's Roscioli.