Authentic Italian Spaghetti alla Carbonara.
Spaghetti alla carbonara is probably ‘the’ most well known Italian pasta recipe. Well, maybe alongside spaghetti bolognese! And like spaghetti bolognese, it has been reinvented a thousand times outside of Italy. Of course, different versions of carbonara are good too. But the original recipe really needs nothing added to it because it’s delicious as is!
Some alternative alla carbonara history!
Like so many other Italian dishes, carbonara has a disputed history. The most commonly accepted theory is that it probably originated in or near Rome in the Italian region of Lazio. But how is the question!
Theory no 1; It is believed that Umbrian coal men called ‘carbonari’ ate it themselves and introduced it to the Romans when they came to sell charcoal to them.
Theory no 2; It has also been said that carbonara was named for the ‘Carbonari’ a secret society in existence during the time of Italian unification (Dan Brown take note!)
Theory no 3, which to me may have merit since published carbonara recipes date only from the second war onwards, is that it developed as a result of the demands of American soldiers stationed in Rome after the city’s liberation in 1944 and the fact that these very soldiers supplied the Romans with bacon and eggs.
How do Italians make alla carbonara?
Whatever its origins, it’s certain that alla carbonara has become a worldwide favourite pasta dish – although one that has many non-Italian versions!
I have always called spaghetti carbonara ‘Italian bacon and eggs’ because basically that’s what it is; eggs, bacon, pasta, grated cheese and pepper. I think it’s the combination of bacon and eggs that makes this one of the most popular pasta dishes in the West, especially with the British and the Americans.
No vegetables! No cream!
Over time, authentic Italian carbonara has been altered by the British, the Americans and others. I did a little experiment and searched through Instagram posts hash-tagged #carbonara. Needless to say, I found a zillion variations including ingredients such as cream (lots of cream, sometimes the pasta is swimming in it!), peas, leeks, broccoli, tomatoes and mushrooms. It seems that these additions have become so common in America and England that it’s now considered the norm to make this dish with some kind of vegetable and cream. In Italy, it really isn’t!
Like many Italian pasta dishes, alla carbonara is a simple dish with few ingredients. But, it’s the quality of the ingredients and what you do with them that make the difference. The majority of chefs agree that ‘true’ carbonara contains guanciale (pork cheek) and not bacon or pancetta. However, both make fine substitutes as long as they are quite fatty and cubed. Guanciale renders quite a lot of fat so you don’t need to cook it in olive oil.
Mixing the pasta to combine the ingredients is an art and the quality of the cheese (Parmesan / Pecorino) and the pasta are significantly important. Black pepper is essential! Some Italians use only whole eggs, others use yolks. My hubby sometimes makes it with just egg yolks. This gives the dish an orangey colour! The general rule is one egg or egg yolk per person.
Spaghetti is the usual pasta for alla carbonara. However, linguine, fettuccine, bucatini and rigatoni can also be used. Rigatoni is the second most popular pasta for carbonara in Rome. The recipe I used is one that my Italian hubby follows. It is also very similar to that of the late Antonio Carluccio who was the author of 20 books on Italian cooking. Mr Carluccio said in his own recipe book “Most people I know get it completely wrong! Either adding milk or cream or letting the eggs become scrambled!”
You can watch Antonio Carluccio making his carbonara on Jamie Oliver’s You Tube channel below.
Even if you normally make your carbonara differently, it’s worth trying it the Italian way! I’m sure you’ll love it!
If you do try this authentic spaghetti alla carbonara recipe, I’d love to hear what you think. Please write a comment here on the blog or post a comment on the Pasta Project Facebook page.
Your feedback means a lot to me!
Other classic pasta dishes from Rome on the Pasta Project.
- Pasta alla gricia
- Bucatini all’amatriciana
- Cacio e pepe
- Puntarelle pasta with burrata
- Romanesco broccoli pasta soup
(This recipe has been updated with new photos and text)
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Spaghetti alla Carbonara
- 400 g spaghetti or spaghettoni (14oz)
- 250 g guanciale (pork cheek) (9oz) or pancetta (Italian bacon) cut into small cubes.
- 2 tbsp olive oil (I don’t use olive oil with guanciale)
- 4 eggs (one per person) including one egg yolk or 5 eggs if using only egg yolks
- 50 g Parmigiano Reggiano (2oz) or aged pecorino freshly grated.
- freshly ground black pepper.
- salt for pasta
- Put a pot of water on to boil for the pasta. Add salt once it starts to boil. Cook pasta al dente according to the instructions on the packet
- Meanwhile, fry the guanciale or pancetta until browned. (I use a little olive oil with pancetta but not with guanciale as it renders quite a lot of fat)
- Lightly beat the eggs and/or egg yolks in a large bowl with the grated cheese and black pepper.
- When the pasta is ready, drain and add to the pan with the guanciale. Then mix well to coat the pasta. Take off the heat. Allow to cool slightly (so the egg won’t be scrambled).
- Then add the egg and cheese mixture. Stir well to coat the pasta, but not too vigorously ( you don’t want scrambled eggs!). Serve immediately with more grated cheese and black pepper as required.
Spaghetti is the usual pasta, although linguine, fettucine, bucatini and rigatoni can also be used.
Cindy R says
I had my first Carbonara in Florence and I could never get it correctly done in the USA. Everyone wants to put “cream and bacon” on it. Finally I made my own following your recipe and using pancetta. WOW WOW WOW – I’m back in Florence. I have some guanciale in the frig so I will try that next.
Love your blog!
This is such a satisfying dish. I used gunciale, cutting the rind off the block I got from my much appreciated local Italian supermarket. I made this at the specific request of a friend who is in in the midst of chemotherapy maze: this is what she really wanted to eat, and she loved it. Thank you for another easily accessible and well-explained recipe, with as always delicious flavour. And a particular thank you for giving my friend a pleasurable dinner.