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Lessons from the school of spaghetti carbonara

Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Photo: Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In Acquired Tastes, The A.V. Club explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

My carbonara game is strong. It’s the one dish I’ve mastered enough to make without exact measurements. If there’s a word to describe my approach, it’s cockiness. So self-assured I am about landing perfect 10s with my carbonara that my mannerisms when preparing the dish have an air of overconfidence. I toss the diced bacon in the skillet with more wrist action than usual; the cheese sprinkling gets punctuated with a dramatic flick. All that said, there’s a 99.98 percent chance I’m making my carbonara wrong. Romans would see my inauthentic appropriation and heave my plate skyward.

Carbonara is a Roman entrée reminiscent of an American breakfast. Thick spaghetti gets lightly cloaked in creamy egg yolk, with diced bacon, grated cheese, and copious amounts of black pepper. Where my version differs is in using Parmigiano-Reggiano in place of the traditional pecorino Romano, and even more unorthodox, I sauté diced yellow onions for added sweetness (bacon plus cheese plus onions is a magical combination). I also prefer duck egg yolks for a richer sauce, and I’ll mince garlic to fry with the bacon, too. Authenticity is an overrated word—my standard is whether or not it tastes good.

Conceding that there may be a better way, that perhaps the Italian method of preparing carbonara may be more delicious than a Chinese-American’s rendition, I wanted to learn more.

Photo: Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press/TNS via Getty Images

The origin story of carbonara is murky, with most elements more myth than fact. A popular backstory is it’s a pasta favored by the wives of coal miners, with the black pepper made to look like specks of the rock. Another fanciful yet intriguing tale, according to The New York Times, was that Roman women hoping to attract American soldiers post-World War II would make a dish that reminded the men of breakfast back home. Some even theorize carbonara grew from a somewhat obscure Roman pasta called la gricia, spaghetti with sautéed pancetta, pecorino, and black pepper (and no eggs). But the Italian-food historian Fred Plotkin told me he didn’t think the connection was definitive, since la gricia was a seldom-served dish (he only saw it at one restaurant when he began visiting Roman trattorias in the 1970s). The one consensus is carbonara likely didn’t exist before the second World War, and so in the canon of Roman pastas, it’s a relatively new innovation next to cacio e pepe and bucatini all’amatriciana.

Since there’s no agreeable birthplace of carbonara, a definitive recipe doesn’t exist. Carbonara is a loose concept that tastes of something specific (purists will argue it’s guanciale or bust, others say pancetta is fine, but in the end it’s still fatty cured pork with eggs and cheese). And so carbonara becomes an intensely personal dish. The world’s best version is likely the one you’ve mastered in your home kitchen—unless you know a better chef of Italian cooking than you.

For me, that person is Sarah Grueneberg. She’s the James Beard Award-nominated chef of her new restaurant Monteverde in Chicago and was the runner-up on Top Chef in 2012. I trust her so much with Italian food that my wife and I hired her to cook at our wedding.

Sarah Grueneberg, chef of Monteverde in Chicago. (Photo: Huge Galdones)

To my surprise, the first time Grueneberg sampled carbonara was only eight years ago. She had just become head chef at Spiaggia, the acclaimed Italian restaurant on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and was sent to Italy on a food spiritual journey. It was in Rome at the famed Ristorante Roscioli near Campo De’ Fiori that Grueneberg had her first taste of the dish.

“It’s the most delicious pasta that one can have,” she said. “A dish that’s so comforting and normal, with a flavor that’s not pushing the boundary. To see a sauce of egg yolk was really mind-blowing. That sauce was perfectly draped around each pasta. [It] was like a giant smile.”

Grueneberg learned the ways of carbonara at a restaurant called Grano, not far from Roscioli. She served as an unpaid apprentice there, under the guidance of a chef named Danilo Frisone. Frisone had a unique way of cooking that Grueneberg would adapt. He used meat forks (the two-tined forks Americans might use for grilling) for everything from whipping sauces to twirling pastas onto a plate. When Frisone prepared carbonara, he’d mix egg yolks and pecorino in a bowl separately, whisking with the meat fork. After the pasta was cooked and incorporated into the skillet with the rendered guanciale, the chef would dump the pasta into the bowl of raw egg yolks and cheese, and would mix furiously until sauce clung onto every inch of noodle. Rather than mix eggs into the cooking vessel (and risk it turning into scrambled eggs), the pasta is brought to the eggs, where the heat from the just-boiled noodles firms the sauce ever so slightly.

When Grueneberg returned Stateside, she cooked carbonara for her boss, who was duly impressed with her version. Yet, carbonara was never part of the menu when she ran Spiaggia, and at Monteverde, it’s only been served one time, for Mother’s Day brunch.

Was it because spaghetti carbonara has become so ubiquitous that it’s seen as too remedial of a dish to serve at a fine-dining Italian restaurant?

“In my opinion, it’s the opposite,” Grueneberg said:

From a chef’s perspective, carbonara’s not on the menu because it’s too hard to execute. I still get nervous when I make it. There’s a lot of variables that’s nerve-wracking. It’s not a dish you can finesse if you wait even a little bit. Once the pasta goes in the egg mixture, you’ve got to serve it. It can’t go back in the pan. Carbonara runs its own show.

Grueneberg brought me to her kitchen at Monteverde to demonstrate how she prepares carbonara. Except a few tweaks of her own, much of the recipe was as she learned it at Grano in Rome.

Photos: Kevin Pang

Only dried pasta should be used, she said, not fresh. She uses bucatini, a tubular pasta that is thicker than spaghetti and has more surface area for sauce to cling.

Grueneberg’s great innovation is in using guanciale two ways. The first is to cut it into extra-large cubes, so when fried, the exterior gets crisp while the interior fat stays meltingly oozy. The second way (and this I’ve never seen) is by grinding the guanciale and sautéing it in a skillet. The idea is that by creating bacon bits, every bite of pasta will—in addition to the cheese, black pepper, and egg—always contain that smoky, porky undertow.

She whisked a half dozen egg yolks with two handfuls of pecorino in a bowl. Cream? Never add any. Occasionally she’d add a few splashes of water, whipping with the meat fork to prevent the egg-cheese mixture from becoming clumpy.

The bucatini came out of the boiling water and into the skillet, where the ground guanciale fried and released its pork-fat oils. The pasta took on a magnificent sheen, freckled with black pepper and guanciale bits. Then she dumped the skillet of pasta into the egg-cheese sauce. With her meat fork she spin-cycled the noodles and sauce together at a blinding speed, while holding the bowl over the vat of boiling water, creating, in essence, a double boiler. The marriage of noodle and sauce complete, she twirled a thick tangle of pasta around the meat fork until it was the size of a baseball. It was dislodged with ornate precision over a bowl, and to finish, crispy cubes of guanciale were strewn atop.

Sarah Grueneberg’s bucatini alla carbonara (Photo: Kevin Pang)

I couldn’t help but pause and be in the moment. Every strand was coated in a radiant creamy yellow. The piquancy of cheese and pepper hit the back of the nose. It seemed too pretty to eat, but the anticipation from the past hour talking carbonara had nulled that restraint. This was, in fact, a perfect bowl of carbonara—textured, fatty, cheesy, peppery, all those adjectives. The world’s best version of spaghetti carbonara isn’t necessarily the version you’ve mastered in your home kitchen, but the one currently in a bowl 12 inches from your face.

Bucatini alla carbonara

Serves two; recipe by Sarah Grueneberg, chef-owner of Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in Chicago.

6 oz. bucatini pasta
2 oz. ground guanciale (small dice and pulse in the food processor)
2 oz. guanciale, large dice
1 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus garnish
6 eggs, separated, yolks reserved
3/4 cup Pecorino Romano, grated, little more for garnish
3/4 cup water

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil (6 to 7 quarts). Add 4 tablespoons of salt and bucatini, and cook until al dente (2 minutes less than package instructions). Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.

2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add diced guanciale and cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer cooked guanciale to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

3. In the same pan, add the ground guanciale and black pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the pasta to the pan. Turn heat to low and reserve.

4. Beat the egg yolks and pecorino in a medium bowl until combined, mix 1/2 cup of pasta water into the mixture. Using tongs, add the pasta to the mixing bowl and mix with the egg mixture. Place the bowl over the pasta water pot and mix until the sauce thickens.

5. If pasta seems dry, add the remaining reserved cooking water to loosen.

6. Plate the pasta and garnish with a pinch of pecorino, black pepper, and the rendered chunks of guanciale. Serve immediately.