Carbonara, l’amore della mia vita. Carbonara, the love of my life.
Roman cuisine proudly boasts of many traditional pasta dishes that bring consistent joy to all who consume them. Cacio e Pepe, Amatriciana, Arrabbiata, Gricia, all of whom I care for deeply. But, Carbonara has my heart. It is the unequivocal love of my life. I write this article while listening to John Legend’s “All of Me.” Yes. It’s a sickness. But it’s love. Pure, delectable love. When you know, you know. Go ahead, put on John Legend, pour a glass of vino, and enjoy…
I was first introduced to Carbonara by my dear friend and mentor Chef Anthony Haley of Boston’s Antonio’s Bacaro. This lovely Venitian style restaurant opened in March of 2016 with a certain egg and bacon type of pasta on their menu. My eyes locked on the description as it simply gazed back at me. Well, hello my love. I didn’t even know I had been waiting for you. But here we are. I thankfully live in walking distance to Antonio’s Bacaro and when the dish arrives in front of me, fireworks, every time. Thank you Anthony. Little did you know you introduced me to the love of my life.
Fast forward two years when I moved to Italy for 5 months for an internship at Alice Waters’ Rome Sustainable Food Project in, well yes, Rome. See ya Bahston; Ciao Roma! As my life began in the Eternal City, my now Eternal Home away from Home, I took the opportunity to eat Carbonara as often as I could. I mean, a lot. Really. I was surprised, although pleasantly, at the use of gunciale instead of pancetta. The color was breathtaking. Italian chickens have it going on with their glorious yellow-orange yolk. And I found out Carbonara doesn’t always have to be with spaghetti. Rigatoni does the job nicely! This rule is bendable…but put anything green in this dish…don’t you even think about it! Four ingredients. That is it.
Before I disclose any more intimate details of how this international love affair evolved, let’s take a look at Carbonara’s upbringing. The history of my dear Carbonara is vague, elusive, and intriguing. If you came across it on a dating app, you would swipe right; looks good, smells good, and a little drama? Yes please, I’ll date that. Its history is about as clear as the beautiful golden sauce it possesses.
“Alla carbonara” loosely translates to “in the style of the coal worker,” thus there must be some connection here. Were the coal workers responsible? At the very least they seem to be associated with the inspiration of this dish? Did the pepper in the dish remind the creator of coal? Was it named to honor the Carbonari? A secret society of coal workers focused on the unification of Italy. Hmmm…then there is the war. Carbonara began to show up on menus post WWII. Could it have been developed by the Allies in Rome as their rations consisted of bacon and powdered eggs? Did they decide to mix these with the abundant supply of pasta? I’d like to think Carbonara’s inception to be a bit more glamorous than this. Powdered eggs? Ick. But I don’t judge. I’m just happy it happened.
Although the answer is not definitive, I think it is more important to look at the underlying theme that connects each of these hypotheses: class. Carbonara is a dish of the people, for the people. It isn’t fancy or flashy. It is inviting, welcomes everyone, and is honest. The creator took four ingredients and made magic. However, if I were a betting gal, which it just so happens I am, I would put money on the secret society. Think about it, these guys are trying to unify the country, to bring everyone together, just like the egg yolks do in this dish. Am I right?
So where in Rome did I go to consume this national treasure? A lot of places. However, without a doubt, my favorite Carbonara in Rome is at Da Enzo. The restaurant itself is warm and unassuming, but very popular. The line begins forming a half an hour before the restaurant even opens. Be prepared to wait. However numerous times I have been rewarded for my patience in line as a small plate of pasta or a plastic cup of red wine would appear to ease the wait. Honestly even without these treats, I would wait. For a very long time. Just knowing what is on the other side of this wait is totally worth it. Their Carbonara is perfectly balanced. The guincale is crispy yet tender. The aroma of fresh pepper and cheese draws you in. Last, but not least, the creamy egg hugs every inch of the rigatoni with which it is served. Heavenly. Every time I return to Rome, without fail, a visit to Da Enzo is highlighted in my itinerary.
We may never have the answers to the who, where, how and why of Carbonara. But really, does it matter? It is here to stay. Simple ingredients. Egg, cheese, pepper, pasta. Elegance in its simplicity. Modestly boastful. Don’t modify. I know it’s tempting. “More” is not right, here. Less is. Stay true. Stay simple. Let my true love be.
Carolyn White was born into an Irish-English American family in Brewster, Massachusetts. After 18 years in education as a teacher and counselor, Carolyn made a life-altering decision to change careers and venture into the culinary world. During the summer of 2017 she staged at Coppa Enoteca in Boston where she focused on the art of pasta making. In December 2018, Carolyn was accepted to Alice Waters’ Rome Sustainable Food Project and moved to Rome in March 2018. There she studied Roman food and culture, sustainability practices, and cooked for the residents of the American Academy in Rome. Carolyn returned home to Boston in July of 2018 where she currently works as a private chef and caterer.