Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Spaghetti alla carbonara

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 Spaghetti alla carbonara
This favorite Italian dish brings the breakfast flavors of bacon and eggs to the dinner table, and it works just fine, if not authentically, with the adaptation of American smoky bacon.
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Spaghetti alla carbonara

I love Italy, get there as often as I can, and whenever I find my way there, I feel that I've found the place where my soul resides. It should come as no surprise, then, that I'm smitten by Italian food and wine, and that a disproportionate share of my cookery is either Italian or influenced by it.

I also tend to be a bit of a snob for authenticity, and I'm plenty irritated by the recent tendency to use "Tuscan" as a trendy catch-all term for just about anything Italian that doesn't have red sauce on it, and for some things that do.

But one favorite Italian dish works just fine, for my tastes, with a distinctly American adaptation. Today, let's talk about spaghetti alla carbonara, a quick and delicious mix of hot pasta, crispy bacon and a very simple sauce of fresh eggs and grated cheese that quickly cooks upon exposure to the heat of pasta just out of the pot.

"Alla Carbonara" translates as "charcoal-maker's style," an apparent reference to 19th century workers who toiled in the woods, tending the long, slow fires that converted hardwood into charcoal for cooking and heat. This simple dish was hearty yet quick and easy to make with ingredients that the workers could bring from home and hold for lunch.

In Italy, "bacon" means pancetta, a delicious concoction of cured, salted and often peppered pork belly that looks like American bacon but is never smoked. You can make a great carbonara with pancetta, and it will be authentic.

But listen close, and I'll tell you a secret: I like my carbonara even better with the distinctly smoky flavor of American bacon. There. I've said it. It's inauthentic, and I don't care. Smoky bacon and eggs rank high among American comfort-food dishes, and dressing my spaghetti with these tasty treats brings breakfast flavors to the dinner table. I've got no problem with that, no problem at all.

Here's my usual recipe, which can be made with smoky bacon or pancetta as you wish. It's so quick and easy that you can just about pull together all its parts during the time it takes your pasta to cook.


(Serves two)

3-4 strips American smoky bacon or 2 ounces Italian pancetta
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon (15ml) olive oil
4-6 ounces (120-180g) spaghetti
1/4 cup (60g) grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Black pepper
2 eggs, preferably freshest possible free-range
2 tablespoons heavy cream


1. Cut the bacon or pancetta into thin strips. Peel and smash the garlic cloves. Brown the garlic over medium-high heat in a skillet or saute pan; discard it, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook the bacon until it's crisp. Remove from heat; leave the bacon in the pan, but spoon off all but about 2 tablespoons of the fat.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and, when it comes to a full boil, cook the spaghetti until al dente, typically 7 to 10 minutes depending on thickness.

3. While the spaghetti cooks (or do this in advance if you don't like working under pressure), grate the cheese, put it in a small bowl, and season it with freshly grated black pepper and nutmeg. Break the eggs into a cup, add the heavy cream, stir in the grated cheese mixture and whip it gently with a fork until all the ingredients are mixed.

4. Just before the spaghetti is done, spoon 2 or 3 tablespoons of the pasta cooking water into the egg mixture, stirring briefly. Reheat the pan containing the cooked bacon and remaining fat. Quickly drain the pasta in a big strainer or colander, then put it in the skillet with the bacon and fat, reducing heat to very low. Pour in the egg mixture and toss with two spoons until every strand is coated and the egg mixture barely cooks. Don't overcook; it's better creamy than dry.

WINE MATCH: The dairy flavors pretty much call for a white, and the smoky bacon suggests a richer-styled white. It was fine with a modestly priced, textured blend of Carignan Blanc and Vermentino from Southwestern France, Domaine du Poujol 2006 "Pico" Vin de Pays de l'Heurault.

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