Mezzi Carbonara

When I was a single gal in my 20’s, I did a five-week trip to Israel, Italy, and Greece.  It was a life-changing trip and I longed to bring my husband to Europe at some point in our lives.  Then a house got in there, a couple of kids, and a dog, and Europe was a far off reality.

We started talking about a European trip for our 15th wedding anniversary. My husband even surprised me with a life size replica of a boarding pass to Rome.  Finally!!  I started to dream again.

Unfortunately, not a week after receiving this boarding pass, my husband’s employment crumbled to pieces and a large trip was the last thing on our minds.  We had to be responsible adults and downsize and reduce all our bills, not go off on the adventure of a lifetime.  I kept that boarding pass in my closet for a few years though …. until finally one day I let reality set in and off it went into the trash.

Finally, for our 20th wedding anniversary, we made it happen.  We planned and planned and off we went for 3 weeks.  The first part we traveled with good friends through Switzerland and Italy.  We parted in Rome, they went home to their four children, and we continued through Italy and Greece for another week and a half.

Being the foodies we are, food was just as an exciting part of the trip as seeing the Colosseum and the Acropolis.  We had never had pizza in Napoli, and when we did, we understood what all the fuss was about.  How do they get such flavor in the crust?  How do they make it so thin and yet sturdy?  This is my newest obsession that should be saved for my 72-hour pizza dough crust recipe that I am working on.  Sorry, I get distracted easily.

Back to pasta.  When we arrived in Rome, my husband asked our Air-BNB host where the best places to eat locally were.  She wrote down a few places within walking distance of our condo.  Off we went to the closest one.  There were some tourists there, but mostly locals, which means you know it’s good.  I almost always order pizza when I go out because I can make pretty good pasta.  So that’s what I did.  My husband ordered Carbonara.  When it was brought to the table, he offered me a try.

It. was. perfect.

How can something so simple be so delicious?  Eggs?  Cheese? Noodles?  Each noodle was coated with the sauce, perfectly seasoned.  I became obsessed.

For the 4 days we were in Rome, we ate there 3 times.  The last night we actually went and ate in sadness, savoring every bite, wondering if we would ever eat this food again.

I still dream of that Carbonara.

When we returned home, I went into a post-European-vacation depression.  I bought Italian wine only and made pizza and pasta and gained more weight after my vacation than on my vacation.  And nobody feels sorry for your post-vacation-depression, which makes things even more depressing.

I came home and tried to re-create some of the foods that we had eaten in Greece and Italy, and let me tell you, it wasn’t too easy.  We just don’t have access to the same ingredients so copying is almost impossible.  Caper leaves that they only grow on Santorini? Nope.  I hadn’t even heard of caper leaves before, never mind actually having access to them.

But the Carbonara, I had to try.  So here’s where my food obsession sets in.  I watched perhaps a few too many hours of Italian chefs on YouTube in Italy making Carbonara their way.  The answer?

Everybody does it their own way.  Some use whole eggs, some use only yolks, some separate the fat from the meat and combine with the egg, and so on and so on.  So I just decided to try Carbonara all the different ways and see what I like best.  The answer is in the recipe below.

I found using the yolks only coat the noodle better.  Just make sure they are at room temperature, otherwise the difference in temperature so quickly could scramble the eggs.  I went and bought Pecorino Romano, which is the cheese they use in Italy for Carbonara, without exception.  It’s made with sheep’s milk instead of cow, and is sharp, salty, and perfect for a recipe with such few ingredients.  The Italians swear by “Guanciale”, which, of course, I cannot buy here.  If you can buy it, please make this recipe and send me a picture or tag me on social media.  Most videos I watched said Pancetta is a good substitute, but some true Italians yelled in the video and said SOLO GUANCIALE.  I bought a chunk of pancetta and diced it, and I liked that better than the sliced pancetta that my son mistakenly bought when he went back to the store for me.  It is so beautifully salty that you don’t need to add much more salt yourself.

Carbonara is also, I have learned, not a sauce that sits well, it must be consumed immediately.  Otherwise that silky sauce seems to soak into the noodles and it’s just dry coated noodles.  Make sure to FINELY grate your cheese; otherwise it looks like you’ve scrambled your eggs even when you’ve haven’t.   Do the opposite of what you usually do when cooking meat and put the meat in a cold skillet, then turn on the heat.  This makes more fat render and make the sauce more flavorful.  I tested this with chunks of pancetta and slices, and the chunks rendered off way more fat and flavor, but maybe that’s just the kind I had.  You let me know what worked for you.

Spaghetti is the preferred noodle, but the pasta that we had was these half size Rigatoni noodles, which I prefer a hundred times over, so that’s what I found and used for this recipe.

Finally, Carbonara is about timing.  It doesn’t take long, but, if you leave stuff on the stove, it’ll be cold and unable to reheat unless you scramble the eggs and that’s not what you want.  So try and give it the 15 minutes of pure attention that it deserves.

So, call everybody to the table, forks in hand, napkins tucked in shirt, wine on table, and serve them some of the best Carbonara they’ve ever had.

INGREDIENTS:

*If you’ve never made Carbonara before, read some of the tips above; it will help plenty.

  • 2 egg yolks, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
  • 3 oz. diced guanciale or pancetta
  • 1/2 lb spaghetti or rigatoni noodles
  • Freshly ground pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Whisk egg yolks and cheese together in a little bowl.

Finely dice guanciale or pancetta and put into a medium size skillet.  Put skillet on heat and let fat render and cook until crispy, about 5-7 minutes.  Turn off heat.

Boil pasta, save 1 cup cooking water, and drain.

Reheat the guanciale or pancetta with about 1/4 cup of the cooking water.  Toss pasta in the skillet to warm.  Then toss the egg/cheese mixture.  Shake pan to toss everything together, adding more cooking water if you like.

Serve immediately, with more Pecorino grated on top.

Makes 2 servings.

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