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Pasta Carbonara

November 25, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Andrew Carmellini, chef/owner of TriBeCa’s Locanda Verde, making pasta carbonara

[Daniel Krieger for The New York Times]

Tuesday night, the NYT put up an article by Ian Fisher at their home page about pasta carbonara as a Thanksgiving substitute. As a carbonara lover, I clicked on the article immediately, and found it sufficiently exciting that I thought of writing a post about it. The next morning, I saw that it was the front page feature story in the weekly Wednesday food section, and later in the day I noticed that it was #2 in the NYT list of most e-mailed articles. I wasn’t alone in my fascination with carbonara. And my service as linker to the article might be unnecessary. Yet here I am linking to it, in case you missed it.

Of special interest is the discussion of guanciale versus pancetta.

My wife has more confidence in my cooking skills than I do. When we were posted in Italy (I was the New York Times correspondent in Rome), she volunteered me to make carbonara at a party one summer afternoon in Tuscany. The host was a contessa, the mother of one of our sons’ school friends. I am American, and I could tell most of the guests did not hold much hope.

I hadn’t made much carbonara before and told her, “I’m nervous.”

She said, “You should be.”

It all went terribly. It was too hot for most Italians to enjoy heavy carbonara. I didn’t bring enough guanciale, the cured pig cheeks that for many Italians have become indispensable for carbonara. I had to chuck in some pancetta (pork belly as opposed to cheek) that the host had in the fridge. For this crowd, pancetta simply was not done. I botched the eggs to the point that they were scrambled.

No Italian adult would touch it, except the contessa, who did so with well-bred, fork-plucking politeness. But the children gobbled it down because — and this is the curse and the key to carbonara — eggs, bacon, cheese and pasta taste great, almost no matter what. It’s worth the effort, though, to get right, and that’s what I’ve striven for since, to the point of curing my own guanciale at home, which is less difficult than it sounds. No obsession here, I swear.

Fisher raises a series of questions: “Guanciale, pancetta or plain bacon? Only pecorino cheese, made from sheep’s milk? Or is a bit of Parmesan O.K.? Peas or not? Onion? Whole eggs or yolks? Or, heaven forbid, the ingredient that most divides devotees of a dish that, above all, aims for creaminess: actual cream?” It would appear that the answer is, whatever works.

Andrew Carmellini, the chef and owner of Locanda Verde in Manhattan, studied cooking in Italy but has gone his own way, while keeping true to the dish’s nature. In his version, which he calls Spaghetti Friuliano, after the region in Italy where part of his family comes from, he uses speck, which is like prosciutto, as well as onions, cabbage, eggs, smoked pecorino from Sardinia and, yes, cream. He even finishes it with a little grappa.

After seeing Skyfall last night, Gail and I took a route home that would bring us past a favorite neighborhood restaurant, La Côte Café. In mid afternoon, we had eaten a late lunch of Thanksgiving leftovers. As we passed La Côte Café at around 8:15 PM, we weren’t in need of a full dinner. I suggested that we stop for dessert crepes.

Earlier this year, in converting from La Côte Crêperie to La Côte Café, the restaurant substantially revised their menu. Many of the crepe selections were dropped. Lasagna and pasta carbonara — perhaps the best carbonara in Seattle — were added. This presented a bit of a problem, since we really weren’t there for a full meal. With carbonara on my mind for four days, I had to exercise enormous restraint to stick with ordering just a light salad and a dessert crepe, which I did. Now we have to get back soon so I can satisfy my carbonara craving.

I wonder why French restaurants make such good pasta carbonara. Without doubt, I had my favorite version ever at the beachfront restaurant of the Majestic Hotel in La Baule, on the Brittany coast. That was in 1999, when we were visiting my sister and her family on the occasion of a big birthday for her. We ate there the night we arrived. I had the carbonara then, and again when we returned later in our stay.

I’m thinking that next month, when Joel is back, we can experiment a bit with our own version of pasta carbonara. Gail, what do you think?

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