If you ask me what my favourite Italian dish is, the answer will always be Spaghetti Carbonara. From the first moment I tasted this dish, it was amore!
I’ve seen many incarnations of Carbonara at various places all over the world – some good, some bad. In fact, I once sent my ‘carbonara’ back at a chain restaurant because when it arrived, it was actually penne in a cream sauce with green peas and pieces of chicken. Spaghetti Carbonara became the margherita pizza of pastas for me. In other words, it was like my benchmark pasta. If a restaurant had carbonara on the menu, I’d order it. If it was good, I liked the restaurant; and if not, well, I wouldn’t return.
Eventually, it became a ‘thing’ for me to find the best spaghetti carbonara in Toronto (I have a few faves, but I’m still on the hunt!). All the while, I never ever imagined it would have been possible for me to make this at home, myself. I always assumed it was too difficult. I later learned that, much like so many other classic Italian dishes, the beauty in a good spaghetti carbonara lies in its simplicity. It’s really just a few key ingredients: pasta, pork, Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, pepper, and egg yolk. But what makes a great carbonara is the quality of your ingredients and nailing the technique.
Enter: my friend, Umberto. His recipe is fool-proof, and I give full credit to him for this!
What makes Umberto’s recipe so good? First of all, he’s Italian, so he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Italian food 😉. But more importantly, he can cook! He’s worked under Chef Rob Gentile at Buca and most recently at Harbor Sixty. Plus, he’s the kindest soul. He actually took the time to write his recipe from scratch in a note on his phone and send it to me. He wrote it so thoroughly and detailed. I followed his recipe word for word, step-by-step, and it was PERFETTO!
Before jumping into the recipe, I do want to share a few of my helpful recipe notes, so you can nail your carbonara on the first try too!
- The Pasta: while a regular spaghetti noodle will work just fine, I think a noodle slightly thicker than spaghetti is much better (never thinner). I used this Spaghettoni del Leone and I thought the thickness was just right. If you can get fresh pasta, even better. Otherwise, use a good quality dried pasta (skip the low-qual, generic brands). Other pasta shapes/styles that work well for carbonara are: chitarra, bucatini, and tonnarelli. DON’T use other shapes, like penne or rigatoni. Keep it classic! Lastly, it’s worth stating that you should never break your pasta to fit into your pot (that’s actually a crime!). Take the extra couple of seconds to insert it into the water and twist slowly with tongs until it all fits.
- The Pork: Carbonara is made with cured pork – traditionally guanciale (pork jowl). But if you don’t have guanciale on-hand, use pancetta. If you use bacon, cut into lardons (small, even cubes). Whatever you use, don’t overcook or over-crisp your pork! The pork should be browned, but never too crispy or burnt (another Carbonara crime!).
- The Sauce: Umberto tells me that, as a Roman dish, Carbonara is traditionally supposed to be saucy. This may come down to personal preference for you. I like a saucy Carbonara as well and the next time I make it, I will make it with more sauce. You can do this by adding a little more pasta water after you’ve coated your pasta with the egg mixture (we’ll get to this in the recipe). But whatever you do, never, ever, EVER use cream!!!!!! If you see a Carbonara recipe that uses cream, move on! A Carbonara does not have and does not need cream. The creaminess in the sauce comes from the egg yolk, which if done right, will not scramble.
So, without further ado, here’s Chef Umberto’s Classic Spaghetti Carbonara.
Umberto's Classic Spaghetti Carbonara
- 220-250 g spaghetti
- 100 g pancetta or guanciale cut into lardons
- 3 egg yolks I used Conestoga Eggs, which gave my carbonara a beautiful deep yellow colour!
- 300 ml Pecorino Romano finely grated
- 100 ml Parmigiano Reggiano finely grated
- freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- In a mixing bowl, add egg yolks, pecorino and parmigiano. Mix together until combined and the resulting mixture is like a soft dough, which will leave an imprint if pressed by the index finger. If the mixture is too wet, add more pecorino or parmigiano. If too dry, add more yolk.
- Boil spaghetti in generously salted water. Stir occasionally to ensure pasta doesn't stick together.
- While spaghetti is boiling, brown your pork in a large saucepan over medium to medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Don't over-crisp. Remove pancetta and set aside, reserving fat in the pan. Toast desired amount of freshly cracked black pepper in pan.
- Deglaze pan with a ladle of pasta water and set on low until needed.
- When the spaghetti has 2 minutes left to cook, turn heat back up under your saucepan with the rendered fat. Remove pasta from the water with tongs and add to the pan with the rendered fat. Add enough pasta water so that the noodles will continue cooking in about an inch of liquid in the pan (this helps the final sauce).
- Add the pancetta to the sauce.
- When the spaghetti is al dente and the pasta water and rendered fat have reduced to a tight starchy sauce, remove from the heat.
- Off heat, carefully add the egg and cheese mixture into the pan. You can add in stages to ensure the egg doesn't scramble. As soon as you add a spoonful of the egg and cheese mixture, vigorously mix with tongs until the sauce is completely emulsified and the noodles are well-coated. This is the most important step. Reserve pasta water in order to adjust consistency of your sauce at this time, if needed.
- Grate more pecorino or parmigiano over top. Serve and enjoy!