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.