Crazy For Carbonara

There's nothing more comforting than this Italian dish -- no matter how you cook it.

February 21, 2001|By Dan Rodricks | Dan Rodricks,SUN COLUMNIST

Maybe all Italian food qualifies as comfort food -- the good stuff that warms the spirit as it nourishes the body -- so you'll probably think I'm as nutty as pinoli to stand up and declare Spaghetti alla Carbonara the ultimate Italian comfort food.

What, you ask, are you crazy? Are you trying to start something? How can there be such a designation in such a crowded field? There are all those wonderful dishes your mama -- or somebody's mama -- used to make: pizza, minestrone, spaghetti and meatballs, pasta fagioli, polenta and lasagna. They all could compete for the heavyweight title of Ultimate Italian Comfort Food. They all warm the soul and fatten the thighs.

But I've investigated this metaphysical realm thoroughly -- Italian food and the soul, especially the food part -- and that's my conclusion: Once you've experienced Spaghetti alla Carbonara, it's hard to find as much comfort in anything else.

Carbonara is a rich dish made from simple ingredients -- eggs, butter and/or olive oil, cheese, bacon -- and, once these elements become entangled with hot pasta, they touch the deep senses and take the chill out of my bones. When I inhale a freshly cooked carbonara, I feel as though I've returned to some steamy-warm, ancestral kitchen on a little farm in the Roman countryside.

OK, maybe you don't buy the channeling bit. I agree: It's a little too loopy, in the Shirley MacLaine sense. So let me run this past you: Maybe I take comfort from this dish because it blends a staple of my Italian ancestors -- spaghetti -- with a staple of America -- bacon and eggs. In fact, it could be the Ultimate Italian-American Dish.

I'm not the first to proffer this concept. In 1983, Calvin Trillin, author of "Third Helpings" and "Alice, Let's Eat," felt such passion for Spaghetti alla Carbonara that he crusaded to have it replace turkey as the national dish on Thanksgiving Day.

Consider what some historians accept as the origin of carbonara: In the waning days of World War II, American soldiers in Rome made nice with local families, gave them fresh eggs and bacon and asked them to prepare meals. The locals added the pasta and grated cheese, thereby either inventing a dish or reviving one that previously had had little exposure among Americans.

Others believe the dish is much older than that, cooked on open fires by charcoal makers, thus its name. I've also heard the theory that crispy, carbon-black bacon is what gives the dish its flavor and name.

Whatever its origins -- some say it is unmistakably Roman, others say it originated in the Lazio region -- Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a wonderful treat for a winter lunch or supper. It offers a welcome break from the tiresome tomato sauces that coat most other popular Italian dishes. It's just not the usual Ragu.

But, I know: It sounds evil, not comforting. My God, bacon and eggs with parmigiano and pasta?

Yes, and maybe a little butter.

And maybe a little cream!

And some use olive oil. I've heard it called an "Italian heart attack on a plate." To some, it's Spaghetti Alla Cholesterola! The Ultimate Italian Guilt Trip.

But come on, now. Tutto in moderazione. All in moderation.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is not weekly, even monthly, fare in my house. I have been blessed with the limit-setting instinct. I know that a steady diet of this stuff would put me in the cardiac unit at Hopkins, and eventually I'd be doomed to a diet of Subway sandwiches, like that former big-pants man Jared.

So, I make carbonara about twice a year -- about as often as I once purchased prime lump to make crab cakes.

There's a reason for the crab-cake segue.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I became convinced that the fishery was in trouble, I decided to boycott Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. I haven't eaten Maryland or Virginia crab meat since the summer of 1998.

When I renewed my boycott last year in my column on The Sun's Maryland news page, I suggested that readers treat themselves to something grand -- a guilty pleasure -- in lieu of a crab dish. So, instead of crab cakes, I now make Spaghetti alla Carbonara.

Reader mail poured in from carbonara fanciers across the Baltimore metropolitan region. All agreed with my praise for the dish and its comforting qualities. But there was little agreement on the method of preparation and fair divergence on ingredients. So one evening this winter, I had a "Big Night" at my house. I turned my pots, pans and gas burners over to three people with varying but solid cooking skills and mutual affection for the Ultimate Italian Comfort Food.

The Rev. Joseph Bonadio, of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church on Harford Road, claimed to know how to make a formidable carbonara based on his dining experiences in a Rome restaurant. He makes his with pancetta (cured belly of pork) purchased from Mastellone Deli and Wine Shop in Northeast Baltimore, and mixes it in a pot.

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