If you have had authentic Spaghetti alla Carbonara, you would know it and would never go back to the American style again! Most of us know it drowned in a heavy milk or cream base, with ham or bacon and maybe even peas, and although very good, leaves us with a heavy feeling for hours afterward.

Spaghetti Carbonara
Spaghetti Carbonara

The Italian Version

The Italian version doesn’t use cream or ham. It is made with pancetta (pork belly meat that is salt cured, also referred to as Italian bacon), Parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino romano cheese, eggs, and black pepper—called the basics. The pork is fried in fat, usually olive oil. The eggs, cheese, and olive oil are combined with the hot pasta, cooking the eggs. All the ingredients are mixed together for a wonderful eating experience. You should feel delighted without being so stuffed you can’t walk! Hmm, can you taste it now?

History of Spaghetti Carbonara

So, where does this amazing dish come from? Carbonara literally means coal miner’s wife in Italian. Carbone means coal. Some say the dish was first made as a meal for Italian coal miners. Others say it was originally made over charcoal grills. And then some say it is called carbonara because of the black, freshly milled pepper.

I particularly like the history provided by top chef Lidia Bastianch. By Lidia, the dish comes from the Apennine hills of central Italy near Rome. It was a shepherd’s favorite. As they walked through the pastures with their sheep, they carried bacon, made cheese as they strolled, and only used eggs if they were lucky enough to have them.

Whichever meaning you like, we can safely say it traces back no earlier than the middle of the 20th century. It was first recorded after WWII as a Roman dish since many Italians were eating eggs and bacon supplied by American troops.

When In Rome

My best experience with spaghetti carbonara was on a trip to Rome, Italy. My husband introduced me to a tiny trattoria off the main roads, one he had visited years earlier as a student studying abroad in his last semester at college.

We had to visit this place for their carbonara so I could taste the difference between the American version and the true Italian. Ever since I wouldn’t have it any other way! It was also a bit nostalgic for him knowing the restaurant was still there and bringing back fond memories of their food and culture.

I won’t order this dish in a restaurant anymore because I don’t want to be disappointed. I often read the description on the menu to see if it is authentic. We only make it at home the way it should be and I revel in the fact we did not have to go so far or spend too much on something so good!

Wine Pairings for Spaghetti Carbonara

What would I pair it with on the wine side? Probably a Merlot or Chianti. Thanks to my Court of Master Sommelier diploma, I know that answer!

So, go for the authentic style, buy quality ingredients, and follow the technique. If you want to go all out, get guanciale instead of pancetta. This pork is the jowl part of the pig and a lot leaner and richer. But please no cream, ham, or peas. And, don’t cook the eggs—raw eggs are added to the sauce and cook with the heat of the pasta.

Spaghetti Carbonara Recipe

Here are the simple ingredients:

Spaghetti: 450 g (1 pound)
Pancetta: 225 g (1/2 pound)
Egg Yolks: 5
Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese, grated: 360 ml (1 ½ cups)
Olive Oil, extra virgin: 3-4 tablespoons
Pepper, freshly ground: ½ tablespoon


A Somm Asks: Spaghetti Carbonara—Italian or American?

One thought on “A Somm Asks: Spaghetti Carbonara—Italian or American?

  • 13th December 2020 at 5:00 am

    Hmm, almost correct, but REAL carbonara should be made with guanciale (which is from the pig’s cheek, I believe) and is very high-fat (thus contributing to the silkiness of the result, as well as your cholestrol levels!) rather than the pancetta quoted here. Mind you, pancetta is much easier to find if outside Italy – I’m actually just about to try making it the proper way for the first time, having found a wonderful Italian deli a few miles from here (Antonio Delicatessen, Lewisham).


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