As Michael Ruhlman says, “Saying there’s one authentic way to make carbonara is like saying there’s only one Italian dialect.” As simple a dish as pasta carbonara is, I’ve never had two that were the same. Everyone does it a little differently.
Hands down, the best carbonara I ever ate was during my 26th birthday dinner at the now-shuttered Cibo Matto in Chicago when Todd Stein was the chef. In his version–simply dubbed Bucatini–a glistening, orange duck egg yolk teetered atop a winding pile of super al dente bucatini flecked with cracked pepper, cheese and crisp, fatty guanciale. Sadly, I only got to eat it once, since the restaurant was open for just over a year and pretty much booked up every weekend.
In my little culinary universe, there are a few cornerstones that signify true carbonara: pancetta (or guanciale), eggs and Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan). Absolutely no cream. And no greenery. That means no peas, no sprinkling of parsley or chives–nothin! Save the greens for the salad course. And for that matter, keep your onion and garlic, too. To me, carbonara should be all about the starch, salt and fat–bound together using pasta water and egg. My ideal carbonara is also interactive, meaning everyone’s responsible for stirring in their own egg yolk.
It’s the unabashed–almost stubborn–simplicity of this dish that has made me so hesitant to post this recipe until now. But carbonara has become a staple in my house, and I stand by it. My carbonara is mostly adapted from Mario Batali’s wonderful Molto Gusto cookbook. In my version, I use half Parmesan and half Pecorino Romano and in an homage to Todd Stein’s fleeting Bucatini, I only make carbonara with bucatini pasta.
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces thick sliced pancetta or guanciale, cubed
Coarsely ground black pepper as needed
1 pound bucatini
4 room temperature eggs, separated
4 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese
4 ounces freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Heat a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottom pot over medium; add the olive oil and pancetta, and cook until the meat has rendered some of its fat and caramelized slightly, 5-7 minutes. Remove from the heat, and add about 20 grinds of coarse black pepper.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta in heavily salted water just until al dente. Drain it, reserving about 3/4 cup of the starchy cooking liquid.
Put the egg whites in a large measuring cup. Whisk in a few tablespoons of the starchy cooking liquid to temper them. Turn the heat on low under the pot with the pancetta and pepper until they just start to sizzle. Whisking furiously, pour the tempered egg whites and about 1/2 cup of the starchy pasta liquid into the pot. Dump in the pasta, tossing well to coat. Turn off the heat, and add most of the cheese and additional pasta water if the pasta seems dry. Work quickly, as you don’t want the pasta to cool.
To serve, divide the pasta evenly among 4 serving bowls. Carefully nest an egg yolk on top of each pasta pile. (I put each yolk into a small prep bowl before lowering it on top of the pasta.) Grind a little fresh pepper on top of each and sprinkle with a bit more cheese. Serve immediately, and instruct each diner to quickly break their egg yolk and stir it into the pasta.