Pasta is often the first foodstuff that springs to mind when you think of Italian cuisine. And there is no better place to discover pasta than Rome, which is the birthplace of four foundational dishes.
Pecorino Romano cheese, guanciale and black pepper make gricia, which is cooked with spaghetti or rigatoni. Hold the guanciale and go heavy on the pepper and it becomes cacio e pepe or add tomato and a hint of chilli for amatriciana. Not to forget carbonara; a lush combination of eggs, cured pork, black pepper and hard cheese.
These dishes have been around for more than 2,000 years and have shaped the landscape of Roman cuisine. The simple, everyday meals enjoyed by imperial Romans are now staple menu items at Italian restaurants around the globe.
While gricia and amatriciana remain less prevalent, cacio e pepe has been on the rise for a while now. But no pasta is as ubiquitous as spaghetti carbonara. While it’s the youngest of the Roman pasta family, carbonara is rich in flavour and history.
Hospitality speaks to Sonny’s Matthew Breen and Alberto Fava from Tipo 00 about their go-to ingredients for making a good carbonara and techniques to pull off the classic.
It is uncertain exactly when or how spaghetti carbonara was invented, but there are three main origin stories. The first known iteration dates as far back as 1839 when a similar dish comprising beaten eggs and melted lard was published in Ippolito Cavalcanti’s Neapolitan cookbook.
The second comes down to the name itself. Carbonara derives from the Italian word carbanaro, meaning charcoal burner, with the dish regularly enjoyed as a lunch option by charcoal workers. The third points to American troops, who brought a great supply of pork products and eggs from the United States to Italy during World War II.
Sonny Head Chef and Co-Owner Matthew Breen’s early experiences with spaghetti carbonara differ greatly from the original.
“When I was growing up, it was made with bacon and cream and that’s how I was told to make it by the Women’s Weekly,” says the Hobart-based chef. “I think the misconception with carbonara, especially in Australia, is that it needs to be really creamy. When I was travelling through Rome, it was always quite dry, al dente and moreish.”
Over at Tipo 00 in Melbourne, Co-Owner Alberto Fava sees carbonara as a reflection of traditional Roman cooking. “The Roman style is famous for using quinto quarto, which is what they call the fifth quarter of the animal,” says the chef.
“It’s all the offal of the animal and itʼs very common in Rome to use these parts of the pig. It’s why [they use] things like pancetta and guanciale. Now they are premium, but back in the day, they weren’t.”
Carbonara is only as good as its ingredients and because there are just a handful, it all boils down to quality. Although pancetta (cured pork belly) serves as a good substitute, guanciale is favoured for its high fat content.
“It’s a different part of the animal,” says Fava. “The consistency and the ratio between the fat and the meat is a little bit different in guanciale. It’s more fatty than pancetta and it’s a premium product. You can make it with good-quality pancetta, but I think guanciale is the king for carbonara.”
Top-tier produce is not hard to come by in Tasmania, and Breen has dabbled in making his own guanciale. “I have made guanciale in the past; it’s not as difficult
as people might think,” says the chef. “It’s just a matter of sourcing a pork cheek and
seasoning it with salt, a touch of sugar and aromats (some rosemary and black
pepper). You basically cure that from 30 days to three months.”
Fava sources guanciale from Salumi Australia, a smallgoods company based in Byron Bay. The restaurant has various types of pecorino sheep’s cheese on hand, but preferences pecorino Sardo from Sardinia over pecorino Romano.
Personally, Fava favours parmigiano Reggiano. “Originally they were probably only making it with pecorino cheese, but sometimes you can do it with a parmigiano Reggiano and pecorino mix,” Fava says. “I don’t mind a mix.”
Carbonara’s viscose mouthfeel comes down to the eggs, which play a crucial role in the emulsification process during cooking. Yolks are preferred to the whole egg in order to achieve a glossy finish.
“You can use both, but I like to use just the yolk so you’re not adding more water
content to the dish and you’ve got a bit more control,” says Breen. “It’s almost
like adding butter right at the end; you’re adding a piece of fat and the yolk gives it that shine and richness you want.”
Fava uses pullet eggs for added flavour and recommends keeping them at room temperature. “We store them in the fridge here because sometimes the kitchen gets
extremely hot, but a room-temperature egg is ideal for carbonara,” says Fava. “They
shouldn’t be too cold. When you toss the pasta through it, you want everything to
be warm. A cold egg will need more water to warm it up and make it emulsify better.”
The pasta is the vessel for the sauce, with Breen and Fava both making fresh spaghetti in-house. Carbonara is a recent addition to Sonny’s rotating seven-dish menu, and it’s all thanks to a new equipment purchase.
“We just bought this little pasta-making device called a chitarra, which means guitar,” says Breen. “It’s a wooden box with strings tightly wound on it. You put your pasta sheets on there and press it through with a rolling pin, so it comes out like a square-shaped spaghetti.”
While spaghetti is the most prevalent shape, rigatoni is another option. “It’s commonly used in Rome, so it’s [either] one or the other,” says Fava. “It’s more of a preference. If I was to do fresh pasta, I would do spaghetti, but if I was using a dry pasta, I would probably use rigatoni.”
Arguably, the same end result can be achieved with fresh or dry pasta, but portioning needs to be adjusted for freshly made pasta. “We have an extruder machine in the restaurant and we make pasta fresh every day,” says Fava. “[Because it’s fresh], the content of water is a little bit higher, so we generally use 120g portions of pasta. If you use a dry pasta from the supermarket, it would be too much because the pasta is very, very dry.”
With so few ingredients, carbonara could fool chefs into thinking it’s an easy dish to make, but it necessitates a great deal of finesse to get right. The emulsification of the sauce is perhaps the trickiest part of the process. “It begins with lots of olive oil, chopped garlic and guanciale,” says Breen.
“All your fat will render out of the guanciale and then you’re just tossing your pasta
through that fat. If you add a little bit of pasta water, the sauce starts to emulsify and coats the pasta with a glossy sheen.”
For Fava, it comes down to preparing each component individually. “The only cooking part is the guanciale and boiling the pasta,” he says. Crisping up the guanciale is the starting point, but the majority of the steps are completed away from the burner.
“The tossing and the emulsification of the pasta happens in a bowl or in a pan, not on direct fire,” says Fava. “You fry your guanciale in a pan over medium heat and when it’s crispy, you let it cool down. In a separate bowl, you whisk the yolks, cracked pepper and grated pecorino cheese. When the pasta is ready, you add it straight into the bowl with the eggs and the pecorino. You do this off the fryer because it can scramble or you could make a frittata.”
Maintaining a lower cooking temperature is a must. Breen suggests starting with a medium heat before turning it down. “It doesn’t really require that much heat,” he says. “You can almost make it on a really low temperature off the heat. Once you’ve rendered down your fat in the guanciale and cooked your garlic and added your pasta, pasta water and cheese, it’s all going to come together within a minute.
“The key with the egg is to add it in right at the end just before you put it onto the plate. If you add it while you’re cooking your pasta, it’s going to scramble and curdle.”
A classic carbonara recipe is hard to beat, but the simplicity of the dish leaves room for different iterations. While Fava mostly sticks to tradition, he has experimented with smoked eel to add depth of flavour.
“We use parmigiano Reggiano, guanciale and eel from Victoria,” says Fava. “We
clean the eel after it’s been smoked and cut it into the same size as the guanciale.
Then we take the bones and the skin of the eel and we make a smoky stock. Once
it’s cold, we make an emulsion with egg yolks and parmesan and stick blend it.”
A vegetarian carbonara option at Tipo 00 sees white asparagus used as a substitute for meat products. “We lightly chargrill the tips of the white asparagus for a charred
flavour,” says Fava. “Then we make a white asparagus cream which goes with the egg [mixture] before it’s tossed with the pasta.”
Carbonara may be simple in composition, but the technique required to make it is not to be scoffed at. “Now, people are making it traditionally with guanciale and are doing it correctly,” says Breen. “They are like, ‘Wow, this is what it should taste like?’ and that’s probably surprising to some.”
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