There are Italian recipes capable of unleashing virtual “religious wars” that manage to inflame many Bel Paese souls. Pasta alla carbonara, sometimes simply called La Carbonara, is certainly among them. When the British posted a recipe recently that included cream in this traditional Roman dish, the Italians responded with outrage. Even Massimo Bottura got into the act. Bottura is a renowned Italian chef and a vocal advocate for combatting food waste. He has opened soup kitchens, as well as his famous Osteria Francescana, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Modena that features artful and creative renditions of Italian dishes. Yet he defended the traditional ingredients in “our” perfect carbonara recipe: spaghetti, eggs, guanciale, pepper and Pecorino.
Bottura posted a message on Instagram: “Niente panna nella cabonara, per favore! Siamo noi i campioni! “No cream in the carbonara, please! We are the champions!” The celebrations after the recent final of the European Cup in soccer won by the Italian team against England probably offered the occasion to clarify things in the kitchen as well. Bottura took the opportunity to say in effect, “Basta con le carbonare contraffatte!”—that is, “Enough with counterfeit carbonaras!”
The offending British chef? Probably none other than Gordon Ramsay, known as much for his provocative statements and penchant for controversy as for Union Street Café, his London restaurant. Ramsay uploaded on social media a video of his carbonara, which he humbly called “the most amazing carbonara!” In his recipe there were three “counterfeit” ingredients: cream, bacon, and melted cheese. Plus, the color of the resulting dish was off—way too yellow. Judging by the attendant comments, the Italians wanted to crucify him.
About five years ago, I wrote about “Carbonara-gate,” a French interpretation of Carbonara that nearly set off a diplomatic crisis. On a French “infotainment” site appeared a video-recipe that contained a series of striking sins: the entire cooking was in a casserole, the addition of cream, the incorrect method of adding the eggs, and the choice of pancetta and Parmigiano in place of the classic guanciale and Pecorino. Italians considered it a sacrilege to her majesty La Carbonara. Then recently the New York Times published another of its controversial recipes, this time “Smoky tomato carbonara.” It called for tomato concentrate, cherry tomatoes, smoked bacon, and the use of Parmigiano instead of Pecorino. Comments? “This is a cardinal sin!”
In summary, here are the 10 commandments of La Carbonara:
- First, you need a good guanciale. Never use smoked bacon. In a pinch, maybe you could get away with pancetta.
- Use only yokes or some egg white? Here the doctrine is not explicit. It’s better to use only egg yolks but the addition of a little egg white would be considered only a venial sin.
- Pecorino or Parmigiana? Pecorino! The origins of the dish are from the regions of Lazio or Abruzzo.
- Don’t forget the pepper. Use a generous sprinkle of black pepper, freshly ground.
- Long or short pasta? Here, doctrine surprisingly leaves room for interpretation. Spaghetti or rigatoni are the most suitable.
- Forget the cream.
- Also forget the garlic and the onion.
- And be careful not to make a Stracciatella pasta (with a soup-like consistency).
- Eggs should not be overcooked.
- Finally, don’t listen to chefs beyond the Italian Alps!