Is there anything more wonderful than a spaghetti carbonara as it’s served in Rome? I remember one long, hot summer when friends and I rented an apartment in Trastevere in a building adjacent to and above (we had access to a rooftop terrace) a restaurant called Checco er Carrettiere. Despite the heat, we were seduced by the perfume of the grilled scottadito (literally, ‘burned finger’ – the tiniest and tenderest lamb-chops grilled on an open flame which you eat with your fingers, searingly hot). Down we went for dinner – I was unable to face the possibility of a carbonara in the stifling heat, but not unable to face stealing forkfuls of it from the plate of a friend. It was the most luscious morsel I’ve ever eaten – perfectly toothy pasta, creamy egg, crispy chunks of pancetta (unsmoked bacon – meaty, delicious), gorgeous gratings of parmigiano. A great carbonara is about timing, texture and taste and it has nothing whatever to do with what passes for spaghetti carbonara in virtually any North American restaurant.
Curiously, there seems to be very little agreement as to the origin of the name ‘carbonara’ for this dish, which seems to have been an invention of the WWII years – a peasant food, really – the simplest of ingredients to dress the ubiquitous spaghetti. Obviously the word itself derives from the root ‘carbone’, charcoal, and I suppose that’s why it seemed so perfect to eat it adjacent to the grill at Checco (despite the heat, which we cooled with glass pitcherfuls of cold, grassy white wine). There was something about the general smokiness that dressed the slick egginess of the pasta and kissed the little lardons of pancetta.
The dish itself perhaps derives from the ‘unto e uovo’ (grease and egg pasta) of Naples, in which melted lard was used as the vehicle for the egg and cheese. It’s not too difficult to imagine that fatty strips of pork thrown on the grill came to be used (or even the run-off from such undistinguished scraps), the charred bits of meat prefiguring the deliberation of pancetta in the final iteration of the dish.
All I know is that were I a cardinal choosing a new Pope, I would only vote if I were fed a steady diet of spaghetti carbonara.