Spaghetti alla Carbonara is an iconic pasta dish they make in Rome and its surrounding villages in the beautiful Lazio region of Italy. It’s made with cured pork cheek called Guanciale, eggs, Italian hard cheese, traditionally Pecorino Romano, and an abundance of black pepper.
Plenty of TV chefs, cookbook authors, food bloggers out there can teach you how to make a hearty plate of pasta carbonara. Who better to learn from than the late Antonio Carluccio, also known as the Godfather of Italian gastronomy?
I came across Carluccio’s carbonara recipe as I was binge-watching Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube (which, if you ask me, is definitely one of the best cooking channels on YouTube).
This is something I do pretty much every evening as I make dinner. I watch and listen to chefs cooking and talking about food while I myself am cooking. In doing so, I find new recipes and learn new things without needing to dedicate any of my free time exclusively to YouTube.
Who Is Antonio Carluccio?
Antonio Carluccio passed in 2017 and I’m sure he’s missed by many. Born in 1937 in Vietri sul Mare, a small village on the Mediterranean seacoast, he was an old-school Italian chef and restaurateur who lived most of his life in London.
Carluccio’s career spans more than 50 years and, in that time, he appeared on multiple TV productions and YouTube channels, wrote well over 35 books, and owned a number of restaurants.
One thing I immediately liked about Antonio Carluccio was his traditional, down-to-earth, and no-nonsense approach to Italian cuisine (and home cooking as a whole).
You can tell by watching his video about making spaghetti carbonara.
Antonio Carliccio’s Carbonara Recipe
Watch carefully as Antonio Carluccio shares some of his golden nuggets of advice for boiling pasta noodles and making Pasta alla Carbonara in this video. In the rest of this post, I’m going to break his technique down and expand on it.
Get ready, folks, it’s going to get more and more interesting as we dive into the intricacies of Italian cuisine and the traditional technique for making Pasta alla Carbonara.
Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Pasta water, as Italian chefs like to say, should taste like the sea.
Pasta noodles are made of flour, water, and, occasionally, eggs. Since the dough doesn’t have any salt, the noodles will come out tasting bland unless you add salt to the cooking water.
Contrary to popular belief, adding salt to your pasta water won’t keep the noodles from sticking together. Nor will it raise the boiling point of the water significantly enough to make any difference for your home-cooked meals.
The salt crystals will dissolve in the water and season the pasta noodles from the inside as they absorb it while they rehydrate and cook.
How much salt is enough? Carluccio recommends adding 10 grams of salt per 1 liter of water. In U.S. measures, this translates as adding roughly ¾ U.S. tablespoons of salt per 1 quart water.
Add the noodles to boiling water. Carluccio salts the pasta water and says, “Immediately then, we put in, it has to be boiling, the pasta.”
Pasta noodles cook best when they come in contact with boiling water. There’s not really a need to cook the noodles in a rolling boil; the most aggressive and energetic boil that happens only high heat.
But make sure that your cooking water is hot enough before you add the pasta noodles to it. When I cook pasta, I set the heat dial o medium-high and give the pot of water at least 5 minutes to bring itself up to the temperature I want it at.
Don’t add oil to the pasta water. It’s a myth that adding oil to the pasta water will prevent the noodles from sticking.
The simple science is that oil and water molecules simply don’t mix. This is why the only way to get oil, fat, and wax off of your hands and kitchenware is by using soap. Soap and water molecules do mix and become soapy water, which then dissolves lipids.
If you don’t take Antonio Carluccio for his word and do end up adding olive oil to your pasta water, two things will happen:
- Most of the oil will end up floating (for no good reason) on the surface of your pasta water.
- Some of the oil molecules will coat some of your pasta noodles. The noodles will, in effect, become slippery and won’t absorb much of the pasta sauce when you toss them with it.
So trust every Italian chef when they tell you this and stop adding olive oil to your pasta water. I was guilty of doing this myself—until I learned why it was completely unnecessary.
Give your noodles the occasional stir as they cook. Stirring the pasta noodles for a swirl or two every 3-4 minutes as they cook is enough to prevent them from sticking together.
Don’t go overboard with stirring your pasta. When you make risotto, you keep stirring the rice to release the starches, which makes your dish thick and creamy.
That’s not really what you’re looking for when you make pasta. You want the noodles firm to the bite, holding on to their shape well, and not too sticky.
Stick to the traditional ingredients for carbonara. All you need to make Spaghetti alla Carbonara is, obviously, the noodles, a cut of Guanciale, eggs, a 50/50 mix of Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and freshly-cracked black peppercorn.
No cream. Very little olive oil. And salt only in moderation. Here’s why:
- Heavy cream, milk, and any dairy products other than hard Italian cheese are an absolute no for real carbonara.
- Olive oil is almost unnecessary because you’ll render most of the cooking fat you need from the Guanciale cubes when you brown them.
- Add salt only to the pasta water. The rest of the salt for this dish will come from the pre-seasoned fat of the Guanciale and the brininess of the cheese in the sauce.
Based on where you live, Guanciale, which is basically cured pork cheek, can sometimes be hard to find. If that’s the case for you, you can substitute it with Pancetta (cured pork belly) or, as a last resort, smoked bacon.
Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese are pretty common and carried by most grocery stores. Just in case you’re having trouble finding them, I’ve got you covered in my post on the topic, The Best Pecorino Substitutes for Carbonara.
Cut the Guanciale in thick cubes and brown them in a little olive oil. This will be, as professional chefs like to say, the base of your sauce.
The base is the foundational taste that the rest of your sauce is built on. In this case, the taste will come from the meatiness and saltiness of the fats that drip from the cured pork cheek as you brown it in your frying pan.
I’ve tried making Spaghetti Carbonara with sliced Guanciale (because it was the only kind of Guanciale that I could buy in the store at that time). It didn’t really work out. There’s something about the thick cubes of browned meat that makes this recipe what it is.
Make your sauce with eggs, grated cheese, and black pepper. In the video, Carluccio made carbonara for two. He used 2 whole eggs and added 1 egg yolk.
Most other recipes I’ve seen will tell you to add twice as much egg yolk as whole eggs. If you added 2 eggs, for example, that would mean adding 4 egg yolk. It all depends on how goopy you like your carbonara.
In a bowl, whisk the eggs well. “To this,” Carluccio says, “you do not add any, any, any cream. Absolutely forbidden.” Then add a 50/50 mix of grated Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Season generously with black pepper and whisk the eggs, cheese, and pepper well—this is your traditional Roman carbonara sauce.
If too much fat renders from the Guanciale, soak some of it up with a paper towel. One of the challenges of making the perfect pasta carbonara is to not have it come out too oily.
Since Guanciale comes from the pig’s cheek, a cut that’s abundantly fatty, it can easily give you more cooking fat than you need to for your dish as you brown it in the pan.
If that’s the case for you, soak some of it up using a paper towel (and throw the towel away in the bin). Remember this neat little trick for whenever you add too much cooking fat or oil to your pan.
Here’s one extra technique from me for those of you who are not using a non-stick pan. As you probably noticed, Carluccio uses a non-stick frying pan for this recipe. Regular readers know that I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of non-stick pans coated with non-stick or ceramic.
There’s a reason why they’re cheaper than the pans made from other materials and seldom come with a lifetime warranty.
If you used a stainless steel, cast iron, or copper pan to make this recipe, by now some bits and pieces of Guanciale have probably browned and gotten stuck to the bottom of your pan.
Thanks to something called the Maillard reaction, those bits and bits stuck to the bottom of your pan are packed with aromatics and flavor. Deglazing gets them unstuck and emulsifies them into the rest of your carbonara sauce.
Take the frying pan away from the heat and toss the noodles with the browned Guanciale. Carluccio simply turns the heat on his cooktop off, then transferred the spaghetti noodles from the pot to the frying pan using a pair of tongs.
He tosses the pasta noodles with the browned guanciale cubes, making sure they’re well-coated with the seasoned fat he just rendered from the browned pork cheek.
Mix the carbonara sauce with the pasta dish. Notice that you’re not cooking the sauce on direct heat. If you do so, you risk cooking the eggs in the sauce—and ending up with a plate of carbonara that looks more like a Japanese omelet and less like a Roman pasta dish.
You are using the residual heat of the frying pan, the rendered fat, and the pasta noodles to gently cook and noticeably thicken the carbonara sauce. This is how you cook carbonara that’s not runny.
“At this stage, the heat is so much in the wrong cooking [technique] that the eggs become scrambled eggs,” Carluccio says. “Not too scrambled—this is the [original] carbonara.”
Grate some more cheese on your plated pasta and season it generously with black pepper. The name “carbonara” comes from carbonaro, Italian for charcoal burner or coal worker. One of the theories for the name of this dish is that it was served as a hearty lunch for hungry blue-collar Romans and villagers in the Roman surroundings in Lazio.
Another theory says that the freshly-cracked peppercorn on top of your pasta dish should be so much, that it should look as if it was seasoned with charcoal. As with any Italian dish whose history dates back a long time, it’s hard to find a definite answer. But you get the picture.
Buy your Italian cheese in blocks. Avoid the shredded cheese bags carried by most grocery stores. They have additives and preservatives that keep the grated cheese from clumping together and catching mold.
“And this is the real carbonara. The only one,” Carluccio concludes with an amiable but firm tone of voice that only he could pull off. “And it’s exactly how it should be. Creamy, without adding cream. Like this, it’s just fantastic.”
Thanks to Antonio Carluccio, you now know the traditional way to make authentic Spaghetti Carbonara as they make it in Rome. Give it a try and I guarantee you that the dish that comes out of it is going to become one of the favorite meals for you and your household.
Carbonara is notoriously hard to get right, and it serves as nothing short of a skill test for the professional chef and the seasoned home cook. But not if you know the correct cooking technique and the things to watch out for you as you make it.
How did your carbonara come out? Did the taste live up to the hype? Came across some cooking tips of your own? Share your thoughts with me and the rest of this post’s readers by leaving a comment below.