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Cheap Eats:
Spaghetti alla Carbonara

December — this month in (my) history:

In December of 1966, I visited Italy for the first time. I was only 15, but I can remember vividly the umbrella pines that lined the road into Rome, the Christmas decorations along the Via Veneto, the crowded sidewalk cafés, the stunning antiquity of the buildings. I was breathless with excitement. We had three weeks, and we packed the time with villas, museums, trattorias, churches, fountains, ruins, gardens, graves. I was almost delirious with marble, intoxicated with beauty.

There are, basically, three things for which one goes to Italy: history, art and food. Italy has an embarrassment of riches in all three categories, and one soon learns that the three are intertwined. When the Gauls held Rome for ransom, they demanded (along with gold and silver) 3000 pounds of black pepper. Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy after his historic trek to China. Restaurants are often hundreds of years old, and no good Italian chef thinks himself anything other than an artist.

On that first trip we struck up a friendship with the Castelvecche family. We met on the flight over, and by the time we landed, we had plans to spend time together.

The Castelvecches lived near Ostia Antica, the old port of Rome. Legend holds that Ostia dates back to the landing of Aeneas, but the archaeological record indicates its actual foundation was probably around 335 BC The city was immensely important during the Pyrrhic and Punic Wars, and later as a center for trade and commerce. Its population topped 50,000. After a mere 600 years, it began to decline, and when St. Augustine arrived at the end of the 4th century, he noted its demise with bitterness. But because it was abandoned rather than conquered, it is in remarkably good condition.

We spent a whole day wandering among the wonderful ruins of the ancient town. Long, narrow, stone streets, now shaggy with grass, were lined by empty brick and marble shops, houses, apartment buildings. Heavy mill stones stood in bakers’ shops. In the Forum of the Corporations, we could read the mosaics that identified the offices of merchants from Carthage, Sabratha, Alexandria.

My brother and I climbed to the second floor of the spacious House of Diana (probably off limits now, but it was still open then) to survey the town. We tested the acoustics in the large, outdoor amphitheater. We examined the synagogue, the temple of Ceres, the Capitolium. We hiked all over the town, explored the nearby museum, then headed to the Castelvecche’s for dinner.

In Italy, pasta is served as a second course. You have an antipasto — which just means something you serve before the pasta — then pasta, salad, your main course, dessert, cheese, coffee. The whole meal was good, but the revelation for me was the pasta the Castelvecches served. It was the first time I’d ever had Spaghetti alla Carbonara, and it was so good I didn’t want them to serve anything else. Of course, the pasta was whisked away and we had the other courses, but Senora Castelvecche was good enough to tell me how to make the dish. It has remained, to this day, a favorite.

In Italy, the names of dishes generally tell us whence or with whom they originated: dishes called Bolognese come from Bologna, alla Romana from Rome, Neapolitan from Naples; anything marinara is prepared in the manner of sailors, putanesca is favored by hookers, and carbonara comes to us from the charcoal makers.

Most of the ingredients for Spaghetti alla Carbonara could easily be carried by charcoal makers traveling to the forests of the Abruzzi to get wood, and the rest could be bought or "found" along the way. The bacon of Italy is unlike the bacon of the U.S. — but that doesn’t really matter. Canadian bacon is closer to the Italian, but even good old bacon Americana works, should that be what you have on hand. A little left-over ham would do nicely, too, in a pinch. The real key is timing.


Spaghetti alla Carbonara

8 oz. spaghetti

1 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, finely minced

3 eggs

4 slices Canadian bacon

⅓ cup grated parmesan cheese

salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Break the eggs into a large serving bowl; add olive oil and garlic, and whisk thoroughly, until they’re a light, lemony color. Cut the Canadian bacon into small pieces (about ½-inch square), or crumble your American-style bacon, if that’s what you’re using, and set aside. (Sautéing the Canadian bacon first gives it a nicer flavor, but if you’re in a hurry, it’s not necessary, as long as the package says "fully cooked" or "ready to eat.")

Boil the spaghetti according to package directions. The Italians describe perfect pasta as al dente — to the teeth — meaning it should have a little chewiness, and not be boiled to paste. Aim for this.

When the pasta is done, drain well, but DO NOT RINSE. Dump pasta immediately into the egg mixture, and mix thoroughly, coating pasta completely. (It is the heat of the pasta that cooks the eggs — that’s why you don’t want to give the pasta any chance to cool.)

Add the cheese, bacon, and a couple of grinds of fresh pepper, and toss. Parmesan cheese and bacon are both salty, so you may not need to add more salt, but taste and adjust seasoning to suit yourself.

Serves 3.


Note:

Extra virgin olive oil is good for recipes like this, where it doesn’t get very hot. It’s also your best choice for salads. It has a rich, almost fruity flavor that adds a lot to the taste of a dish. But extra virgin loses its flavor when heated, and since it costs more, you might as well save it for where it works best. For cooking, light olive oil is more practical and cost effective.

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