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
Castelvecches 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 Id ever had Spaghetti
alla Carbonara, and it was so good I didnt 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 doesnt 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
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 theyre a light,
lemony color. Cut the Canadian bacon into small pieces (about
½-inch square), or crumble your American-style bacon, if
thats what youre using, and set aside. (Sautéing the
Canadian bacon first gives it a nicer flavor, but if youre in a
hurry, its 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 —
thats why you dont want to give the pasta any chance to
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.
Extra virgin olive oil is good for recipes like this,
where it doesnt get very hot. Its 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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