CARBONARA: JOURNEY, MYTH AND LEGEND OF AN ITALIAN CLASSIC
Stepping down the steep stairs behind the heavy, grey gate, I open another glass door and I move my eyes in the darkness, the floor is shining of an old paint or polish. I clearly remember that floor, it’s familiar even though I am not in my old Orvieto or my peaceful Baschi. They are bricks, old thick bricks, and my mind goes to an old album of Jethro Tull “Thick as a Brick” and some black truffles Kim and I gave to Jan Anderson this past summer while he was playing in Rome, at the Ostia’s Roman ruins.
One of the guys welcomes me greetings and smiling with his deep voice. His hair is the same, greasy, combed back and his gentle, strong manners are polite as always. He is a tall man in his 40’s , wide shoulders and wide jaw, I forgot his name, but I remember the nickname I gave him few years ago while I was working with Nino in the kitchen:“ The Undertaker”, due to his almost threatening aspect , but he is really a good and professional guy.
– Good morning Chef, welcome back Chef!— His hands are the first I shake entering the dining rooms and his forehead is the first sweaty one I see at Capriccio, the dark restaurant of Providence where I meet most of my friends while I am in Rhode Island and Boston area. I love this place, I love the “Cotton Club” atmosphere and the post industrial revolution cast iron pillars holding the wooden beams of the ceiling, the puffy chairs with rounded arms, the crystals of the liquor cabinets, the soft, sexy lights and the high windows facing the street of the town. Four years have passed since I worked there as a special guest chef, invited by Vincenzo and Nino. It looks the same, I feel at home again.
I slowly walk to the kitchen, I know that Nino, the chef, retired and moved to Neapolis in Florida, after some decades of glorious dedication to this hard job, and he now enjoys the sunny days of the south, thinking of his battle at the stoves of this crazy place. Nino is a real good man, a short, polite guy, always with his basketball cap, grey moustaches and some nostalgic eyes typical of those older boys from Napoli.
— Good morning guys!— I enter the lighted kitchen, while Johnnie turns his grey head toward me.
– How you doin’ Johnnie? – This guy is a truly comic and funny man, he must be 70 now and his missing teeth are probably more than the last time, the same thick glasses, same heat, same cursing and complaining deep raspy voice, and same brand of cigarettes. I love this guy, although I have sometimes problems understanding his conversations. Sandro, another good cook, a thin guy, is there on the line and his irresistible smile gives me more reason to feel at home.
— Where is Vincenzo? — I asked the gang, while a short guy at the dish pit washes some sheet pans blowing a thick steaming foam. Vincenzo appears from the dark bar in his white t-shirt, low apron and a half cigarette. He is always the same, the old, young, grey hair, smiling and welcoming man I know from many years. A warm hug and a surprised face introduce his questions
– When did you arrive? Are you here for some days?— He always asks me about Italy, the restaurant, business in Orvieto, truffle prices and how he wants to offer the authentic Italian cuisine to his clientele. Like any other visit, he invites me to have a bite to eat, so we can talk better with some wine… We seat in the large room with many flowers, with a chilled chardonnay and true Italian smiles around the table.
— Ciao Lorenzo, come stai? – ( Hello Lorenzo, how are you?) . Gino is a funny man, always with some jokes and stories, he tells me he came to Italy with his wife visiting his family, and describing me the great food he had while in south of our country.
Gino, is the one who does the magic in front of customers, like a gladiator carrying his weapons, he carries his portable, flaming, show dispenser, what all the ladies love. I think flames are ladies’ favorite food show, maybe because they feel warmer, and the intimacy of some tossing copper pan is always fascinating….For some reasons my mind goes to a scene I saw at that spot during one of many dinners at Capriccio with Jack Chiaro, a chef, great friend of mine, who decided to dedicate his culinary skills and a art history master to his students at Johnson & Wales, and Zio ( uncle) Ken Shea, funny and serious lawyer always involved in millions of cases with criminals and the court.
That night the restaurant was packed, as always, and I saw Gino slowly moving his magic trolley of delicacies. There was a couple at the table next to ours, she was blond, maybe 45, the man was a big guy, smiling and evidently in love for the lady, his wife someone told me. He was a politician, a big dog of the State of Rhode Island. His wife loved the carbonara and Gino proudly was about to perform it on his table of marvels. The Master of ceremony had spaghetti just cooked, and some other ingredients that turned my curiosity on… The flame started jumping and waving, and the well trained hands of Gino started pouring spaghetti on the pan, tossing with eloquent ability, then he added some pancetta, next were green peas, cream, parmesan cheese. I kept looking at this hot performance and at the grace of serving pasta on the plates, with some extra parmesan on top. When Gino moved his wonder trolley away from the happy and romantic couple, he stopped by my table, giving me the eye, like telling me – Have you seen the show? Not bad at all…– So I asked him the name of that type of pasta, and he answered me , after, checking around him, like hiding from customers, and in a low tone –It’s Carbonara, that lady likes it with peas, cream and pancetta, like practically everybody here…—
I remember looking at him with an interrogative face, he shrugged and he looked at me like meaning –What can I do, this is what people think carbonara is…—
Carbonara has, therefore, many aspects, also the romantic one, with peas and cream.
In Italy our carbonara is quite simple, and according with some sources, we have two versions of the origin of its name. The first is the use of a lot of black pepper that the pasta, generally spaghetti, has on the top, so it looks like covered with grated charcoal. The second version is that was the pasta that charcoal burners used to make in the forest while working. The charcoal burner was an old job, now disappeared, and it was dirty and hard. The area of Monti Cimini, south of Orvieto, passed Viterbo, was the main source of charcoal of our area in the old days. First the trees were cut down and the branches put on big piles, with an empty space in the center, like a chimney. The pile were covered with dirt, like a big chocolate cake, sealing the wood. The men lit the pile on fire from a little hole at the ground level and in this way the burning started. There was not a proper combustion, since there was almost no oxygen inside the pile, so while this slow and suffocated burning, the wood turned into charcoal. Our black, dirty heroes used to make this pasta, simply using spaghetti, some cured guanciale, grated pecorino cheese, and eggs, they surely found in the local farms.
Ingredients for 5 people
500 gr. Spaghetti or Vermicelli
4 egg yolks
2 c. guanciale or pancetta, cut into stripes
½ c. extra virgin olive oil
1 c. Parmesan, grated
½ c. Aged Pecorino, grated
½ TBS black pepper, ground
Heat the oil in a sauté pan, large enough to toss the pasta when cooked. Add the pancetta and cook until the meat gets lightly brown and fat translucent. Set aside.
Whisk the eggs and egg yolks with half cup of Parmesan and the black pepper, add some of the water of the pasta while cooking.
When pasta is al dente, drain it and toss into the sauté pan and toss it to get the condiment into. Move away from the stove and pour the egg mix, mixing vigorously, and cooking the eggs with the heat of the pasta.
Don’t cook it too long, otherwise the eggs coagulate, if necessary add some pasta water. Serve with the rest of Parmesan and Pecorino, and a pinch of pepper on the top. Like an old charcoal burner…
This is an excerpt from the cookbook, THE ETRUSCAN CHEF by Lorenzo Polegri
Lorenzo Polegri is chef and owner of Zeppelin Restaurant and Cooking School in Orvieto, Italy, operating now for 18 years. He is also the most featured Chef from Europe at The James Beard Foundation.