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Crazy for Carbonara

CookingRoman CatholicismChristianityDefenseElizabeth DavidWorld War II (1939-1945)

Maybe all Italian food qualifies as comfort food -- the good stuff thatwarms the spirit as it nourishes the body -- so you'll probably think I'm asnutty as pinoli to stand up and declare Spaghetti alla Carbonara the ultimateItalian comfort food.

What, you ask, are you crazy? Are you trying to start something? How canthere be such a designation in such a crowded field? There are all thosewonderful dishes your mama -- or somebody's mama -- used to make: pizza,minestrone, spaghetti and meatballs, pasta fagioli, polenta and lasagna. Theyall could compete for the heavyweight title of Ultimate Italian Comfort Food.They all warm the soul and fatten the thighs.

But I've investigated this metaphysical realm thoroughly -- Italian foodand the soul, especially the food part -- and that's my conclusion: Onceyou've experienced Spaghetti alla Carbonara, it's hard to find as much comfortin anything else.

Carbonara is a rich dish made from simple ingredients -- eggs, butterand/or olive oil, cheese, bacon -- and, once these elements become entangledwith hot pasta, they touch the deep senses and take the chill out of my bones.When I inhale a freshly cooked carbonara, I feel as though I've returned tosome steamy-warm, ancestral kitchen on a little farm in the Roman countryside.

OK, maybe you don't buy the channeling bit. I agree: It's a little tooloopy, in the Shirley MacLaine sense. So let me run this past you: Maybe Itake comfort from this dish because it blends a staple of my Italian ancestors-- spaghetti -- with a staple of America -- bacon and eggs. In fact, it couldbe the Ultimate Italian-American Dish.

I'm not the first to proffer this concept. In 1983, Calvin Trillin, authorof "Third Helpings" and "Alice, Let's Eat," felt such passion for Spaghettialla Carbonara that he crusaded to have it replace turkey as the national dishon Thanksgiving Day.

Consider what some historians accept as the origin of carbonara: In thewaning days of World War II, American soldiers in Rome made nice with localfamilies, gave them fresh eggs and bacon and asked them to prepare meals. Thelocals added the pasta and grated cheese, thereby either inventing a dish orreviving one that previously had had little exposure among Americans.

Others believe the dish is much older than that, cooked on open fires bycharcoal makers, thus its name. I've also heard the theory that crispy,carbon-black bacon is what gives the dish its flavor and name.

Whatever its origins -- some say it is unmistakably Roman, others say itoriginated in the Lazio region -- Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a wonderfultreat for a winter lunch or supper. It offers a welcome break from thetiresome tomato sauces that coat most other popular Italian dishes. It's justnot the usual Ragu.

But, I know: It sounds evil, not comforting. My God, bacon and eggs withparmigiano and pasta?

Yes, and maybe a little butter.

And maybe a little cream!

And some use olive oil. I've heard it called an "Italian heart attack on aplate." To some, it's Spaghetti Alla Cholesterola! The Ultimate Italian GuiltTrip.

But come on, now. Tutto in moderazione. All in moderation.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is not weekly, even monthly, fare in my house. Ihave been blessed with the limit-setting instinct. I know that a steady dietof this stuff would put me in the cardiac unit at Hopkins, and eventually I'dbe doomed to a diet of Subway sandwiches, like that former big-pants manJared.

So, I make carbonara about twice a year -- about as often as I oncepurchased prime lump to make crab cakes.

There's a reason for the crab-cake segue.

Two-and-a-half years ago, when I became convinced that the fishery was introuble, I decided to boycott Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. I haven't eatenMaryland or Virginia crab meat since the summer of 1998.

When I renewed my boycott last year in my column on The Sun's Maryland newspage, I suggested that readers treat themselves to something grand -- a guiltypleasure -- in lieu of a crab dish. So, instead of crab cakes, I now makeSpaghetti alla Carbonara.

Reader mail poured in from carbonara fanciers across the Baltimoremetropolitan region. All agreed with my praise for the dish and its comfortingqualities. But there was little agreement on the method of preparation andfair divergence on ingredients. So one evening this winter, I had a "BigNight" at my house. I turned my pots, pans and gas burners over to threepeople with varying but solid cooking skills and mutual affection for theUltimate Italian Comfort Food.

The Rev. Joseph Bonadio, of St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church onHarford Road, claimed to know how to make a formidable carbonara based on hisdining experiences in a Rome restaurant. He makes his with pancetta (curedbelly of pork) purchased from Mastellone Deli and Wine Shop in NortheastBaltimore, and mixes it in a pot.

Elia Mannetta, an old friend and former short-order chef from Little Italy,first made the dish for me 25 years ago, and he's seen it prepared many timesin households in Big Italy. He makes it with American smoked bacon and mixesit in a large skillet.

Donna Crivello, the talented Donna in Donna's coffee bars as well as ateacher of Italian cuisine (Wednesday night classes at the Gallery atHarborplace), also agreed to take part in Big Night Carbonara. She makes herSpag-Carb with prosciutto and mixes it in a big pasta bowl.

Their recipes are below. Pay particular attention to the methodology,because Father Joe, Elia and Donna each showed our guests a different way toprepare the dish. Each had a creamy texture.

Personally, I prefer a drier, more granular finish to the dish. That's whyI always follow Elia's method, but with an important variation prescribed byElizabeth David in her classic, "Italian Food." I pour the beaten eggs intothe hot skillet just seconds before adding the spaghetti. I remove the skilletfrom the heat and toss the mixture, adding the cheese. The eggs and cheesecling nicely to the hot noodles, and the finish is anything but creamy. Iserve the carbonara right off the stove.

There's a trick to getting the eggs and cheese to cook on and cling to thenoodles.

But you can do it. Keep trying. The more you try, the more Spaghetti allaCarbonara you make. The more you make, the more you eat. And what a comfortingconcept that is.

Father Joe's Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Serves 4 to 6

olive oil for frying

1/2 pound pancetta, sliced at the deli like bacon, then cut into smallslivers

3 eggs (see note)

1/2 cup half-and-half

1/4 pound butter

1 pound spaghetti

2/3 cup grated Romano cheese

freshly ground pepper

Heat a little olive oil in a skillet and fry the pancetta until the fatbecomes transparent. Drain the pancetta on a paper towel. Beat the eggs andhalf-and-half together in a bowl. Melt the butter in a microwave. Cook thespaghetti in salted water, according to package directions. As soon as it isready, drain into a colander and return it to the same pot. Add the butter,pancetta and eggs mixture, stirring constantly with wooden spoons so the eggscook on the hot noodles. Add the Romano and pepper to taste. Serveimmediately, with chilled Fontana Candida Frascati wine.

Note: Eggs should be fresh; no cracked shells.

Donna's Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Serves 4 to 6

olive oil for frying

1/4 pound thinly sliced Parma prosciutto

1 pound perciatelli (long, hollow pasta, thicker than spaghetti)

salt for cooking perciatelli

4 eggs (see note)

2/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, freshly grated by your significantother

freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In a skillet, heat a little olive oil and fry the prosciutti until itbecomes slightly crispy. Remove it to a platter covered with a paper towel.Cook the perciatelli (about 10 minutes) in salted water. Make sure you haveenough water in the pot. "Pasta likes to swim," Crivello says.

In a warm crockery bowl large enough to handle the cooked pasta, beat theeggs, add the grated cheese and a liberal grinding of black pepper. Drain thepasta and pour it into the bowl. Add the prosciutto.

With tongs toss the eggs, cheese and pasta, coating the strands well.Sprinkle in the parsley. Serve at once, with an Orvieto or a Vernaccia di SanGimignano.

Note: Eggs should be fresh; no cracked shells.

Elia's Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Serves 4

1/2 pound bacon, cut into small chunks (see note)

1 pound spaghetti

4 eggs (see note)

freshly grated black pepper to taste

1/2 cup Romano cheese, freshly grated

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

In the largest skillet you can find, fry the bacon pieces until crispy.Turn off the fire. Spoon away some of the grease, but save most of it. Pushthe bacon to one side and tilt the skillet slightly so the bacon does not sitin the grease.

Cook the spaghetti in the usual way. Beat the eggs in a bowl, season withfreshly grated black pepper, and set aside. When the spaghetti is almostready, tell all your guests to grab a plate and a fork. "People have to bedisciplined," Elia says. "They have to be ready to eat this dish as soon asit's ready."

Reheat the grease and bacon pieces for a minute or so, then reduce theheat. Drain the pasta in a colander and immediately pour the pasta into thehot skillet. Shut off the burner or remove the skillet from the heat.

Add the eggs to the pasta and toss all ingredients madly. Add the cheese,another liberal dash of black pepper and the parsley. Serve at once, with agood Chianti Classico.

Note: Ham can be substituted for the bacon, and sauteed in butter and oliveoil. The vegetarian version of this - no bacon, but plenty of butter, cheeseand eggs - is also delicious. Eggs should be fresh; no cracked shells.

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