The carbonara arrived on my table with a dollop of bacon-dotted, jaundice-colored cream atop overly cooked spaghetti noodles. When I moved the plate, the mound of cream didn’t even jiggle, as if it had been heat-lamp baked for hours, hoping some fool like me was going to come in and order it. I had ordered the carbonara, not just because I love this pasta dish, but because I was reviewing a restaurant for a magazine (the restaurant didn’t fare too well in my review). I wasn’t in Rome, from whence the dish hails. I wasn’t even in Italy. I was in New York.
That’s not to say that Italian cuisine outside of Italy can’t be good. It certainly can. Carbonara is a simple dish. Just pasta, eggs, guanciale (or pancetta), garlic, parmigiano, and black pepper. But, as I found out, it’s not necessarily easy to make buonissimo, as the Italians would say.
Case in point: I was in Rome last week. And given that I’m so carbonara crazed and hadn’t been in Rome for five years, I decided I’d put myself on a mini quest: I’d try to seek out the best carbonara I could find. There were, though, parameters that were out of my control: I was filming a documentary about my book. The days were long and we would finish shooting around 10 p.m. every night. Not a lot of time to figure out a good place to eat. The film crew left it up to me to find a good restaurant in whatever neighborhood we finished shooting for the day. A challenge, for sure.The first meal was so unforgettable, I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant. I can only say it was by the Vatican and could have used some culinary divine intervention in the kitchen. The waiter, though, made up for any lack of enthusiasm from the kitchen: he borrowed the cameraman’s boom mic and went around to his colleagues pretending to interview them.
Evening two was promising, as we ended up at La Carbonara. Any restaurant named after the dish I’m hoping to eat has got to be good. Right? Not really. The pasta they served it with, spaghetti, is not my favorite (at least not with carbonara). Nor was the carbonara rousing much enthusiasm among the film crew. It was dry and devoid of egg flavor. The guanciale, pig jowl, was used too conservatively, often cowering at the edges of the bottom of the bowl. Conclusion: slightly better than the ungodly carbonara near the Vatican but not by much.
Knowing the following evening we’d be shooting near Testaccio, the erstwhile working-class neighborhood that was once home to the city’s famous slaughterhouse, I did a bit of research. I ended up on a well-known food blogger friend’s website who proclaimed the carbonara at Parelli to be the best in town. A very bold claim, considering this dish, served the world over, was invented in the Italian capital.
No one is sure about the exact origins of carbonara. One explanation is that it was a dish made by the carbonai, the coal minors in the hills around Rome. Because one only needed cured pork, a couple eggs, some dried pasta, a pot and some heat, it was a simple, cheap dish to make. Another, less plausible but enduring origin comes from World War II when American soldiers were occupying Italy. An enterprising chef invented a pasta dish that would appeal to American eating habits: eggs and bacon. According to one report, though, there are references to carbonara that pre-date World War II, making this story a fun one to re-tell but ultimately apocryphal.
When the rigatoni alla carbonara arrived at my table at Perilli it looked like we’d had a winner. It was drenched in eggy goodness, spiked with porklicious nuggets of guanciale. But the meat turned out to be overly salty, which isn’t a surprise considering it was salt cured and Italians, especially Romans, like a good dose of salt on their food. There was way too much pepper, its flakes eclipsing the taste on my palate. I trust my food blogger friend’s opinions on Roman cuisine but this wasn’t the best I’d ever had (perhaps the kitchen was having an off-night). That said, it was the best take on carbonara in three nights. We were making progress.
Finally, on the last night, we wrapped in Trastevere, which happens to be the home of one of my favorite restaurants in the city. Since the last time I lived in Rome, Da Enzo had shut down and reopened about 100 feet away as Da Teo. It’s now re-re-opened in the old spot under the old name. Not everything was as good as before. The amatriciana was blandly forgettable. The arabiata lacked kick and was no longer spiked with huge chunks of garlic. But the carbonara? A massive mound of rigatoni cooked perfectly al dente and refreshingly bathed in egg. So much so, the yoke was glowing off the rigatoni, as if it had been paint-brushed on. The plus-sized pieces of guanciale were crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
It might not be the best carbonara in Rome but after four days in the city with limited access it was the best I could find. I was satisfied.