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Writing While Hungry: Be Advised

June 12, 2007

Thanks to Hidey Ho, I just discovered Saveur magazine.  Saved by Saveur, seriously.  This magazine is incredible.  I have already cooked two meals from their June Italian food issue.  Which brings me to the subject of yet another food obsession.  You’ve been warned of my tendency toward perfecting one dish among others, and so far most of them heavily involve eggs, which is kind of strange since I don’t actually like eggs all that much.  Or do I?  Okay, discussion dish of the week. . . . drumroll please. . .

Pasta Carbonara!

I discovered pasta carbonara my first night in Rome, at the underground brick-walled cafe across the street from our hostel.  We ventured down cold stone steps, and were greeted with cheery inset lighting, low arched ceilings, and an old, hairy Italian man literally singing as he tossed a pizza.  We ordered off the tourists menu, because we were scared and hungry and hadn’t learned to read Italian menus yet.  The main difference between the two menus is that they give you your salad before your pasta on the tourists menu, and you end up ordering a lot more too.  I had never heard the term carbonara, which is derived from carbone, Italian for coal.  One theory is that is was first made as a hearty meal for Roman coal miners by their wives, carbonaras, but another definition points to the specks of coarse pepper reminiscent of charcoal.  I believe the former derivitave.  The point is this salty, peppery, creamy goodness unlocked my taste buds like a castle drawbridge, and I haven’t been the same since.  This food is much like crack or cocaine in the sense that I have been unable to find a carbonara as perfect and delicious as that first little dive in Rome, but I’ve spent nearly every day since in the pursuit.  The bacon was tremendously thick, perfectly crunchy, the peas were sweet and bouyant, and we all know how I feel about peas.  Someone had foisted coarse pepper copiously upon the platter, adding a welcome sting among the salty cheeses, pecorino and romano.  The egg was barely there but somehow tied it all together slime-free and melty, and I finished the entire plate that night. 

The next day I tried pasta carbonara at the restaurant across from the Vatican.  I was saddened by the soggy bacon, downhearted by the slimy noodles, devastated by the lack of peas.  I mean, no peas! 

The following evening I ordered the spaghetti carbonara at a lively pink restaurant near the Colosseum.  This time, the verdict was too much cheese, and I detected no egg whatsoever.  Once we left Rome, carbonara was a lost cause.  Rome is the carbonara capital of Italy, and besides, it was time I opened my mind, palate, and eyes to the rest of Italy’s culinary wonders.  Back home, the DJ makes me carbonara from the new Joy of Cooking, and it’s probably the best I’ve had this side of the Atlantic.  But seeing it done at home lacks a certain romantic ignorance, because it was then I learned the key “secret” ingredient.  Bacon fat, and lots of it.  This explains a lot about the magic of this dish, but I could have lived the rest of my life without that knowledge.  Of course, it might have been a shorter life.  La Caterina Trattoria on Elm St.  does an above-average carbonara, but I can’t quite put my finger on the problem.  Too salty, not enough creaminess.  Or perhaps food just tastes better in Italy.  I tested that theory with a secret little stop at the McDonald’s in Florence, and it was in fact the case.  A big mac with real meat, fresh, crisp lettuce, and a slightly tangier special sauce greeted my happy mouth and that is when I decided I will be moving there for some portion of my life.  But until then, we’ll keep soldiering through, making carbonara at home when our diet has hit a healthy spell that must be stopped. 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kathryn permalink
    June 12, 2007 4:49 pm

    Everything does taste better in Italy. And it also takes longer to eat it. I have to say I much prefer sitting down to eat for 2 hours, with societal breaks for it. We should orchestrate a Luncheon Revolution.

  2. annamatronic permalink
    June 15, 2007 7:07 pm

    You were right…your blogging is much more refined since you’ve chosen a theme. I LOVE IT. I agree, you should publish.


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