Of all the famous pasta dishes invented in or adopted heartily by Rome—spaghetti alla carbonara, all’amatriciana, or alla puttanesca, maccheroni alla ricotta, penne all’arrab-biata, fettuccine Alfredo, and the rest, this is my favorite. I don’t recall exactly where I had it for the first time—maybe at Piccolo Mondo, or at the modest trattoria called La Buca di Ripetta—but I know that it surprised me with both its simplicity and its intensity of flavor, and that I subsequently ordered it often. I also know that I was never quite able to reproduce it in my own kitchen until I got this recipe from Roman-born restaurateur Mauro Vincenti, who today runs Rex II Ristorante, Pazzia, and Fennel in Los Angeles, and who learned the secret of the dish from his chef at Pazzia, Umberto Bombana.
Actually, I should probably say a secret of the dish. Sacramento-based wine-and-specialty-food purveyor Darrell Corti, who is extremely knowledgeable about Italian cooking (among many other things), says that using pancetta is absolutely wrong. “This was originally a Lenten dish,” he says, “and so it couldn’t have any meat products in it at all You should coat the spaghetti with olive oil instead—and instead of draining it very well, you should leave a little moisture on the pasta. The cheese will melt and stick to the spaghetti better.” If you’re confused by the contradictions between Vincenti’s and Corti’s rules for making this dish, you should hear them on the subject of spaghetti alia carbonara! This, in any case, is Vincenti’s recipe.
Meanwhile, cook pancetta over medium-low heat in a large, deep skillet or Dutch oven until it gives up most of its fat. Remove skillet from heat and discard pancetta or save it for another use. Reserve
When water comes to a full boil, add spaghetti and cook at a boil, uncovered, for about 6 minutes, or until slightly firmer than al dented.‡
While pasta is cooking, grate Pecorino Romano (using small grating holes, not larger shredding holes) into a small bowl, grind a generous amount of black pepper into bowl, and mix cheese and pepper together very well.
Just before spaghetti is cooked, return skillet with pancetta fat to a medium heat. Drain spaghetti well, then add to fat and toss to coat thoroughly.
Remove skillet from heat, and sprinkle a third of the cheese over pasta. Toss well to coat pasta with cheese. Repeat this process until all the cheese has been added and each strand of spaghetti is evenly coated with cheese and pepper.
© 1992 Colman Andrews. All rights reserved.