Truth or dare?

It is a Sunday afternoon of a relatively sunny day here in Yorkshire. Autumn is approaching, the leaves are starting to show their best colours, smoothies are being replaced by cups of tea. Life is sweet.

Ready with my cosy blankets, my cinnamon candles and my books, I give a final look at the photos I took this morning (procrastination at its finest). On top of my library, one folder called “4 years ago” pops up. “I wonder what I was up to, 4 years ago. It seems like ages ago!”. The first things that comes up, is a photo I took at the groceries shop, in the fridge aisle. I clearly remember that moment, I saw a jar of “carbonara sauce” and couldn’t understand how it could be a ready made sauce. I read the ingredients, and filled with horror, I took a picture determined to find out more. As it turned out, the concept of carbonara over here was very different from the traditional italian recipe, and no matter how delicious the British version can be (I am sure it is), I started my personal crusade in order to spread the message of the true carbonara recipe: eggs, guanciale, percorino cheese and pepper. Nothing else, especially cream.

In Rome, “home” (*) of this recipe, carbonara is a very serious matter. If we were playing truth or dare, I would dare you to ask a Roman if you can put pancetta in your carbonara, and then I would just sit there with my popcorn to enjoy the drama.

(*) not really the home of carbonara, but we will get there in a bit

Back to truth or dare. Let’s pretend one second that it is my turn and I choose truth. Let’s also pretend that the question I am being asked is “an uncomfortable truth about food”, and now it is your time to bring the popcorn.

It is showtime, and it is time to reveal that this dish that the Romans are so passionate about, was not really invented in Rome.

There are several theories behind the creation of carbonara, and all of them are debunking the general idea, common in Italy as well, that this pasta was invented by farmers in Rome, centuries ago, just with the few ingredients available for them:

1. The first theory is that charcoal burners (carbonai)ย located in Abruzzo, used to bring with them for lunch a pasta dish made with cheese and eggs (no mention to guanciale), that evolved over the years to the carbonara we all know today;

2. The second theory is that this dish was actually invented in Naples, as Ippolito Cavalcanti wrote a recipe book in 1837 where he described a pasta dish that was similar to carbonara. Again, guanciale is not listed as ingredient there;

3. The last theory, considered the most likely, links this recipe to a very unexpected scenario.

It is September 1944, Riccione has been liberated from the fascists. Renato Gualandi is a young chef from Bologna, employed to prepare the lunch for the British and the American army, to celebrate the liberation of the city. Italy at that time was still devastated by the war, so the ingredients available weren’t really adequate for a celebratory meal with the high ranks of the Ally.

What was abundant in Italy at that time, was “K-rations”, an individually packaged daily ration provided to the American soldiers.

A quote from a very popular film in Italy, Amici Miei (My Friends), is perfect for this situation:

What is genius? It’s fantasy, intuition, decision and speed of execution

Because what Renato did with K-rations, was pure genius. He took the cream milk, egg yolk powder, bacon and cheese from the rations, mixed all together and topped with black pepper. The dish was obviously a success, and when Renato became chef of the Ally army in Rome in 1944 and 1945, the recipe became popular. Over time, the dry ingredients have been replaced by the fresh ones, to create the carbonara we all know today.

Shocking, eh? I know, it took me a while to elaborate this unexpected turn of events.

So here is the recipe of the carbonara we all know today (with fresh ingredients):

Ingredients for 4 people

-pasta, 320g – spaghetti or rigatoni

-egg yolks, 6

-guanciale, 150g

-grated pecorino cheese, 60g


-bring the water for the pasta to boil

-in the meantime, dice the guanciale and put it in a pan at medium temperature – no need to add oil or butter

-let it cook until crispy

-add the pasta in the water, and while they cook, start working with the yolks

-mix the yolks together in a bowl with great part of the pecorino (leave one teaspoon that you will use to top the pasta) and black pepper

-to make the mixture less dense, add some water from the pan used to cook the pasta

-take the pan used to cook the guanciale and turn the heat off

-drain the spaghetti (keep some hot water), and add them in the pan with the guanciale

-add two teaspoon of hot water used to boil the spaghetti

-add the yolk mixture and mix (with the heat off)

-if it is too dense, add some more hot water

-top the pasta with the remaining pecorino and black pepper

carbonara from my favourite Italian place in York!


37 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I am actually taking a course about the History Of Food this semester and I am so fascinated by how much history plays a role in food. I always remember your blog when I have that class because I always love learning about the history behind the recipe.


  2. I am with you on genuine carbonara. The first time I cooked it, with the simplest ingredients, I wondered why do people fuss with all these cream and fluffery? I also love how the narration went, like peeling onions, and every layer is juicy like sharing gossip. Haha! Also, glad to hear you are cozying in for the season. I can imagine how lovely it must be.


  3. Thank you so much for setting the record straight. I’ll have to try and make the real thing now.
    Being such a proud and passionate Italian, you’ll appreciate this story.
    Going back to the 1975-76 there was a pasta restaurant in Sydney called: “The Old Spaghetti Factory” which was supposedly authentically Italian. My husband’s older sister was getting married and this was a dinner for both sets of parents to meet and it was fancy place to go out. However, my husband’s family came from Scottsdale in N.E. Tasmania and all my late mother-in-law knew about spaghetti was the stuff that came in a can with tomato sauce and I guess she thought she was off to the factory where it was made. She was not amused. Meanwhile, what my husband (who was 10 years old at the time) remembers is a massive real rhinoceros hide mounted on the wall.
    That all sounds like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not but it’s all true.
    Here’s a link to a post about the Old Spaghetti Factory, which I just found out was an international restaurant chain.
    Best wishes,


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