Classic dish has the feeling of home

Creamy, rich spaghetti alla carbonara is a staple in Italian restaurants, but it's easy - and satisfying - to make in your own kitchen. Creamy, rich spaghetti alla carbonara is a staple in Italian restaurants, but it's easy - and satisfying - to make in your own kitchen. (Food styling/lisa falso; wiqan ang for the boston globe)
By Judith Barrett
Globe Correspondent / March 4, 2009

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Spaghetti alla carbonara is one of Rome's most famous and sumptuous dishes, found on almost every restaurant menu here. It is revered by Romans, so much so that every year there's a contest among restaurants for the best plate of carbonara in the city.

Given that it's a restaurant staple, I was surprised to learn that many cooks make it at home. It's easily prepared in the time it takes to boil the water for the pasta. My language teacher, Renato, first encouraged me to try carbonara (the word is derived from the Italian word for coal; originally the dish was prepared over coal fires). In our conversation class one day, with great enthusiasm, he offered up his recipe. I couldn't refuse. Learning Italian through food, by the way, is one of the best ways to master the language.

If you've never eaten an authentic version, spaghetti alla carbonara is a rich and creamy dish that, at its most traditional, is prepared with spaghetti that's cooked al dente and tossed with lightly beaten eggs (the heat from the pasta cooks the eggs), pecorino Romano cheese, which is a hard sheep's cheese, along with black pepper and cooked guanciale, a fatty, bacon-like meat cured from pork. Guanciale, a typical ingredient of la cucina romana, is fried until it's cooked through but still soft.

Today a real carbonara may be difficult to find, since new tastes, experimentation, and the persistent desire for shortcuts to save both time and money have given way to many variations. Pasta shapes of every imaginable twist and turn are now used in place of spaghetti. Parmigiano-Reggiano might be substituted for all or part of the pecorino Romano if you want a less salty and less assertive flavor. And the most Roman ingredient of all, guanciale, is often omitted in favor of pancetta - smoked or non-smoked - a more universally available Italian product, and less fatty than guanciale. Occasionally either olive oil or butter is called for to cook the guanciale or pancetta, but they're hardly necessary considering the fat content of the meat.

While I was once on the trail of the best restaurant carbonara in the city, I am now preparing it at home and feeling like a real Roman - at least as long as the pasta lasts.