Spaghetti alla carbonara, a wartime invention

After long months of merciless military occupation by the German Nazi army, supported by the fascist regime, the Anglo-American troops entered Rome and finally liberated it.

The open city – rescued by Pope Pius XII after bombings primarily by Allied aircrafts – rejoiced, with cars and people flooding the streets to celebrate.

American soldiers (many of Italian descent) sat on their jeeps like movie stars, taking in the view of the crowd – from which exuberant, happy girls jumped out to kiss them and give them flowers.

Then, that first evening and for the following days, with dollars and cigarettes in their pocket, GIs swarmed the streets of Rome – quiet once again except for the unpretentious taverns and restaurants, where clammy waiters invited them in, a white dishtowel thrown over their shoulder.

The novelty of Roman cuisine – bucatini all’amatriciana in the “red” or “gray” variant (with or without tomato sauce), fettuccine with giblets, roast lamb with potatoes, ribs, and fried artichokes and cod fillets – satiated the liberators’ appetite, but did not change their taste. Someone, trying to find a way to keep his new customers’ business, after much thinking came up with the most obvious and logical idea: to season the most typical Italian pasta, spaghetti, with the two most classic ingredients in the American breakfast, bacon and eggs.

But the dish needed a name, and one that might suggest it was an authentic traditional recipe in Italy. The inventive cook just had to think of the many family kitchens he had seen in the city and in the country, where wood or coal burned in the stove: ‘carbone’ in Italian means “coal”, and that is the origin of the “carbonara” pasta. An irresistible name that held the promise of a dish with the deepest roots in Italy’s history.

A triumph since its first night in Rome!

In the original spaghetti alla carbonara, diced bacon was sautéed with a small amount of butter, some thinly sliced onion, and a splash of white wine. Eggs were beaten with pecorino cheese (which was later replaced by parmesan, milder in flavor) and pepper, and poured over hot spaghetti, to be quickly tossed in a pan and finally sprinkled with the bacon right before serving.

The recipe, with some popular alterations, crossed the Atlantic and won over New York and San Francisco, Montana and Texas, and is still a favorite all over the United States – where spaghetti alla carbonara is considered Rome’s most typical dish. Most Italians instead believe a different myth about its origin: the legend of a pasta recipe that was passed on from generation to generation since the time of the secret revolutionary societies known as “carbonari”… while various restaurants from Rome to Romagna claim they invented it.

Alberto Manodori Sagredo

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Spaghetti alla carbonara, a wartime invention



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