History of Roman cuisine: Spaghetti with Carbonara sauce

Once upon a time, there was the day trip out of the city, where the Romans scattered towards the Countryside in search for some taverns.


It was the Sixties, with the explosion of the economic boom where the novelty of the car was associated to the taste for gastronomic outings. One can picture this as a sort of caravans of explorers. Today, it is Rome that is calling and bringing back old-fashioned images, such as those of Bartolomeo Pinelli, Osteria in Testaccio, the engravings that mixed together food and music, embraces and folk songs, the Morra game and wine flowing.


Testaccio is now inside Rome, and Rome is filled with taverns that would be a great subject for Pinelli.
In a beautiful Pinelli colored scene, eight people are around a table, two women are intrigued by the mandolin player and the singer, then there are two bullies somewhat suspended between the desire to listen and a little bit of jealousy. But everything passes and will pass, when the table is filled with something steaming.


The same is true to this day, after centuries, thanks to the fact that Roman cuisine has its points of reference. Something may have changed. Something else may have changed its name. Nonetheless, one thing counts for all: You cannot be a true Roman or Romans by passage – as tourists should be and want to be considered – and enjoy the city to its fullest, unless you touch the traditional cooking. The “Abbacchio” (young roasted lamb), the “Carciofi alla Giudia” (deep fried artichokes as were typically done by Jewish families), fried artichokes, fettuccine pasta, pecorino cheese (sheep milk cheese) and baccelli (pods) – the latter are called “fave” by the locals, who will understand you immediately if you call them so -, bucatini pasta with amatriciana sauce, rigatoni pasta with pajata (intestines of an unweaned calf), “coda alla vaccinara” (oxtails stew), tripe, calf head, and many other dishes. One dish should be absolutely tried, Spaghetti with carbonara sauce. Surrounding this dish, there are various schools of thought but one thing is clear for all, that the dish is Roman and you cannot get anything more so.


Spaghetti with carbonara sauce is one of the cards in the deck of pasta dishes. Amongst them are bucatini or rigatoni pasta or rice with giblets or coratella (lamb’s pluck), cannelloni “alla laziale”, “Gricia” pasta, fettuccine pasta in all its variants – “alla trasteverina”, “alla papalina” with ricotta cheese and bacon – penne pasta “all’arrabbiata”, spaghetti with cheese and pepper and spaghetti “alla puttanesca” and many more.
In front of a dish of spaghetti we can talk, laugh, exchange secrets, make fun of one another, maybe even argue, as wine could either calm people down or make them nasty.


Rome without a table with food could not exist. It is not a coincidence that Rome was the setting of Trimalcione’s story in Petronius’ Satirycon and later on in the loose film adaptation of the same directed by Fellini.


Likewise, a table that does not know Carbonara cannot exist, as the Carbonara is both life and creativity. First of all, the main distinction is partly a linguistic one and partly in substance, given that the “high priests” of the Carbonara demand “guanciale” (cheek lard), coming from the pig’s snout, preferably of small production chain, well cured with salt and pepper, seasoned for a few months and enriched with natural flavors. Some less rigorous allow the use of “pancetta” (belly lard), which comes from another part of the pig, from the belly.


Nonetheless, even this should be salted, cured and seasoned, and easier to find on the market. Let’s choose the first option and use “guanciale”. Then we would need, eggs, cheese – preferably “pecorino romano” (Roman sheep milk cheese) – so that we have a second ingredient from a small production chain. An expert cook will be able to quickly prepare the small pieces of “guanciale” and the egg, an essential element for a dish that presents itself as simple but carries a long history, or maybe, many histories.
Traces bring us towards the shepherd’s home, from the pig to the egg and cheese, but we cannot identify from which land they would come from as shepherds moved around quite a lot with the transhumance.


Some rumors say that Carbonara was the fruit of a meeting after World War II between American soldiers and Roman innkeepers. Let us think that this is not the case and leave it as an “Italian story” given that talking about bacon instead of “guanciale” or “pancetta” could make the dish indigestible.




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