Via di Ripetta radiates from the Piazza di Popolo, the poplar tree lined square at Rome’s northern gate, continues away from the chapel of the miracle toward the tomb of Augustus and the museum of his solar clock, the ara pacis, parallel with the meandering Tiber. Here street and river depart, the Tiber twists like a snake toward the Vatican City, the Ripetta runs straight as a die into an odd-shaped four-sided junction and becomes Via della Scrofa, the alley of Scrofa.
American soldiers arriving in the city from Anzio in the south-west and Cassino in the south, attracted by the ruins of the Colosseum and the Forum, the contrast of modern and contemporary Rome with Michelangelo’s hilltop square, the marble temple monument to the fallen of the First World War, the statue of Vittorio Emanuele II – Italy’s last king, and the expansive Piazza Venezia wouldhave drifted into a warren of streets around the high-sided domed Pantheon. And found themselves in a nearby street known for its taverns and trattoria – the alley of Scrofa.
Here, in June 1944, a cook in a trattoria produced a pasta dish dressed with bacon, cheese and eggs to feed the liberators, believing they would devour anything with eggs and bacon. The dish spread through the city and became known as spaghetti alla carbonara.
A nice story, yes? True? Let’s look at the evidence.
American quartermasters would have had access to smoked bacon and eggs (fresh and powdered). American soldiers’ Italian girlfriends graciously repaid gifts of bacon and eggs with a pasta dish that was a wonderful repast compared to war rations. Did a trattoria chef benefit from this arrangement? And produce an iconic dish?
Italians find amusement in the stories about the origins of their traditional dishes. Popular traditional recipes resided for centuries in the consciousness of those who cooked in the home and in the trattoria, and rarely did the stories – never mind the ingredients and methods ever get written down. They were passed down by rote.
Carbonara has numerous origins. There are the woodsmen in the central Italian regions of Abruzzo and Lazio who brought eggs, pecorino and guanciale (preserved pork cheek and pork belly) and dried pasta on their trips. Because guanciale was preserved with black pepper, when it was added to the dish it produced dark specks that resembled charcoal. Add the coincidence between carbonara and carbonada, the Abruzzese word for pancetta. And the fact that the region’s charcoal farmers known as the “Carbonari” were very fond of pasta with pork, cheese and eggs.
That pasta dishes should be made with bacon, cheese and eggs – ingredients that are associated with the type of pastoralism practiced in the hills and mountains of Abruzzo and Lazio – that such dishes should have a generic name among the people, and that migrant workers from the Apennines should bring them to Rome is equally plausible. Not so plausible is the argument that this combination has always existed in Rome. Carbonara did not become generally known until the 1950s, when variations of the recipe began to appear in cookbooks.
This brings us back to the “American” origin. Before the Anzio landing in January 1944, the Americans found themselves in Naples, with ample time to frequent the port city’s alleys and lanes. Along with folded pizza, spaghetti was a Neapolitan street food served with a meagre garnish of grated black pepper and grated pecorino cheese. According to legend an American G.I. tasted the spaghetti and decided it needed more flavour. This ingenious soldier added some powdered egg, a little smoked bacon and canned evaporated (condensed) milk.
Italians like to believe spaghetti alla carbonara comes from both traditions. The Americans arrived in the province of Lazio at Anzio on the coast, and at Cassino in the mountains, in January 1944. They fought a battle for the abbey at Monte Cassino and gradually moved through the valleys of Lazio to arrive in Rome in early summer. During almost six months in central Italy they adapted the traditional pasta dish known as carbonara, and thrived on it.
They replaced the guanciale with their smoked bacon, they added condensed milk but they preferred the local version made with fresh eggs. Remembering the name the dish was known by in the mountains, they adopted it. Within a year of the ending of the war, trattoria in Naples and Rome were offering pasta alla carbonara.
In 1947 the English cookery writer Elizabeth David began to compile recipes for “A Book of Mediterranean Food”. She mentioned three spaghetti dishes, vis: Neapolitan with garlic and olive oil, Neapolitan with garlic and tomatoes and Sicilian with anchovies, bacon, garlic, mushrooms, olives, onions and olive oil. In 1954 she returned to Italy to research her “Italian Food” cookbook. She mentioned the various types of pasta available in Italy and she gave a recipe for maccheroni alla carbonara. She said it could also be made with rigatoni.
Her version, for four people, included two eggs beaten, 120 g cured pork cut into strips fried in butter and grated parmigiano. She suggested mixing the pork into the eggs and adding the mixture to the hot cooked pasta, stirring until the eggs thicken and “present a slightly granulated appearance”.
She said it was “a Roman dish”.
As for the authenticity of carbonara, we would like to think there are two versions, one that is traditional to Apennine rural life (and Rome) and one that is traditional to the event that was the American liberation (and Naples), one without cream and with cured pork, one with cream and with bacon.
Today the choice of pasta is crucial, it should be a thin strip pasta that can hold the egg or cream-egg mixture, macaroni and penne are too thick!
The Roman recipe is simple, it is as much pasta as you like, one egg per person, a good quantity of cured pork and as much grated cheese as you want.
The Neopolitan recipe is only different because any type of bacon can be used, with cream to make the dish rich enough to fill empty bellies.