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Spaghetti alla Carbonara (Spaghetti Carbonara)

I have had spaghetti carbonara a few times in chain restaurants or local Italian restaurants and was never impressed. The pasta always clumped together and was unmemorable.

It all changed when we went to Italy on our European adventure a few years back.

We had landed in Rome on a hot afternoon in mid-May after what seemed like a long flight from Gatwick Airport in London. Upon checking into Hotel Maikol, a charming bed and breakfast near the Colosseum, we asked the owner for her recommendation on where to eat. Her eyes lit up and she gushed, "You need to go to Leonetti's. It is my favorite restaurant". Armed with that recommendation, we followed her directions and miraculously found the place despite being exhausted and tired.

The owner at Leonetti's greeted us warmly in the true gracious Italian hospitality. The restaurant was busy, even at 9pm on a weeknight with diners leisurely chatting with their dining companions. We asked the owner for his recommendations and he told me that if I liked pasta, I should try their spaghetti alla carbonara. Well, when in Rome!

When it arrived, it looked different than the spaghetti carbonara I had at home. The noodles were coated in a silky sauce and you could smell the guanciale (which is similar to pancetta but made from pork jowl). It was creamy, salty and the pasta was cooked al dente which had a nice bite to it. I could not stop saying "mmm" as I devoured the dish. The spaghetti alla carbonara was so good that we went back a couple nights later. Thanks to my husband's adventurous spirit, we also tried a few new dishes.

Not wanting to go back to clumpy spaghetti carbonara again, we now make our own. It is important to source the best ingredients you can find/afford. This recipe below is close to the one I had in Rome, minus the leisurely dinner.

454 grams dry spaghetti
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
120 grams (4 oz) pancetta or bacon, cubed or sliced into small strips (use guanciale if you can find it)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 large eggs
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving (we used Parmesan)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Note: Timing is important as the pasta and the sauce both need to be ready at the same time. The pasta has to be hot (and al-dente) when it is mixed into the egg mixture in order for the residual heat (from the cooked pasta) to cook the eggs. This dish should be served immediately.

1. In a deep skillet over medium heat, add olive oil.

2. Add the pancetta or bacon and saute until it is crisp and the fat is rendered.

3. Stir the garlic into the rendered pancetta and saute briefly until the garlic is softened.

4. In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil and add the pasta. The pasta should be cooked until al-dente (tender but firm). Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta. 

5. Beat the eggs and Parmesan cheese in a mixing bowl, stirring well to prevent lumps.

6. Add the hot, drained spaghetti to the skillet and toss with tongs until the spaghetti is coated with the bacon fat. Add a tablespoon or two of the reserved pasta water to scrape up the fond at the bottom of the pan.

7. Remove the pan from heat and pour the raw egg/Parmesan mixture over the pasta, tossing quickly until the egg mixture thickens but does not scramble. If the sauce is too thick, add a tablespoon of reserved pasta water at a time until the desired consistency is reached. 

8. Garnish with chopped parsley, ground black pepper and more Parmesan to taste. 

9. Serve immediately.

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