In the early 1990’s I was on my first business trip to New York City. I flew in a couple of days early to explore the city with a friend. We did a lot of sight-seeing and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, but for me the highlight was a dinner in Little Italy. At a small family-run restaurant in lower Manhattan, I had my first “real” Italian food and I fell in love! Before that night, I had only eaten spaghetti which was always served with a red tomato sauce. I didn’t know of much beyond that. In Little Italy I discovered Fettuccine Carbonara. Long pasta coated with a creamy, cheesy sauce, flecked with pieces of bacon and fresh green peas. Heaven was on that plate. I could have inhaled it, but instead I savored every bite. I was obviously enjoying my meal, immersing myself in the whole experience, when the owner came over and introduced himself. He joined us and we learned about his family history and how the restaurant was started. He found out that I was a singer and that evening, in order to get my dessert, I truly had to sing for my supper!
There is one restaurant in New York where I dream of getting reservations – and so does everyone else who has ever heard of it. Rao’s is a New York institution with a huge list of patrons and only 10 tables! It is said to be the hardest reservation to get and someday I hope to find a way to have dinner there. I may have to wash dishes or be a prep chef, which I would be happy to do, but it would be worth it to experience some of the best Italian food in Manhattan!
Over 20 years later, I can still taste that pasta – now That is a lasting impression! Over the years I have tried to recreate it and have gotten fairly close. There are two major camps when it comes to Carbonara – those who use only eggs and those who add cream. I like a blend of the two which produces a creamy, luscious sauce. This is not an Alfredo sauce – it is much lighter and more delicate. While guanciale is the traditional meat used in Carbonara, you can substitute pancetta or bacon. Because the Italian meats are not smoked, if you use bacon you will have a totally different, but still delicious version. If you are concerned about eating raw eggs, just cook your sauce a few more minutes. It will be a bit thicker, but you can add some of the pasta cooking water to thin it.
Adding peas is totally up to you, but they add a beautiful green to the plate and this a great way to get your kids to eat vegetables! I strongly urge you to use either fresh peas or frozen. Canned peas are really inferior and probably the reason I wouldn’t eat them as a kid. When I grew up and tasted fresh peas I fell in love with them and they are one of my favorite vegetables. Peas are, in my opinion, the vegetable that holds up the best when frozen. I use them all year long. There actually is a trick to cooking frozen peas … I know, you don’t believe me, but it’s true! Place your peas in a little water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let it boil 30 seconds to 1 minute and then take them off the heat. That’s right, do not them cook any longer. Prepared this way, they are absolutely perfect!
I am a meat lovin’ girl, so I also add some cubed ham to my sauce. This is unusual and it started because I had some in my refrigerator that needed to be used up and I threw it in. I liked it so much that it is now a regular part of my recipe. Leave it out if you don’t want the extra meat. Pasta Carbonara is an easy, quick dinner to make and perfect for weeknight meals. Try this recipe and let me know what you think. Did it open your eyes to Italian food the way it did for me? I sure hope so!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
When it comes to Parmesan cheese, I really hope you are not using the pre-grated product that comes in a green can … you know the one. Compared to freshly grated Parmesan, it tastes like cardboard. Splurge and buy a hunk of real cheese and grate it yourself. You can grate a little at a time, or cut it into chunks and process it for a few seconds in a food processor. Voila! Perfectly grated fresh Parmesan cheese!
- 6 oz pancetta, guanciale, or bacon, diced
- 2 large shallots, sliced thinly
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 2 cups whipping cream
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp white pepper
- 4 oz grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- 2 large eggs, beaten thoroughly
- 2 oz cooked ham, diced, optional
- 1 lb fettuccine or any smooth-sided pasta
- 2 tbsp salt
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 clove garlic, halved
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
- Chopped fresh parsley or basil
- Extra Parmesan cheese to pass at the table
- Saute pancetta, guanciale, or bacon in a nonstick skillet until done but not too crisp. Drain on paper towels. Set aside. Discard all but 1 tbsp of the rendered fat and keep the pan warm on another burner.
- Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling water to which you've added the salt, bay leaf, garlic, and oil. Cook to al dente (timing is determined by type of pasta you use). Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water. Add peas to cooking water about 1 minute before pasta is done. Drain, toss with a little butter or olive oil to keep it from sticking, and keep warm. Discard large pieces of garlic and bay leaf.
- Reheat bacon fat over medium heat and saute shallots and garlic until softened, about 2 minutes. Add cream, nutmeg, and pepper, and whisk in Parmesan until smooth. Cook, stirring, about 2 minutes until slightly thickened. Temper the eggs with a little of the hot cream, then add back to pan. Add diced ham. Remove from heat.
- Toss sauce with cooked pasta and mix well. Add reserved pasta water as needed for the right sauce consistency. Pour into a warmed serving dish. Sprinkle with fresh herbs and remaining cheese. Serve immediately, passing additional Parmesan at the table.