Ask an Italian: What are the unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara?

In honour of world carbonara day on April 6th, one Italian food writer shares his advice on how to recreate the Roman classic without causing offence.

Ask an Italian: What are the unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara?
Do you know which ingredients to put in - and keep out of - a classic carbonara? Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

There are countless variations on the pasta alla carbonara recipe out there. But if you want to do as the Romans do, there are some rules to keep in mind.

READ ALSO: ‘Disgusting knockoffs’: Italians warn foreign cooks over carbonara recipes

Classic carbonara, typical of Rome and its surrounding Lazio region, is made with eggs, pork cheek (guanciale), pecorino cheese and pepper – and, as any Italian will tell you, absolutely no cream.

But unorthodox adaptations of Rome’s signature dish famously leave Italian gourmands feeling nauseated – and furious.

Italian chefs recently reminded foreigners attempting the recipe to “keep things simple” in order to prevent their take on the recipe from becoming an “insult”.

The Local asked Italian food writer Roberto Serra from Eatalian with Roberto what exactly non-Italians need to know before they can call a dish a “real” Roman-style carbonara,

Here, Roberto gives us his translation of a widely-shared Italian social media post listing the ‘decalogue’, or the ten golden rules for making carbonara, which he describes as an example of “typical Roman humour”.

The ten carbonara commandments:

  1. “Always use guanciale, not bacon – if we meant bacon, we would have gone to the USA (guanciale is the pork cheek, while bacon is part of the belly).
  2. No parmigiano reggiano, just pecorino cheese. Anyone who says “half and half” has something to hide. (I love Parmigiano Reggiano, I even wrote a guide about it, but always remember that Italian food is regional: with carbonara you are in Lazio, so don’t use cheese from Emilia Romagna.)
  3. Never cook the egg, it is not an omelette! (That’s why the final step is after you turn the heat off, it must be creamy…)
  4. No garlic, no onion, it’s not a ragù!
  1. No oil, no butter, no lard. Just the fat from guanciale. (Cook the guanciale at medium heat and it will release enough fat.)
  2. No spicy pepper, it is not Calabrian (i.e. not from the southern region of Italy famous for spicy foods).
  3. No spices other than black pepper are allowed.
  4. Anyone who adds cream should go to jail (you know, we take food seriously, sometimes too much…).
  5. Never, ever say ‘carbonara’ and ‘vegan’ in the same sentence.
  6. Tonnarelli, spaghetti, bucatini, rigatoni (four different shapes of pasta) are all good, just don’t overcook it!”

For more tips on executing the perfect pasta alla carbonara yourself, see here for Roberto’s classic recipe.

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OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.