Food is important because it reminds of something. It connects us to something larger than ourselves, recalls a specific moment in time, or reminds us of a specific person. Both eating and cooking works this way. I, like many people, also cook because it's an act of creation. (I am only a cook, and probably only an adequate one. My brother is a chef, and a very impressive one. I feel that's an important distinction to make.)
Here's the thing: I don't even like Italian food that much. I mean, I like Italian food the way everyone likes Italian food. I don't love Italian food the way I love other food. It doesn't feel like home the way almost any Asian cuisine does. I have never craved any Italian dish the way I constantly crave cassoulet.
But almost 5 years ago, my wife and I traveled to Malcesine, Italy for our friends' wedding. At this point, I didn't know Rachel's friends very well, and I was nervous about traveling to a small town in Italy to spend a lot of time with people I didn't know. We ate very well there, of course. To say all of the food was delicious would be an understatement, but one meal stands out.
Rachel and I arrived late to dinner one night. I don't even remember if we ordered food or if it was just passed to us. However it happened, a carbonara was placed in front of me. Maybe I ordered it—"bacon and eggs pasta!" is definitely a thing that would run through my brain.
This carbonara was not unlike any other carbonara I've ever had, only a million times better. It was creamy and salty and cheesy and fresh as fuck. This was maybe the first time it really clicked that a dish can be so much greater than the sum of its parts. Carbonara is a relatively simple dish. It's basically ham, eggs, cheese, garlic, and noodles. You can add white wine in the mix if you want, but it's unnecessary to make a great meal.
That night we ate, drank, and talked until we might have been the only people awake in the town, except for the bar owners who stayed open to serve us limoncello. We dangled our feet off docks and tried not to get killed by swans. Swans are mean motherfuckers. So I cook carbonara because it's easy and satisfying, and because it reminds me what I learned about food that night. It also reminds me that we drank a lot of limoncello, I made a lot of new friends, and Rachel almost got her dress set on fire because everyone was being too nice.
Below is a brief recipe for carbonara. I won't always include recipes in posts because I'm only an adequate cook. I'm also bad at recipes. Improvisation and imprecision is much more fun. It's also why I suck at baking.
- 1 lb. pasta noodles*
- 2 Tbspn olive oil
- 4 ounces pancetta (or hiqh quality bacon) cubed
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup of high quality Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (plus more for serving)
- about 1 cup parsley, chopped
- ground black pepper
*You can use dry spaghetti if you want, but I suggest making the noodles if you can. It's super easy and very satisfying. I find the act of making noodles to be very therapeutic as well. All it takes is 1 cup flour and 2 eggs. Mix until it starts to combing. It'll look like a mess. Don't worry. Knead the dough until it takes the shape of a ball of dough. Once the dough is elastic and not too sticky, cut the dough into pieces that you can flatten and roll into sheets. Use plenty of flour to keep the sheets from sticking to itself. Then slice into noodles. Or use a pasta maker.
Cook the noodles to al dente at the same time as the pancetta. You'll want the noodles to be hot when you add it to the mixture. Reserve some of the floury water from the noodles for the sauce.
In a bowl, mix the eggs and parmesan well, making sure to remove any lumps.
Heat the olive oil in a pan, then add the pancetta. Cook until crispy and the fat coats the pan. Add the garlic and sauté until soft. Remove from heat and stir in the noodles. Stir in the egg mixture and combine. The flour water from the pasta can be used to help you reach the sauce consistency that you prefer. Add the parsley and pepper and stir.
Top with pepper and a sprig of parsley.