When I was 18, I lived in Florence for a school year. That time spent in Italy was pivotal to my view of the world and to my culinary education. There was a small trattoria down the street from the villa where we lived, and a friend and I would go there as often as we could. It was at this trattoria that I first learned about spaghetti carbonara. It was transcendant.

Spaghetti Carbonara

According to Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, an Italian food historian alleges that this dish become popularized during World War II when American soldiers would bring local families a gift of bacon and eggs. The Italians – more specifically the Romans – would make a pasta dish with the bacon, eggs, and very few other ingredients. Ms. Hazan’s classic recipe calls for pancetta, garlic, wine, olive oil, romano and parmigiano-reggiano cheese, pepper and parsley to be added to the spaghetti and eggs. Often, recipes call for peas which are especially delicious and considered a classic part of the dish.

This is a dish that emphasizes ingredients. Every good recipe for spaghetti carbonara talks about the importance of choosing your bacon carefully, exactly which pasta types to use, and the proper choice of olive oil.

When I returned to the States, I was disappointed time and again by American dishes that would claim to be spaghetti carbonara but would add miscellaneous items. I am a purist when it comes to classic dishes, and I expect restaurants to either abide by the tradition or to make it obvious that the dish is not a traditional rendition: caesar salads should have anchovies but not tomatoes or chicken, macaroni and cheese should be just that , and spaghetti carbonara should have very few ingredients beyond bacon and eggs.

It wasn’t long before I gave up entirely on trying to order spaghetti carbonara in the US, frustrated with the interpretation of the classic, and with the fact that I was mostly disappointed.

Recently, I found a recipe for spaghetti carbonara on Epicurious.com. The recipe was fine, but it was the comments that really made me consider how people enjoy completely bastardizing classic recipes:

“This was great! I added crumbled sausage and garlic … “

“This is the straightforward classic … I also use veggie bacon and shallots – yum!”

“Great with the egg beaters … Also used whole wheat pasta! Good Health to all!”

“This is a good basic carbonara. I added asparagus, shrimp and mussels. Chicken and cored baby zucchini and yellow squash are nice additions too.”

“I used the ready crisp bacon from Costco. It was probably a bad idea.”

Not Spaghetti Carbonara: The Quizno’s Chicken Carbonara Sub

Don’t agree yet with the fact that we tend to take recipes to the extreme? Consider Quizno’s “Chicken Carbonara Sub” which is “Chicken, bacon, mozzarella, mushrooms, Creamy Bacon Alfredo Sauce”. In a move that can only be considered taking one for the team, I went to Quizno’s and ordered a Chicken Carbonara Sub in order to evaluate whether it is anywhere near our classic carbonara dish. The tangy, overly sweet “bacon alfredo sauce” is squirted from a squeeze bottle onto what seem to be microwaved bacon bits, and that is all put on top of chicken and mushrooms, topped with a piece of provolone cheese, and put through the Quizno’s oven. This sub is about as far away from my trattoria in Florence as you can get.

Last year, when The Zuni Cafe Cookbook was released, I finally found the recipe to end all recipes for me. Judy Rodger’s recipe from that book contains ricotta cheese, which I had never seen before, but which gives the effect of crumbly clumps of cheese and egg that I craved from the Italian renditions. Next time you are anxious to try a true spaghetti carbonara, I suggest that you make it yourself using the recipes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook or the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

In San Francisco, you can also get good renditions of spaghetti carbonara at Ideale restaurant in North Beach and at Zuni Cafe.

(415) 391-4129
1315 Grant Ave, San Francisco, CA

Zuni Cafe
1658 Market St, San Francisco, CA
(415) 552-2522

Spaghetti Carbonara: Stick with the Classics 11 April,2006Jennifer Maiser

  • Sam

    Fred would definitely disagree with you on this. He had the carbonara at Zuni on one of our visits and was disappointed:

    “Fred didn’t fair so well with his spaghetti carbonara. The pasta was undercooked and he didn’t want to make a fuss.”

    I did make some the other day, however, with marin sun farm eggs and fatted calf pancetta. Fred was deleriously happy with my version although we both slightly disagreed with each other about what constiutes real carbonara.

    In my research on the subject I found interesting articles here and here

    I love the bit about “do you really think a coal miner would waste an egg white?”

  • Sam

    PS – Fred doesnt care for the Ideale version either. But he did have one in Fiji of all places that got his approval! I keep meaning to post about it one day.

  • cookiecrumb

    And, on an unrelated note, Quizno’s is evil.

  • Lori

    Saveur’s Italian cookbook is the recipe we use. Very yummy.

  • Jennifer Maiser

    Sam … I would definitely say that Zuni and Ideale are, in my mind, the best of the bunch. But I don’t think they would stack up against Italian renditions of the dish. I need to get some Fatted Calf pancetta. It’s been far too long since that’s been in this house.

    CC … I remembered that post from Parke as I was standing in line. But forgetting about the nutrition information issue, I tried to search for the info online and came up with all these posts about the fact that they are very bad about giving that information out. How is that acceptable? It’s very annoying. I hardly even want to know what was in that sandwich – it was eye opening to buy it and bring it home.

    Lori — I will have to check out that recipe, thanks!

  • Molly

    EEEEEW. That Quizno’s photo is disgusting.

  • Davide

    My grandmother was from Italy. I can assure you there are as many variations on a “classic” Italian dish as there are people who make them!Each family has its own way of making a dish. If you want a source for good,high quality Italian recipes and articles, look into the mgazine “La Cucina Italiana” at italiancookingand living.com. Lydia Bastianch’s books and show on PBS is excellent.Or, best of all, get to know an older Italian grandmother for the best recipes ever.

  • Anonymous

    PS and remember to use a good quality imported pasta in any pasta dish. Don’t overcook it!

  • phil

    I don’t know who prepared your quizno’s Carbonara, but for one, why did you use wheat bread, and two, if you’d just let them make it for the way it is supposed to be made, you’ll never feel the need again to go back to your italian trattoria. (don’t watch the preparation if it bothers you, good food critics like me know that it’s all about the final product)


Jennifer Maiser

“My passion for food began young.”

I am the editor of the influential website www.EatLocalChallenge.com which encourages readers to support local farmers and producers.

I began my personal website, Life Begins at 30, in 2003.

I have been published in Edible San Francisco and Fine Cooking, write regularly for Bay Area Bites, Serious Eats, and have been quoted in many nationwide publications. Photography is a passion, and I have had photos printed in National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure.

I contributed to a Williams-Sonoma cookbook: Cooking from the Farmers’ Market, which was released in February 2010.

I live in San Francisco, California and can often be found at local farmers markets seeking out the best of what’s in season and chatting with farmers.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor