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Pasta Carbonara

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Pasta Carbonara is undoubtedly one of the most famous and symbolic dishes of the Italian gastronomic tradition. Let’s uncover its origins, investigating the many hypotheses of the experts. Let’s identify the ingredients of its recipe. Let’s locate the most traditional Roman restaurants in which to savor it. Finally, let’s find out a large number of delicious curiosities.

Pasta Carbonara.

What is Pasta Carbonara?

Carbonara is among the most appreciated Italian pasta specialties in the world: a simple dish, prepared with equally simple ingredients, which, although cannot boast ancient origins, is nevertheless very traditional, representing the perfect synthesis of a culinary sensibility grown over the centuries in a specific geographical area. A sensibility that makes Carbonara one of the symbols of the Roman and, more in general, Lazio region gastronomy.

The places of Pasta Carbonara.

The city of Rome and, more in general, Lazio region, are the ‘cradle’ of Carbonara pasta: unique places, inextricably connected tho this specialty.

The history of pasta Carbonara.

The history of pasta Carbonara.

No recipe causes more quarrels between chefs, scholars and admirers, than that of Carbonara pasta. The reason for these debates, which sometimes can be quite intense, is closely linked to the profound uncertainty about its origins since there is no written evidence about them to be presented as proof.

The only certain information indicates that this specialty, in what is currently considered its ‘canonical’ form, may have been born pretty recently. Regarding this, we know for sure that in the early 1900s it did not yet exist: the proof of this is its total absence from the cooking manuals by Ada Boni, one of the most famous Italian gourmets of the last century.
There is no reference to Carbonara nor in ‘The talisman of happiness’ (‘Il talismano della felicità’), an encyclopedic work published in 1925 and containing more than 800 recipes, nor in the manual ‘The Roman cuisine’ (‘La cucina romana’): something even more indicative, because the book was written with the express purpose of mentioning all the most traditional Roman dishes.

This premise, although useful to define a time period, does not clarify when and where the recipe was invented: there are at the moment only hypotheses, more or less plausible. Among them, three are particularly fascinating and often mentioned:

American soldiers.

Hypothesis: Carbonara and American soldiers.

This is perhaps the most plausible theory, supported by many historians. According to it Carbonara, in its early form, would be the result of the happy combination of pasta and cheese, typical Italian specialties, with some of the foods that could be found in the ‘K’ rations (*1) of the American soldiers stationed in the peninsula during World War II, ie bacon (*2) and powdered eggs.

The 'carbonari'.

Hypothesis: Carbonara and ‘carbonari’.

According to this second theory, regarding which there are differences of opinion, Carbonara would be the result of the resourcefulness of the ‘Carbonari’ (*3) and of the shepherds who worked in the woods between the Italian regions of Lazio, Marche and Abruzzo. They would have the habit of using eggs to enrich a recipe they prepared quite often, very similar to the ‘Gricia’ (*4): pasta seasoned with ‘guanciale’ (cured pork jowl), Pecorino cheese and pepper.

Hypothesis: Carbonara and ‘Cacio e Ova’.

Hypothesis: Carbonara and ‘Cacio e Ova’.

Another theory seems to combine the two just mentioned, indicating ‘Cacio e Ova’ pasta, a typical dish from Abruzzo, as a possible ancestor of Carbonara. This dish, well known to the already mentioned ‘Carbonari’, may have evolved thanks to the bacon that the US troops brought with them.


Other theories, honestly not very realistic, relate the specialty to the secret revolutionary society known as ‘Carbonari’, active in Italy at the beginning of the 19th Century, or to the Neapolitan gastronomic tradition (*5).

Perhaps none of these hypotheses is reliable. Perhaps each of them contains a grain of truth. However, what is immediately clear to anyone who has tasted a forkful of Carbonara pasta is its close relationship with two of the most famous dishes of the gastronomic tradition of Rome and, more in general, of Lazio Region: the ‘Matriciana’ and the already mentioned ‘Gricia’. An undeniable connection that, even alone, represents the definitive proof of the origins of this specialty.

*1: K-Ration is a portable meal designed by the physiologist Ancel Keys to feed American troops engaged in highly mobile combat operations.
*2: This would explain the use of bacon in place of guanciale (cured pork jowl) in some variants of Carbonara’s recipe.
*3: In the past, the ‘Carbonari’ (charcoal burners) collected wood in the woods so that it could be transformed into coal by slowly burning it.
*4: ‘Gricia’ pasta or ‘Griscia’, takes its name from the small town of Grisciano, located near the border between the Italian regions of Lazio and Marche.
*5: Some recipes that may vaguely bring to the mind that of Carbonara can be found in the Neapolitan cooking manual ‘Cucina teorico-pratica’ (‘Theoretical-practical cuisine’) by the cook/writer Ippolito Cavalcanti, published in 1837.

Pasta Carbonara.
WebFoodCulture: the most traditional restaurants.

Where to eat Pasta Carbonara?

Here follows a short list of the most traditional Roman restaurants where it’s possible to savor the best carbonara pasta.

  • Trattoria ‘Sora Lella’
    Via di Ponte Quattro capi, 16, 00186 Rome IT;
    Official website
  • Trattoria ‘La Villetta’
    Viale della Piramide Cestia, 53, 00153 Rome;
  • Trattoria ‘Lilli’
    Via di Tor di Nona, 23, 00186 Rome;

Carbonara and american soldiers in video.

An interesting video, produced by Barilla, shows the (possible) link between Carbonara and the American soldiers.

Pasta Carbonara: calories and nutritional values.

Pasta Carbonara: calories and nutritional values.

There are approximately 400 calories in a 100 grams portion of pasta Carbonara (impossible to be more precise, because the amount changes proportionally to the quantity of sauce used). This specialty contains mainly fats, carbohydrates and proteins.

Music for Pasta Carbonara.

Music for Pasta Carbonara.

Carbonara brings to the mind the fascinating atmospheres of popular Rome. One of the most traditional Roman songs is therefore the best choice to accompany this article.

The ingredients.

Pasta Carbonara: the ingredients.

Carbonara pasta usually served in the most famous Roman restaurants, except for possible ‘creative changes’, involves the use of the following ingredients:

  • Spaghetti or rigatoni pasta;
  • Eggs;
  • Cured pork jowl (‘guanciale’);
  • Pecorino Romano PDO cheese;
  • Salt & pepper;

Nowadays these ingredients are widely considered ‘canonical’ and, as such, fiercely defended by the purists of the recipe. However, it should be noted that this ‘canonicity’ is relatively recent, dating back to the end of the last century (*1): for this reason, sometimes, attacks too strong on the ‘transgressors’ can be considered, also from a historiographic point of view, out of place (*1).


*1: Not surprisingly, these ingredients are included in most of the many ‘variants’ of Carbonara pasta prepared especially during the second half of the 20th century.
*2: Suffice to say that, before the 90s, the lack of a reference recipe for Carbonara, led to the use in its preparation of products that are nowadays considered a true heresy, such as cream, parsley, onion and garlic.

Cured pork jowl or bacon?

Cured pork jowl or bacon?

Although nowadays many Italian chefs are somewhat ‘reluctant’ to use bacon instead of cured pork jowl (‘guanciale’), it should be reminded that, until the 1960s, it was the latter to be considered as an alternative ingredient for cooking Carbonara (*1).

Moreover, giving credit to one of the most popular historical theories, at the end of World War II this specialty was probably made with the bacon included in the rations of the American soldiers.


*1: The ‘consecration’ of cured pork jowl (‘guanciale’) as a fundamental ingredient in the preparation of Carbonara pasta can be found in the recipe book ‘La Grande Cucina’ by the gourmet Luigi Carnacina, published in 1969.

Pecorino Romano cheese for Pasta Carbonara.

Pecorino Romano cheese for Pasta Carbonara.

The choice of ingredients for Carbonara pasta requires paying particular attention to the cheese. This MUST necessarily be Pecorino Romano PDO: its particular taste is indeed fundamental for the success of the dish. Parmesan, often used especially outside Italy, should not be considered a possible alternative.

The right pasta for Carbonara.

The right pasta for Carbonara.

The types pasta generally used to make Carbonara are two

  • Spaghetti, better if bronze drawn, because this way they hold much better the sauce;
  • Rigatoni: considered a classic and, as such, served in the Roman restaurants paying more attention to tradition.
Cream and Pasta Carbonara.

Cream and Pasta Carbonara.

Nowadays the use of cream in the preparation of Carbonara pasta is considered a kind of heresy by many fans of this specialty.

However, it should be remembered that, until the eighties, before the ‘canonization’ of the recipe, renowned chefs such as Gualtiero Marchesi, gourmets such as Luigi Veronelli and even many famous Romans, suggested to use this ‘forbidden ingredient’ to increase creaminess.

The ‘Carbonara Day’.

The ‘Carbonara Day’.

‘Carbonara Day’ is celebrated every year, on April the 6th: this event is dedicated to the promotion of one of the most famous Italian specialties in the world.

Carbonara: the preparation (hints).

Pasta Carbonara: the preparation (hints).

Although on this website the preparation methods of the specialties covered are generally not illustrated, it has been decided to make an exception for Carbonara pasta. Here follows the procedure which, as anticipated, is quite simple:

Quantities for 4 people:

  • 320 grams of rigatoni or spaghetti;
  • 140 grams of ‘guanciale’ (cured pork jowl);
  • 4 egg yolks (large);

01. Bring the water for pasta to a boil, remembering to salt it;
02. Cut the ‘guanciale’ (cured pork jowl) into strips and brown it in olive oil (if guanciale is fat enough, use the fat itself instead of oil);
03. Beat the egg yolks, adding grated Pecorino Romano and some black pepper until you get a creamy mixture;
04. Once the pasta is cooked, pour it into the pan where the guanciale was previously cooked and add the mixture just made;
05. Mix everything and serve, seasoning each portion with Pecorino Romano and a sprinkling of black pepper.

The variants of Pasta Carbonara.

The variants of Pasta Carbonara.

The great success of Carbonara has led, over the years, to the birth of many variants which, starting from the original recipe, offer delicious alternatives to one of the most representative dishes of the Italian cuisine. Among these variants it’s important to mention, for example:

  • ‘Carbonara with zucchini’;
  • ‘Carbonara with asparagus’;
  • ‘Carbonara with artichokes’;
  • ‘Sea Carbonara’ (not surprisingly, prepared using fish and seafruits).
Pasta Carbonara from Chicago.

Pasta Carbonara from Chicago.

Strange as it may seem, the oldest written evidence about ‘Carbonara’ pasta, one of the symbols of Italian cuisine, is not part, as it would be easy to imagine, of an Italian cooking manual, but can be found in a guide to Chicago restaurants: Patricia Bronte Vittles’ ‘Vittles And Vice’ (*1), published for the first time in 1952.

The recipe of the specialty is included in the review of ‘Armando’s’, restaurant run, not surprisingly, by Italian Americans.
The first description of the preparation of ‘Carbonara’ in the Italian language, can be found in the 1954 magazine ‘La Cucina Italiana’ (‘The Italian Cuisine) (*2).

*1: ‘Vittles and Vice: An Extraordinary Guide to What’s Cooking on Chicago’s Near North Side’.
*2: It’s important to remember that this recipe is quite different from the one considered today as ‘canonical’: the differences include, for example, the use of garlic and Gruyère cheese.

Pasta Carbonara in the world.

Pasta Carbonara in the world.

Carbonara is one of the most popular pasta specialties in the world: in this regard, it should be noted that, especially outside of Italy, it’s made according to recipes that sometimes differ quite a lot from the ‘original’ one.

The main differences usually consist:

  • In the use of Parmesan instead of Pecorino Romano (or, in the best case, a mix of the two). How much this can affect the flavor of Carbonara is immediately clear to anyone who has tasted these two kinds of cheeses;
  • In the use of types of pasta other than spaghetti and rigatoni;
  • In the use of cream: an ingredient frequently used also in Italy during the second part of the last century, and today strongly opposed by the Carbonara ‘purists’;
  • In the use of ingredients that have never been part of the recipe, even in its most reckless variations, such as béchamel (instead of eggs), mushrooms, onion and parsley.

Pasta Carbonara and literature.

One of the first references to Carbonara in literature can be found in the 1948 book ‘Il borgo e la borgata: i ragazzi di don Bosco e l’altra Roma del dopoguerra’ by Alessandro Portelli:

“… then we made the fire in the middle of the field where there was coal, and we baptized them (the spaghetti) Carbonara, but not because they were made in the carbonara way! We were all black, were we not? All … That’s why they were called Carbonara.”.

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