{recipes} Spaghetti Carbonara Taste Test: aka Carbonara vs. Not Carbonara

The other day I threw out a status update asking what to make for dinner, and my friend Sarah from San Diego suggested that a chilly winter’s night merited a warm bowl of spaghetti carbonara. (I know what you’re thinking, chilly winter’s night in San Diego? But let’s move on.) I immediately glommed onto the idea and started trolling the internets for the skinny (fatty?) on the best carbonara recipes out there. I was thinking bacon, cream, eggs, you know, the basics. Figure out the best balance and method and get to some good eating.

 As you know, the internets are MAGICAL and I was quite surprised to learn that carbonara has a lot of rules, and a fair number of people have intense and even acrimonious feelings about these rules. The number one rule is: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO USE CREAM, not even one drop, how could you even THINK of ruining your carbonara with cream, do you have no sense at all YOU A**HOLE?!?!?! Now, I’m only type-shouting and degrading you to reflect the aggregate loathing of bloggers and commenters alike, who rally loudly against abuses of the term “carbonara” to describe these allegedly nefarious and horrifying excuses for a pasta recipe. Examples:

From tommy:eats: “Here in the states, you see a lot of “light cream sauce” when describing carbonara.  That’s not carbonara.  I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s not good.  I often say that can judge an Italian restaurant by its description of carbonara:  if I see “cream”, I know I don’t have to bother trying the place.”

From a commenter on Il Forno: “First and fore most – NO CREAM. If you like cream then go and cook yourself a TV dinner or something and don’t pretend to like Italian food.” (sic)

Wow. Harsh. I could go on, for days in fact, but you get the picture. So, well, there I am feeling pretty sheepish with my crazy ideas about cream in carbonara. And then come all of the other issues piling on, the more I keep reading. Like, no bacon, it has to be pancetta or better yet, guanciale (that would be, cured hog cheeks). No peas. No onions. No wine. No garlic. No pasta shapes other than spaghetti. If you make any of these egregious missteps then you had BETTER not be callin’ your nasty ol’ slop heap carbonara. (People are really serious about this.)

So I did what any curious, self-respecting, reasonably hungry person who doesn’t balk at eating two multi-thousand calorie meals in the span of 8 hours would do: I made a very authentic and “real” carbonara for lunch, and then I made my verions of fake, bastard, I’m-a-bad-person carbonara for dinner. Personally, I wouldn’t turn either of these dishes down, but I will agree that the purist version was more exciting and ultimately more satisfying, albeit a pretty hearty (heavy?) meal. As my husband said, “it’s like eating a rich, salty, delicious bowl of pasta, and a pork chop, simultaneously.” Good enough for me.

Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara
makes 2 servings.


  • 1/2 pound spaghetti
  • 4 oz. guanciale (use pancetta if you MUST)
  • 2 whole eggs
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano


  • Put pasta water on to boil. Meanwhile, chop guanciale into small pieces and cook in a large saucepan over medium high heat until brown and crisp. Turn off heat and leave on stovetop as is.
  • Separate one egg and reserve yolk. Thoroughly whisk 1 whole egg and 1 egg white with a liberal amount of salt and pepper in a bowl. Add the parmigiano and whisk together.
  • Add pasta to boiling water and cook until done. When the pasta has about a minute left on the timer, turn the guanciale pan back on high heat just until it starts sizzling again (which, conveniently, should take about a minute.)
  • Using tongs, carefully transfer the spaghetti into the guanciale pan along with about 1/4 cup of the pasta water. (You could also drain the pasta and reserve some of the pasta water, but that would dirty out more dishes, so… I go with the tongs.) Turn off the heat and use the tongs to toss the pasta and guanciale.
  • Slowly poor the egg/cheese mix in, tossing furiously with the tongs so the eggs don’t cook too much. When fully combined, add the yolk and mix thoroughly one more time.
  • Remove to 2 (preferably warm) serving bowls, garnish with extra parmigiano, and consume immediately.

Recipe: Not Carbonara: Pasta with Eggs, Pecorino, and Pancetta
I didn’t call it carbonara so please don’t beat me up. Serves 2.


  • 3 oz. pancetta, cut in 1/4 inch wide strips
  • 1 small clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 shallots, finely chopped
  • 3 Tblsp white wine
  • 1/3 cup cream
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 egg + 1 yolk
  • 1/2 cup grated pecorino (can substitute grated parmigiano)


  • Cook pancetta over medium heat until browned. Drain on paper towels. Remove all but about 1 Tblsp of the fat.
  • Add the shallots and garlic and cook a few minutes, until translucent but not browned.
  • Add the wine and swirl in the pan to deglaze 1-2 minutes. Add the cream, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat.
  • Meanwhile, cook the pasta (I used something called campanelle, which look like bells and had lots of good sauce-holding ridges.)
  • While waiting for the pasta to boil, crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk well to mix. Add the pecorino and mix. Set aside.
  • Drain the pasta and set aside. Reheat cream just until it simmers. Turn off the heat. Whisk a little bit of the warm cream into the eggs, then a little more, then a little more. Combine all together in the pan (still with the heat off) and add the pasta and pancetta and mix furiously. If the sauce is too thin, turn the heat on medium low to reduce without letting it out and out boil.
  • Serve immediately.
  • If you wish, you can add frozen peas with the cream in the first section.

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3 Responses

  1. Amy says:

    Hi Karen, I’d shake your hand but you’re holding two ice cream cones. Thank you for the not carbonara recipe! It was delicious albeit a heart attack and a half. Seriously though the sauce was amazing, a great dinner on a cold night.

  1. March 20, 2013

    […] This dish is simple to make and the sauce comes out with a very creamy texture, despite the total absence of cream or butter. Egg yolks, parmesan, and starchy pasta water combine to coat the orecchiete with a rich sauce that plays against the crunchy pop of the snap peas. I cut the peas in roughly the same size as the orecchiete to optimize for the best bites. It’s almost like a vegetarian version of pasta carbonara. […]