Carbonara & more thoughts on its origins, a pairing inspired by Brooklyn Guy

best carbonara recipe

Above: Tracie P’s Carbonara last night. To borrow an expression from Charles Scicolone, “I am blessed.”

“One of the things that is endlessly appealing about New York, for anyone with more than a passive interest in food,” wrote Craig Claiborne in the New York Times in 1965, “is a continual sense of discovery either in products or the environment in which they are sold. It may be a spice or a bread or a cheese in Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, but there is always the prospect of the unexpected.”

His words ring as true as if they were written yesterday, don’t they?

In this instance, he was writing about the pancetta at the “Salumeria Italiana, known in the neighborhood as Frank’s Pork Store, at 26 Carmine Street (near Bleecker Street and the Avenue of the Americas).”

Pancetta “is designed to be sliced paper thin and eaten as part of an antipasto or scrambled with eggs. The closest thing it may be said to resemble is prosciutto, and like prosciutto, it is delicious when draped over melon or figs and served as a first course. Mrs. Bocassi, the owner’s wife, commented recently that many Italians used pancetta to make spaghetti carbonara.”

cesanese del piglio

Above: We paired with this Cesanese del Piglio by Cantina Macciocca, sent to us as a sample by importer Katell Pleven of the Vine Collective. In my experience, the Cesanese grape has the right spice to stand up to the intense flavors of Carbonara. I loved this wine by organic farmer and native yeaster Macciocca. Although a little hot with alcohol, it was fresh and meaty and its peppery notes sang with the Carbonara.

Carbonara has been on my mind after reading Brooklyn Guy’s recent and superb post and reflections on wine pairings and recipes.

(Here’s a link to my last post on Carbonara and its origins.)

The Claiborne passage above is significant not only because “Mrs. Bocassi, the owner’s wife, commented recently [in 1965] that many Italians used pancetta to make spaghetti carbonara,” but also for his observation that pancetta “is designed to be sliced paper thin and eaten as part of an antipasto or scrambled with eggs” (italics mine).

By the time he wrote this piece, Carbonara was already an immensely popular dish in the U.S., in part thanks to opera singers who mentioned it as their one of their favorite Italian dishes.

In an article published in 1962 entitled, “A Diva’s Proper Interest in Pleasures of the Table,” Claiborne wrote of soprano Eileen Farrell that “Miss Farrell speaks with warmth, however, of spaghetti carbonara.” It’s one of the earliest mentions of Carbonara, the dish, that I can find in the Times.

I’ve also found an instance where soprano Birgit Nilsson mentions it as a favorite Italian dish.

passerina frusinate

Above: Most Passerina comes from Abruzzo but this one, a 2011 by Macciocca, is raised in Latium (Lazio) in the township of Frosinone (Frusinate in dialect). It’s an example of the viticultural connection between Abruzzo and Latium, a relationship that’s even more evident in the regions’ gastronomic ties. This wine took a moment to open up and show its true colors but we both thought it was delicious once it did. Great acidity, balanced fruit, and a nice minerality that you don’t expect in Passerina.

I’ve never met an Italian who scrambles eggs with pancetta. And I was surprised by Claiborne’s observation.

Is it possible that Carbonara could be the child of American influence not via American soldiers (as some have speculated) but via opera singers who wanted eggs and bacon when they traveled to Rome to perform?

(Pancetta is Italian for cured pork belly, the equivalent of bacon.)

Browsing the Times archive for the word carbonara, I also came across a number of obituaries for persons named Carbonara.

It occurred to me that Carbonara, while not among the most common, is a relatively common surname, probably originating in Apulia (Puglia).

Then I started thinking about the wave of Apulian immigrants who came to New York in the 1950s and 60s (hence the prevalence of the surname in New York during those decades).

Could this be one of the elements that will help us to unfold the mystery of the origins of Carbonara?

One thing is for certain, the dish Spaghetti [alla] Carbonara appears for the first time in the post-war era (see my research here), when dried pasta became a popular dish in Rome and later throughout Italy (yes, it’s that recent).

Could the dish be the result of migratory influence and contamination coupled with the influx of American celebrities in the years after the second world war?

Either way, I’m glad that Brooklyn Guy got us thinking about it because Tracie P’s Carbonara is always delicious.

This is what we do at our house after Georgia P goes to bed: we make food, we open wine, and then we spend the better part of the evening talking about it. I am truly blessed.

Dulcis in fundo: yesterday, Italian wine maven Charles Scicolone posted about his recent trip to Italy, calling the Carbonara at Roscioli “the best in Rome.” His post includes a photo.

2 thoughts on “Carbonara & more thoughts on its origins, a pairing inspired by Brooklyn Guy

  1. oh I love Carbonara (even having only found it this year. My Inuit ancestors were busy introducing me to other delicacies). The two of you make me so happy. Now let’s have Carbonara with Alfonso too. Cheers to all of you!

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