BLASPHEMY: sea urchin carbonara @TonyVallone & earliest known mention of dish

carbonara best recipeAbove: my friend and client Tony Vallone’s new “Spaghetti alla Carbonara” is as blasphemous as it is delicious.

It was a thrill for Tracie P and me to take our Australian friends, the newly engaged Lydia and Stefano, to Tony’s, the flagship restaurant of my friend and client Tony Vallone in Houston.

The couple is touring the states, dining their way through our country’s metropolitan culinary hotspots (New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, etc.). So when I learned that they’d be visiting Houston, it was with no small measure of pride that I suggested a double date last night at Tony’s, where Tony and his chef de cuisine Kate McLean (another friend) are putting out some of the best food in the nation imho.

Kobe grade a5 beef is always a joy ride as was a spectacular risotto alla milanese. But the star of our evening was Tony’s new and blasphemous spaghetti alla carbonara, made with pecorino (no Parmigiano Reggiano), lightly sautéed pancetta, crispy guanciale, and raw sea urchin.

To my palate, the dish was a study in savory, delicately briny texture, with each of the “salt-delivery” components delivering a unique and distinct, nuanced layer.

But the addition of the raw urchin gave the housemade spahgetti alla chitarra an ethereal marine note that took the dish into an even higher realm of hedonist fulfillment. It was that good.

Our dinner and enogastronomically driven conversation reminded me of a gastro-philological nugget recently shared with me by my colleague and good friend Chris Reid, who writes — among other things — about barbecue for the Houston Chronicle (you may remember Chris from his 2012 New York Times piece on Texas barbecue outside of Texas).

0044_01_1950_0176_0003Above: an article culled from the July 26, 1950 edition of the Italian national daily La Stampa may represent the earliest known mention of spaghetti alla carbonara in print. Click here for a PDF of the entire page.

A number of people on both sides of the Atlantic (including me) have used the Google Books search engine to find early mentions of carbonara, where the term refers to the famous Roman dish (and not its many other meanings in Italian).

But Chris has found what may be the earliest known mention in print in the newly available digital archive of the Italian national daily La Stampa.

The article describes the Pope’s visit to the Festa de’ Noantri, the colorful summer festival held each July in Trastevere.

In a paragraph devoted to the neighborhood’s top trattorie, the author mentions “Cesaretto alla Cisterna — to name one of the most well known [restaurants] outside of Italy — who boasts ancient origins, being that his osteria rose from the ruins of another famous eatery in the time of Fabio Massimo [Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus]. It was this tavern keeper who first welcomed American officials who had come to Trastevere, many years ago now, in search of spaghetti alla carbonara.”

The passage is interesting for a number of reasons but chiefly because it associates the renown of carbonara with American military men.

American forces first arrived in Rome in 1944 and the fact that the author claims that Cesaretto (literally, little Caeser) was the first to serve American officials would seem to imply that he was the first to popularize the dish if not the dish’s inventor.

Is it possible and even probable that carbonara was inspired by American soldiers’ love of bacon and eggs? The passage above seems to give weight to the American influence theory.

We may never know the origins of spaghetti alla carbonara but I can’t imagine that we will ever stop looking for it, just like the American officials who headed to Cesaretto in search of the dish.

In other news…

Assoenologi, the association of Italian enologists, has published its early harvest forecast and the numbers are grim. After one of the rainest years in our lifetime, some regions will see a 30 percent drop in production. I’ll post about it on Monday.

One thought on “BLASPHEMY: sea urchin carbonara @TonyVallone & earliest known mention of dish


    Interesting take … I tend to side with this theory:

    From a Times article, 2012, by Ian Fisher:

    There is a lovely story that carbonara was created by fetching Roman ladies hoping to lure American soldiers at the end of World War II, whipping up an American breakfast into pasta. There is, alas, not much evidence, and much dispute that America had anything to do with it. As Mr. Plotkin notes, many dishes in Roman cooking are close to carbonara, if not in that exact combination.

    Emilio Dente Ferracci, an Italian food historian and son of a great Roman cook, Anna Dente of Osteria di San Cesario outside Rome, has collected scores of stories of how carbonara came to be: He doesn’t believe it existed before 1944, based on cookbooks and Roman menus. He does think that, in the deprived days after the war, Romans used American food aid (bacon and powdered egg yolks) to gussy up pasta dishes.

    “The Americans left, and the Romans perfected the recipe,” Mr. Ferracci wrote in an e-mail. “Instead of bacon, pancetta or still better, guanciale; in place of powered egg yolks, fresh eggs; and for the cheese, pecorino Romano.”

    “While in other parts of Italy and the world, garlic, onion, butter or cream are added, in Rome these ingredients are forbidden,” he said. “There are only five permitted ingredients: pasta, guanciale, egg yolk, pecorino Romano and black pepper.”

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