Carbonara, a new theory for its origins and name

origin name carbonara

Above: Tracie P adds onion to her Carbonara, just another idiosyncratic — and delicious — interpretation of this recipe (the above was one of the dishes in last night’s dinner at our house).


Perhaps more than any other recipe in the Italian gastronomic canon, spaghetti alla carbonara and its origins have perplexed and eluded gastronomers for more than five decades.

Most food historians group the currently and popularly accepted theories of the etymon into three groups: the origin of the dish can be ascribed to 1) coal miners; 2) American soldiers who mixed “bacon and eggs” and pasta after occupying Italy in the post-war era; and 3) Ippolito Cavalcanti, the highly influential nineteenth-century Neapolitan cookery book author, whose landmark 1839 Cucina Teorico-Pratica included a recipe for pasta with eggs and cheese.

There is also a fourth theory that points to the restaurant La Carbonara, opened in 1912 in Rome. According to its website, it was launched by “coal seller” Federico Salomone. But the authors of site do not lay claim to the invention of carbonara nor do they address the linguistic affinity (even though they mention that their carbonara was included in a top-ten classification by the Gambero Rosso).

Origins and historical meaning of the word carbonara

The “coal miner” hypothesis is highly unlikely in my view. Carbonari are not coal miners but rather makers of [wood] charcoal (colliers in archaic English). If we agree that carbonara (the dish) began to appear in industrialized Italy (see below), we also have to take into account that the word carbonaro/a also had a different and more prevalent meaning for Italians at that time. The carbonari were members of a Neapolitan secret revolutionary society (similar to the Free Masons) called the Carboneria. The nineteenth-century group took their name from a fifteenth-century Scottish group of rebels who masked their subversive activities by pretending to be colliers.

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Signora Bilenchi remembers Pasta alla Puttanesca

Above: Mrs. and Mr. Bilenchi with their son Robert in Brooklyn in 1969.

When it comes to the origins of many of the classic Italian dishes that we all know and love, it’s nearly impossible to identity the etymon — the origin, the fons origo, the spring from which it sprang. Such is the case with Spaghetti alla Carbonara, for example: to my knowledge, no scholar has been able to trace its history with even the remotest semblance of certainty. In fact, as gastronomic philologists, all we know with certainty is what we don’t know about many of the great recipes of the Italian culinary canon.

Such is the case for Pasta alla Puttanesca: you may remember my post in which I traced all the historical data I could gather on the origins of this dish we all love so much.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a time of intensified awareness of the gastronomy that surrounds us. Not since the Italian Renaissance has Western Civilization devoted so much attention (and scholarship) to the foods that we eat. During the 20th century, when dishes like Carbonara and Puttanesca became so popular, we all lived in a culinary dark ages — when scholarship ignored the workaday aspects of our nutriment. BTW, for the record, neither Artusi (whose cookbook was compiled in 1891) nor Cavalcanti (1837) mention either Puttanesca or Carbonara.

The other day, a reader from Detroit — a Brooklyn native born to a Neapolitan mother, Robert Bilenchi — left the following comment on the post. I love his idea of trying to document the dish’s origins by interviewing folks who were living in Italy in the periods between the two wars and after the second world war. In the truest spirit of philology (the love of words), I asked Robert for some photographs of his mother and permission to post them here with his mother’s observations.

My mother is 93 and is still living. She was born in 1917. She remembers this dish, Spaghetti [alla] Puttanesca as a child and a young adult in Naples Italy. My parents made the dish when I was growing up in New York in the ’50s. So how then does this dish get to be invented in the ’50s? My parents were not well connected enough to have received the recipe from any Italian chef who might have been associated with the alleged inventor. Someone needs to do a survey of older Italians born prior to the ’30s to refute the ’50s story of the invention of Spaghetti [alla] Puttanesca. The Annarita Cuomo story appears to be erroneus. Sandro Petti did not invent the dish and though a study may have found the dishes popularity to have swelled in the ’60s, this does not show it was invented just prior to that time. Let’s do a study while these people are still alive.

Click here to read my original post.

In his own words, Robert is “a retired engineer living in Dearborn Michigan. I grew up in Brooklyn NY with my parents and 2 brothers. We all were spoiled on my mother’s cooking and we each learned to cook her specialties hanging onto her apron strings.”

Thanks for reading! Buona domenica, ya’ll!