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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Quo vadis romae? An app for the Rome-bound pilgrim.

Above: Rome is the most beautiful city in the world, imho, and it’s the greatest place in the world to drink Italian wine. I snapped this shot of the Colosseum when I was there last September.

Quo vadis romae? (Where are you going, Rome-bound pilgrim?)

It seems that nearly every week I receive a message from a romeo or romea — a Rome-bound pilgrim (pronounced roh-MEH-oh, btw), the original meaning of the proper name that Shakespeare’s play made so famous in the English language.

Yesterday, I received two (no kidding)! In both emails, the romeos asked me where to eat and drink in the Eternal City.

Above: Katie Parla is my go-to when I go to Rome. Here’s the post about our amazing dinner at Pizzeria La Fucina last year.

As much I know and love Rome (I spent six months studying the Petrarchan manuscripts at the Vatican library when I was a Fulbright fellow) and as much I know and love the wine and restaurant scene there (it is, imho, the greatest city of Italian wine), ubi major, minor cessat: my favorite expert on all things Roman, the inimitable (and aptly named) Katie Parla has released a Rome guide app for smartphones.

I highly recommend her blog and her app. She is my number-one resource for what’s cool and cutting edge in the Roman food and wine scene.

Above: Rome always takes my breath away. I snapped the above photo in September.

On this Good Friday, it seemed appropriate to post about Rome and Katie’s blog.

My best advice about visiting Rome? When a Roman cab driver takes you the long way so that he can charge you a little bit extra, he’s not ripping you off: he’s showing you around the most beautiful city on earth.

A pizza revolution in Rome?

Above: Pizza (?) with mortadella (mortazza in Roman) and pistachios at Pizzeria La Fucina is all the rage in Rome.

Since I had to return my rental car to Rome before heading north today, I decided to treat myself to an evening in the Eternal City (one of my fav places on earth), where I connected for dinner with my go-to-ex-pat-blogger when it comes to where to eat and drink in the City on the Tiber, Katie Parla. (I owe my connection to Katie to our mutual friend and fellow Italian enogastronomic journeyman Michael Housewright.)

Katie suggested that we hit Pizzeria La Fucina, one of the more controversial pizza destinations in the pizzaiolo universe.

Italy, after all, is where the true “pizza wars” are being waged.

Above: The margherita at Fucina isn’t exactly what you would call a “traditional” expression of the hallowed pizzaiolo legacy.

Fucina and its owner Edoardo Papa have been pushing the envelope of pizza and its cultural significance in Italy in all sorts of ways. I guess it really comes down to your definition of what pizza is is. The toppings are decidedly not traditional (like the pizza with mortazza and pistachios, above, the venue’s signature dish), the artisanal beer list is impressively lengthy and entirely awesome, and Edoardo encourages pairing wine and pizza with a beefy wine list that includes some unusual selections (for any pizzeria let alone a pizzeria in Rome), like Cappellano Dolcetto (!) and Etna Rosso by Terre Nere.

Above: Whether or not there’s a true pizza revolution happening in Rome has yet to be seen but there’s no doubt that an artisanal beer movement has taken flight. The beer was super delicious, salty, and crunchy.

“Pizza and beer is not the ideal pairing,” said Edoardo, noting that “it’s not good for the stomach to pair yeast with yeast.”

I didn’t bother pointing out that the yeast isn’t active in the beer nor in the pizza, nor did I bring to his attention the fact that yeast is also employed (whether by nature or by humankind) in the vinification of grape must. (He is a papa, after all, in the papal city.)

Above: Katie’s blog is a great resource for anyone traveling to Rome. I highly recommend it. Between the two of us taking photos of our pizza, it was like a scene out of the movie Man Bites Dog (remember that one?). Her lens is bigger than mine though.

I’m not really sure how I feel about Fucina: the dishes were more like savory flatbread than pizza. They were tasty and I really loved the feel of the restaurant and the good vibes of the waitstaff (not always easy to find in Rome). But I’d definitely recommend checking it out for the culinarily adventurous (it’s a hike to get out there from downtown Rome but well worth experiencing a real slice of Roman life, pun intended).

I’m on a train making my way to Padua now to visit with friends and will be taking a few days off. The next leg of my trip will take me even farther north…

See you on the other side and happy new year everyone!

Wine in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita

marcello mastroianni

Tracie B and I have been taking it easy these days, staying in, cooking at home, and just enjoying these first quiet days and nights of 2010 in the last month of our lives together before we get married. :-)

Last night, Tracie B made an excellent dinner of boneless chicken breasts sautéed and deglazed in white wine with mushrooms (fresh cremini and dried porcini), wilted and sautéed curly-leaf spinach (slightly bitter and a perfect complement to the glaze of the chicken) and a light rice pilaf, paired with a 2005 Sassella by Triacca.

Triacca is actually a Swiss winery, located just on the other side of the border in Valtellina. I’ve not tasted its higher-end La Gatta, which sees some time in new wood according to its website, but I like the Sassella, which is vinified in a light, fresh style. (By no means a natural wine, btw, as many would think, since it’s imported by Rosenthal, but a real and honest wine, nonetheless.)


After dinner, as we continued to sip the Sassella, we watched Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), in my view, one of his most misunderstood films and not his greatest, although certainly the most famous in the Anglophone world because of its cross-over success and Fellini’s break from neorealism with this work.

I hadn’t seen the movie in years and although I don’t think it’s one of Fellini’s masterworks (in fact, I think it’s a bit heavy-handed, too engagé, and facile in some moments), I do think it’s a wonderful movie that gorgeously captures a fundamental moment — in its beauty and its ugliness — in Italy’s revival and renewal after the Second World War. (La Dolce Vita is more interesting, in my view, for the hypertexts it spawned than the movie itself, but that’s another story for another time.)

I must have seen the movie a thousand times and I used to teach it when I was grad student at U.C.L.A., way back when. But last night I noticed something I’d never noticed before: in the first true speaking scene (there is some dialogue in the first sequence, when Marcello and Paparazzo ask the girls on the roof for their phone number but the first dialogue, in the conventional sense, takes place in the second sequence, the second “episode,” and the first evening scene), Marcello asks the waiter at the night club what wine he has served to a celebrity couple. “Soave,” answers the waiter. And then, one of the transvestites interrupts him (I believe it’s Dominot) and corrects him: they had a Valpolicella, he tells Marcello.

It’s fascinating (at least to me) to think that in Fellini’s view, celebrities on the Via Veneto in the 1950s would be drinking Soave and/or Valpolicella (wines from the Veneto) when today we wouldn’t associate these appellations with luxury and status. It’s also fascinating to me that the screenwriter doesn’t seem to mind that the one wine is white, the other red. It’s clear that the wines are intended to be a clue to the status of the celebrities and that these details are intended to add color to the world in which Marcello moves.

There’s a subtext here and here is where you need to know Italian history to understand what’s going on and why these wines are significant. (So much of this movie is tied to this particular moment in Italian history and in many ways, it is more of a historical document than it is a pseudo-Freudian or anti-religious movie, as so many American scholars would like you to believe.)

Keep in mind: we are in Rome in the late 1950s and the scars of war were still very fresh in the minds of the characters (let alone the writers and movie-makers).

What was the connection between Rome and Valpolicella (think Lake Garda) that would be immediately apparent to the viewer (bourgeois or proletarian)? (Howard and/or Strappo, thoughts please…)

I’m taking Tracie B to the movies tonight. Guess what we’re going to see? ;-)

Buona domenica a tutti!