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The Strands of Luxury

If any dish deserves a glorious new vogue, carbonara is it.

October 02, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

We weren't wrong to fall in love with spaghetti carbonara in the 1970s. We were early. We did it before we realized that Parmesan is better grated from a block of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano than shaken from a can.

And we were innocent. We couldn't quite keep our sauces straight. Often as not, we substituted carbonara's eggs for the cream of a fettuccine Alfredo, exchanging a supple texture for a heavy one. As for what we did to the noodles, adding oil to the cooking water, flinging partly cooked spaghetti at the wall convinced that a done strand would stick, then rinsing this flogged pasta in cold water.... Your honor, we seek the mercy of the court. We were young.

Then came Italian chemist Marcella Hazan, so beloved even strangers call her Marcella. Her meticulous series of books on Italian food, starting in the 1970s and progressing through the '80s and '90s, introduced Americans to the kind of Italian food that Italians might actually recognize. She won my heart with spaghetti carbonara. She offered a recipe radically different from the heavy, salty-sweet American standard, while raising a skeptical eyebrow over its supposed origin as a World War II dish concocted by Italians for American servicemen yearning for bacon and eggs. She describes the earthy flavor as "unmistakably Roman."

But by the time Hazan fixed the recipe, and the right ingredients found their way into stores, America was abandoning the dish. Young cooks were too busy discovering osso buco, risotto and baby artichokes to bother with a pasta synonymous with restaurants that had canned peas on the menu and "My Way" on the jukebox.

If fashion wasn't hard enough on spaghetti carbonara, do-gooders weighed in. Health officials began to rumble ominously about perils posed by fresh eggs, and dietitians stepped up scolding about the deleterious effects of fat and salt. Carbonara was not just out--it was, we were led to believe, out to get us.

Ah, if only a steaming plate of it would mug me this very minute. I can think of no better food. That an entire generation has missed out on the dish seems unfathomable, faintly criminal, every bit as wrong as the worst excesses inflicted on the dish by my own generation and my parents' before Hazan came along. If any food got a bum rap, spaghetti carbonara is it. If any dish deserves rehabilitation, a glorious new vogue, this is it.

First, forget the stuff about it being heavy. It's a light dish, light enough to have been a traditional starter. Moreover, food poisoning from the eggs is the remotest of risks, unless the cook cracks the eggs hours before making it, then leaves them sitting around.

But spaghetti carbonara isn't a dish for newborns, convalescents or people who have a fearful relationship with food. It's for food lovers. It's food best eaten warm, right from the stove, in the kitchen, as dinner for two. The preparation of spaghetti carbonara could not be more congenial. It comes replete with its own dynamic, its own tantalizing tempo and heady succession of good smells.

Always start by setting out a large pot of water on the stove. It will be boiling by the time you need it. By the time the cork is squeaking in the Chianti bottle or some robust tannic red--a food wine--the air should be moist, with steam running down the windowpanes. As your guest swirls the first taste of wine, you are tossing out the garlic from the infused oil and adding the pancetta.

Your guest suddenly looks wolfish. For mercy's sake, give the guest some olives! Better yet, hand over the watercress so the guest can pluck off the stems and drop the leaves into a bowl for quick tossing with olive oil and red wine vinegar. Served as a main course, the only thing you'll need with spaghetti carbonara is a side dish, or palate cleanser, of a watercress salad. Arugula works too. But not lettuce. It needs to be a peppery green.

The pancetta's ready. The parsley is chopped. You cut a slice of Parmesan for your guest to nibble, then hand him the grater, the Parmesan and the Romano. This second cheese, the slightly sharp sheep's milk answer to Parmesan, will give the dish some piquancy.

You've got a steaming pot to check. You raise the lid, making sure the water level is still high. Pasta needs room to cook properly. You add a dramatic dash of salt, which causes the water to roil--you feel like a magician. It subsides, and you slip in the pasta and adjust the heat so the pot doesn't boil over. Most important, you stir it with a long-handled spoon and set the lid at an angle for the steam to escape.

Now you crack your eggs into a serving dish--Hazan prefers a flat ceramic roasting dish to a bowl; easier to toss. You add the grated cheese, the parsley and the pepper, tell your guest a story, listen and laugh. Reheat the pancetta that you've deglazed with a splash of white wine. Toss back the last of your first glass of wine.

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