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Grana Padano

The mysterious origin of a popular dish


In terms of culinary literature, Carbonara has a very recent history. No cookbooks older than 50 years give reference to its recipe, at least not with this name. There are indeed various legends circulating about the origins of the dish but, as emerged from a recent debate among ithefs-gvci members, none of them is very credible.

The book Cucina Teorico Pratica, edited by Ippolito Cavalcanti (1836)
The book "Cucina Teorico Pratica",
edited by Ippolito Cavalcanti (1836)

A Neapolitan connection: there is a school of thought claiming that a Carbonara, although not with this name, is among the recipes of La Cucina Teorico Pratica, a book edited in 1837 by the Neapolitan Ippolito Cavalcanti, Duke of Buonvicino. That recipe though doesn’t have pancetta nor guanciale and the eggs are overcooked, so it’s basically another dish. Nevertheless, at least in terms of ingredients, it can be considered the forerunner of modern Carbonara. Cavalcanti’s recipe in reality appears very similar to the traditional pasta cooked with “unto e uovo”, “grease and egg”. “Unto e uovo was the predecessor of Carbonara”, said Luigi Cremona, a highly respected Italian gastronomic journalist, intervening in the Italian GVCI Forum. “Before pancetta or guanciale, two hundred years ago, lard was used instead”, adds Mr Cremona.

Drying pasta in old times
Drying pasta in old times

The charcoal origin: the basis of the word Carbonara is carbone – charcoal. Legend has it that this way of cooking pasta was very popular among Roman Carbinai, men who worked in the bush, carbonising wood to produce charcoal. But the connection is not very convincing. Firstly there were no many bushes around Rome. Second, carbinai, charcoal makers, were seasonal workers, who lived away from their homes for months on end with limited access to fresh eggs, not to mention to the other ingredients.

Carlo Raspollini, gastronomy expert and TV writer
Carlo Raspollini, gastronomy
expert and TV writer

Others say that Carbonara comes from Carbonari, which has the same meaning as carbinai, but was used for the underground Italian insurgents fighting for independence from the Austrians two hundred years ago. However, no proof has been found of any association of Carbonara with them. In 2005 an Italian Magazine stated that Carbonara was born in the Osteria delle Tre Corone, in Fratta Polesine, Province of Rovigo. The evidence presented? One: Carbonari used to have their secret meetings there. Two: the Osteria is still open today and occasionally offers pasta alla Carbonara (with sacrilegious… panna – cream). Both don’t establish any sound connection. Finally some say that Carbonara comes from the color of pepper that must be sprinkled abundantly over the dish. But TV culinary writer Carlo Raspollini doesn’t agree: “In the past pepper was a very expensive spice, and therefore exclusively for the rich”, he says. “Carbonara instead was a poor peasant dish. Pepper was added later”. Mr Raspollini doesn’t believe either that the dish is of Roman origin; “It was born in Latium possibly, or perhaps in Umbria, but hardly in the Capital”.

The American origin: culturally, this legend is the hardest to believe. Apparently, in 1944 when the US Army arrived in Rome, American soldiers mingled their scrambled eggs and bacon with pasta and suddenly the Italians copied them. Of course no one explains why then a dish of this origin got called Carbonara.

Rosario Scarpato