I was about to tuck into a bowl of golden carbonara—spaghetti slathered in gooey egg yolks, dotted with morsels of guanciale, dusted with ground pepper, and topped with pale pecorino sprinkled like freshly fallen snowflakes—when my dining companion asked about the dish’s origins.
We were in Testaccio, a historically working-class neighborhood in Rome that’s known for its erstwhile slaughterhouse and the many legendary restaurants that sprang up here in the late 19th century, including this one, Checchino dal 1887.
“Well,” I said, clearing my throat. “There are a handful of theories. Some people believe the dish was invented in the 19th century by the carbonari, guys who lived outside of Rome and spent long hours making coal. But oddly, one of the first times carbonara appeared as a recipe in Italy was in 1954 in the magazine La Cucina Italiana.”
“Fake news!” someone suddenly interjected. Before I could even see where the booming voice had come from, the speaker repeated his assertion. “This is fake news. Do not listen to this man.”
The voice, it turned out, belonged to Simone Mina, whose family has owned Checchino since it first fired up its pasta-boiling burners in 1887. Mina launched into a rambling soliloquy and promoted an oft-repeated theory that, centuries ago, shepherds in the Roman countryside created something resembling the dish. Clearly, carbonara’s history is complicated. And controversial.
I could understand. About a decade ago, I lived in the Eternal City for a couple of years and became obsessed with carbonara, a classic Roman pasta dish. I loved how the eggs and cheese conspired to create a creamy texture; how the unctuous and fatty pork cheek added saltiness; and how the ground pepper tickled my palate. The dish, made with spaghetti or rigatoni, inevitably set off the most delicious umami bomb in my mouth.