Maybe all Italian food qualifies as comfort food -- the good stuff that warms the spirit as it nourishes the body -- so you'll probably think I'm as nutty as pinoli to stand up and declare Spaghetti alla Carbonara the ultimate Italian comfort food.
What, you ask, are you crazy? Are you trying to start something? How can
there be such a designation in such a crowded field? There are all those
wonderful dishes your mama -- or somebody's mama -- used to make: pizza,
minestrone, spaghetti and meatballs, pasta fagioli, polenta and lasagna. They
all could compete for the heavyweight title of Ultimate Italian Comfort Food.
They all warm the soul and fatten the thighs.
Carbonara is a rich dish made from simple ingredients -- eggs, butter
and/or olive oil, cheese, bacon -- and, once these elements become entangled
with hot pasta, they touch the deep senses and take the chill out of my bones.
When I inhale a freshly cooked carbonara, I feel as though I've returned to
some steamy-warm, ancestral kitchen on a little farm in the Roman countryside.
OK, maybe you don't buy the channeling bit. I agree: It's a little too
loopy, in the Shirley MacLaine sense. So let me run this past you: Maybe I
take comfort from this dish because it blends a staple of my Italian ancestors
-- spaghetti -- with a staple of America -- bacon and eggs. In fact, it could
be the Ultimate Italian-American Dish.
I'm not the first to proffer this concept. In 1983, Calvin Trillin, author
of "Third Helpings" and "Alice, Let's Eat," felt such passion for Spaghetti
alla Carbonara that he crusaded to have it replace turkey as the national dish
on Thanksgiving Day.
Consider what some historians accept as the origin of carbonara: In the
waning days of World War II, American soldiers in Rome made nice with local
families, gave them fresh eggs and bacon and asked them to prepare meals. The
locals added the pasta and grated cheese, thereby either inventing a dish or
reviving one that previously had had little exposure among Americans.
Others believe the dish is much older than that, cooked on open fires by
charcoal makers, thus its name. I've also heard the theory that crispy,
carbon-black bacon is what gives the dish its flavor and name.
Whatever its origins -- some say it is unmistakably Roman, others say it
originated in the Lazio region -- Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a wonderful
treat for a winter lunch or supper. It offers a welcome break from the
tiresome tomato sauces that coat most other popular Italian dishes. It's just
not the usual Ragu.
But, I know: It sounds evil, not comforting. My God, bacon and eggs with
parmigiano and pasta?
Yes, and maybe a little butter.
And maybe a little cream!
And some use olive oil. I've heard it called an "Italian heart attack on a
plate." To some, it's Spaghetti Alla Cholesterola! The Ultimate Italian Guilt
But come on, now. Tutto in moderazione. All in moderation.
Spaghetti alla Carbonara is not weekly, even monthly, fare in my house. I
have been blessed with the limit-setting instinct. I know that a steady diet
of this stuff would put me in the cardiac unit at Hopkins, and eventually I'd
be doomed to a diet of Subway sandwiches, like that former big-pants man
So, I make carbonara about twice a year -- about as often as I once
purchased prime lump to make crab cakes.
There's a reason for the crab-cake segue.
Two-and-a-half years ago, when I became convinced that the fishery was in
trouble, I decided to boycott Chesapeake Bay blue crabs. I haven't eaten
Maryland or Virginia crab meat since the summer of 1998.
When I renewed my boycott last year in my column on The Sun's Maryland news
page, I suggested that readers treat themselves to something grand -- a guilty
pleasure -- in lieu of a crab dish. So, instead of crab cakes, I now make
Spaghetti alla Carbonara.