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FOOD & DRINK

Ask an Italian: What are the unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara?

In honour of world carbonara day on April 6th, one Italian food writer shares his advice on how to recreate the Roman classic without causing offence.

Ask an Italian: What are the unbreakable rules for making real pasta carbonara?
Do you know which ingredients to put in - and keep out of - a classic carbonara? Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

There are countless variations on the pasta alla carbonara recipe out there. But if you want to do as the Romans do, there are some rules to keep in mind.

READ ALSO: ‘Disgusting knockoffs’: Italians warn foreign cooks over carbonara recipes

Classic carbonara, typical of Rome and its surrounding Lazio region, is made with eggs, pork cheek (guanciale), pecorino cheese and pepper – and, as any Italian will tell you, absolutely no cream.

But unorthodox adaptations of Rome’s signature dish famously leave Italian gourmands feeling nauseated – and furious.

Italian chefs recently reminded foreigners attempting the recipe to “keep things simple” in order to prevent their take on the recipe from becoming an “insult”.

The Local asked Italian food writer Roberto Serra from Eatalian with Roberto what exactly non-Italians need to know before they can call a dish a “real” Roman-style carbonara,

Here, Roberto gives us his translation of a widely-shared Italian social media post listing the ‘decalogue’, or the ten golden rules for making carbonara, which he describes as an example of “typical Roman humour”.

The ten carbonara commandments:

  1. “Always use guanciale, not bacon – if we meant bacon, we would have gone to the USA (guanciale is the pork cheek, while bacon is part of the belly).
  2. No parmigiano reggiano, just pecorino cheese. Anyone who says “half and half” has something to hide. (I love Parmigiano Reggiano, I even wrote a guide about it, but always remember that Italian food is regional: with carbonara you are in Lazio, so don’t use cheese from Emilia Romagna.)
  3. Never cook the egg, it is not an omelette! (That’s why the final step is after you turn the heat off, it must be creamy…)
  4. No garlic, no onion, it’s not a ragù!
  1. No oil, no butter, no lard. Just the fat from guanciale. (Cook the guanciale at medium heat and it will release enough fat.)
  2. No spicy pepper, it is not Calabrian (i.e. not from the southern region of Italy famous for spicy foods).
  3. No spices other than black pepper are allowed.
  4. Anyone who adds cream should go to jail (you know, we take food seriously, sometimes too much…).
  5. Never, ever say ‘carbonara’ and ‘vegan’ in the same sentence.
  6. Tonnarelli, spaghetti, bucatini, rigatoni (four different shapes of pasta) are all good, just don’t overcook it!”

For more tips on executing the perfect pasta alla carbonara yourself, see here for Roberto’s classic recipe.

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FOOD & DRINK

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.

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