This is our second attempt at this pasta dish, which was originally inspired by the Rigatoni Alla Carbonara we had at Tra Vigne on our trip to Napa earlier this summer. The pasta at Tra Vigne was one of the best meals of the trip, and we were excited to try to recreate it at home. According to Tra Vigne’s menu, their rigatoni includes guanciale bacon, onion, eggs, cracked pepper and Parmesan. Sounds easy enough. So we made a special trip to Central Market to get the guanciale (Italian bacon made from the pig’s jowls or cheeks), researched some recipes and whipped up our first batch of Pasta alla Carbonara. We used all the same carbonara ingredients as Tra Vigne and expected ours to taste at least similar to theirs, even if it didn’t turn out quite as delicious. But ours wasn’t even close. While the pasta at Tra Vigne had a rich and hearty bacon flavor, ours had a slightly gamey taste unlike any bacon we’ve had. Carbonara Fail. Since at first we did not succeed, we tried again — this time using pancetta instead of guanciale, and the result was much more successful. Still not as good as the rigatoni at Tra Vigne, but our second batch was way better than the first — rich and creamy with nice bacon flavor.
The ingredients for Pasta alla Carbonara are very simple: pasta, eggs, Pecorino Romano cheese (Parmesan would also work), white wine, onion, pancetta and salt & pepper. Rather than using the thinly-sliced pancetta usually available at the grocery store, we requested a chunk of it so that we could cut it into cubes that would hold up better in the cooking process and provide a nice texture to the finished dish.
Cut the onion into thin half-circle slices and dice the pancetta into small cubes.
Add a glug of olive oil to a non-stick skillet and heat over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta.
Cook the pancetta over medium heat until it just begins to get crispy — about 8 minutes.
Take the skillet off the heat, move the cooked pancetta to one side of the skillet, then tilt the skillet so the oil accumulates at the other end. Use a large spoon to remove most of the oil, leaving a small amount (1-2 tablespoons-ish) in the skillet. Remove the pancetta from the skillet to a plate lined with paper towels.
Add the onions to the skillet and cook over medium heat for about a minute.
Then add about a cup of white wine to the onions.
Cook until the wine cooks off and the onions begin to brown and soften — about 10 minutes.
Add the pancetta back to the skillet with the onions, stir to combine and reduce heat to low.
Separate the yolks from the whites of 4 eggs and add the yolks to a large bowl with 1 whole egg. For best results, use organic (cage-free) eggs as fresh as possible. To avoid wasting the egg whites, save them in the fridge for an omelette in the morning.
To the egg and yolks in the bowl, add the grated cheese, several grinds of black pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Using a fork or whisk, stir everything together until smooth.
While the onions are cooking, heat the salted water for the pasta. When the onions are about halfway done and the pasta water is boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente.
Before draining the pasta, reserve about a cup of pasta water and set aside.
Drain the pasta. This strainer is handy for draining smaller pots of pasta like this one (it doesn’t really work for big, heavy pots because you have to hold the handle of the pot with one hand and the handle of the strainer with the other.)
While still hot, add the pasta and the pancetta and onion mixture to the bowl with the egg and cheese.
Stir everything together with tongs for about a minute. The heat from the pasta will cook the eggs and help create the sauce.
Add a little of the reserved pasta water if you need to thin out the sauce a bit.
Add salt & pepper to taste, garnish with some additional cheese and serve immediately. This is a hearty dish with rich and silky sauce and meaty flavor from the diced pancetta. I’ll admit I had a bit of trepidation about the raw eggs at first, but they really do get cooked by the heat of the other ingredients and are not raw in the final result. We’re so glad we didn’t get too discouraged by our unsuccessful first attempt and tried again — now we have a delicious recipe that will always remind us of a wonderful trip to a magical place.
Pasta alla Carbonara
- olive oil
- ¼ to ½ pound pancetta, preferably thick cut and diced
- 1 medium onion, cut in half and sliced thinly
- 1 glass of white wine
- 5 eggs total — 4 egg yolks plus 1 whole egg (preferably organic and as fresh as possible)
- ½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano (or Parmesan) cheese, plus more for garnish
- 12 ounces spaghetti
- salt & pepper
- Start by getting the pasta water ready — fill a large pot with water, add salt, cover, and turn on the heat to high.
- Add a small glug of olive oil to a large non-stick skillet and heat over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the pancetta and cook until it just starts to get crispy — about 8 minutes. Take the skillet off the heat, move the pancetta to one side of the skillet and use a spoon to remove all but 1-2 tablespoons of oil from the skillet. Remove the pancetta to a plate lined with paper towels.
- Return the skillet to the stove, add the onions and cook over medium heat for a minute or so. Add the white wine and continue to cook until the wine cooks off and the onions begin to brown and soften — about 10 minutes. Add the pancetta back to the skillet, stir to combine, and reduce heat to low.
- When the onions are almost halfway done, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Right before you drain the pasta, reserve about a cup of the pasta water.
- While the pasta cooks, add the eggs, cheese, a good few grinds of fresh black pepper and a generous pinch of salt to a large bowl. Stir everything together with a fork or whisk until smooth.
- Drain the pasta and add it to the bowl with the egg and cheese mixture. Add the onions and pancetta to the bowl, then stir it all together for about a minute. The heat from the pasta will cook the eggs and create a sauce. Add some of the reserved pasta water to thin out the sauce as needed.
- Add salt & pepper to taste, garnish with additional cheese and serve immediately.