Spaghetti carbonara is a dead simple dish that’s as satisfying to eat in the middle of the night as it is at breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Its origins are murky, but some say the meal – a relative newcomer to the Italian repertoire – may have, in fact, been developed at the end of World War II with the American palate in mind, as a somewhat tastier outlet for U.S. Army–ration bacon and powdered eggs.
Mark Ladner, chef at Del Posto in New York, created his carbonara recipe when he ran the kitchen at Lupa in the city’s West Village. Unlike some bastardized American riffs, you won’t find butter, white wine, or cream in Ladner’s dish; instead, he uses just four basic ingredients: cured pork (Ladner uses guanciale, or unsmoked pig jowl, but pancetta will work in a pinch), eggs, cheese, and black pepper. “I have a sort of inferiority complex about not having lived in Italy,” says Ladner, “so I’m twice the geek about authenticity.”
Ladner’s carbonara begins with top-quality dried spaghetti; he gets his from Martelli, a small producer in Pisa whose pasta, Ladner says, “stays al dente for a very long time.” He uses small, room-temperature eggs (“if the eggs are too big, they’ll cool the pasta”) and primo Tellicherry peppercorns from India (if you can’t find them locally, try penzeys.com). Pancetta is widely available in grocery stores, but for the more esoteric guanciale you might have to head to an Italian specialty shop (or online at salumicuredmeats.com, the Seattle-based company run by Batali’s dad Armandino). As for cheese, carbonara purists are divided between sheep’s milk pecorino and cow’s milk Parmigiano-Reggiano. Ladner prefers an equal mix. “You get the sharpness of the sheep’s milk and the creaminess of the cow’s milk, which also helps emulsify the sauce.”
The basic ratios are easy: one egg and a tablespoon each of cured pork and grated cheese for every four-ounce serving of dried pasta. Kick things off by bringing a pot of at least four quarts of “seawater salty” water to boil (sea salt or coarse kosher salt is ideal). Add the pasta, twirling with tongs after a minute to prevent the strands from sticking. While that boils, slice your cured pork into thick half-inch-long strips, then pile them into the center of a sauté pan to render slowly over medium heat in a splash of extra-virgin olive oil.
After five minutes, much of the fat should have melted, leaving the meat fully cooked and crispy. Pour off half the fat and add a very generous three or four pepper mill twists of coarsely ground pepper. “You want the pepper infusing the oil,” says Ladner. To stop the cooking process, add a spoonful of pasta water and remove the pan from the heat. To check your spaghetti, Ladner suggests biting a strand and looking for the “white spot, the heart, the pearl” in the middle. If you can still see the pearl, cook the pasta a bit longer until it’s just uniformly opaque but still al dente.
Drain the pasta (reserving the cooking water), add it to the sauté pan, and cook over medium-low heat. Crack in the eggs, gently stirring as you add a few more drops of pasta water until the sauce takes on a silky, emulsified consistency (about five minutes), being careful not to scramble the eggs. “If the sauce is too thick, just add more water,” Ladner says. “You want it to be supple.”
Remove the pan from the heat, add the cheese, and pile the tossed pasta into a wide-rim shallow bowl to serve. Another option, says Ladner, is to serve the dish with the egg yolk on top, as Batali has often done, instead of mixed into the pasta. “In my humble opinion,” says Ladner, “it’s one of the finest dishes in the Western world.”