Friday, February 19, 2010

Coal Miner Pasta

One of the best things about getting married is being engaged. A few weeks ago, friends threw us a big party, and last night, my friend Bob Brano organized with another engaged couple a dinner with friends at Melograno. It is a wonderful Italian BYO with a concentration on Tuscan and Roman dishes. I brought a couple of bottles of Ruffino, in the style of the place, and, in the style of Episcopalians, they were opened well before ordering. The open kitchen stands at the end of the room, and it seemed like our seating, at 6:30, was the earliest. Every table seated had their menu and the cooks stood at attention, staring out into the audience, awaiting the mass firing of orders that they knew would hit all at once.

After ordering everything got very quiet as all four waiters approached the kitchen pass with their order pads. Then, like an orchestra, you could hear burners flickering, pans clinking, and that beautiful sound of the first sizzle of saute. The kitchen erupted into full force, and the smells so well utilized in an open kitchen scenario filled the room with pure Italy.

To start I had the squid and shrimp salad, served warm with tomato, garlic and Tuscan white bean. Excellent flavor, and tart with a perfect amount of lemon. The carne that jumped out at me was coniglio ripieno, a roasted stuffed rabbit. Unfortunately, the tip had been a little burned. This could have been a cook's error on such a busy night, but rather the owner needed to replace the salamander (overhead broiler) which was heating the meats unevenly. I had an espresso with excellent crema (the foam created by the pressure of the espresso machine...not milk obviously). For dessert, a great trio of gelato: pumpkin, vanilla and cappuccino.

The only question I had was my friend's spaghetti alla carbonara. The homemade pasta was great, but the sauce salty, pork minimal and cheese grated too large. Maybe I am biased having grown up in Rome, the origin of the dish, and I happen to have a mother whose version is a masterpiece. All three of her sons have called her at least once out of college for the recipe attempting to swoon a young lady. My sister, who spent half her junior year studying in Rome, made a hundred dollar phone call back home for instructions on the prized dish. From Rome! That's how good it is.

It is called spaghetti alla carbonara for unknown reasons. Some believe that it is the coal miners sooty hands that leave black speckles (pepper) on the white plate. The first recorded recipe came right after WWII, because of the eggs and bacon eaten regularly by GIs during the occupation. The restaurant Carbonara in Rome has a fantastic recipe used since the war. Now, depending where you are in Italy, the cream can be added (Parma) or not used (Lazio). My mom used the cream because she is brilliant. I taught this recipe to 7 cooks in a Rwandan kitchen who couldn't believe their taste buds. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the recipe that will change your life.

Mama Lucy's Spaghetti alla carbonara
1.) 1 pound spaghetti
2.) 1/2 pound bacon or pancetta, small dice
3.) 1 clove garlic, minced
4.) 1/2 cup white wine
5.) 3 egg yolks
6.) 1 cup cream
7.) 1 cup parmegiano, finely grated
8.) salt and pepper to taste
9.) 1/4 bunch parsley, coarse chop

Boil 1. in salted water. In a medium saute pan, add 2. and cook till just brown. Add 3. and saute until translucent. Add 4., cook till almost glazed, and turn off fire. Should still be very moist. Whisk 5., 6. and 7. together. In a serving bowl, add cooked spaghetti with 1 Tablespoon of the cooking water. Toss. add the bacon pan with all juices and fat. Toss. Add cream mixture. Toss. Add 8. to perfection. Garnish with 9. and fresh ground black pepper.
Buon appetito.


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