Carbonara recipe – the myths, tips, and faking it

Carbonara Finta - when it's OK to fake it

The story behind how Carbonara was created is almost as great as the delicious Italian recipe itself!

The story goes that at the end of the war, American soldiers in Italy were craving a good ol’ fashioned fry up for breakfast. They thus gave bacon and eggs to an Italian chef who, unaware of the unsavoury thought of eating a savoury breakfast*, no doubt shrugged his shoulders in wonder at what could be made with these ingredients.

Being in Italy, the conclusion he arrived at was pasta. You can just imagine the surprise the American soldiers must have had when the chef presented them with a plate of spaghetti! And their ensuing delight when they tasted the delicious results.

Making the traditional carbonara is really simple. You can whip up the dish in less time than it takes to cook spaghetti to al dente perfection. Over time, many variations have arisen and so we thought we would look at some the tips and myths on making the best carbonara.

For the purists, contrary to many recipes you may find, there is no cream in the ‘true’ carbonara recipe, nor is there chopped garlic.

The creamy consistency comes from mixing whisked eggs and the cheese onto just-cooked hot spaghetti so that the egg mix becomes nice and creamy. There are some carbonara variations abroad that have seen this dish be made with cream in place of or as well as the eggs however.

The garlic is used whole and tossed in with the pan you cook your pancetta in to give a subtle garlic flavour, but is not actually added into the dish itself.

For a vegetarian version, you will need to cook diced zucchini/courgette in place of the pork. If you find peas more pleasing, you could try using peas instead.

Italians outside of the Lazio region (where Rome is located) may use Parmesan cheese in place of the Pecorino Romano typically added into this top Italian recipe, or may combine the two.

A special secret to making the best carbonara is a adding in a little freshly-grated nutmeg into the mixture for an extra dash of deliciousness. And don’t ever underestimate the benefits of a good quality freshly-grated pepper.

To avoid ending up with scrambled eggs over your spaghetti, don’t put the spaghetti back on the heat once you’ve added in the egg mix. If you find however that the egg mix is not becoming creamy enough as it coats the hot spaghetti, then you can place the spaghetti over a very, very low flame for just a second, then remove, stir the spaghetti (or expertly toss it around with a flick of the wrist, as you prefer) and repeat once or twice until you have a creamier consistency.

As to instructions on making the simple and traditional carbonara recipe, most experts agree on:

For 4 people, set a large pot of water to boil.

Take 150 grams of pancetta (or bacon if you prefer a less fatty version – although in Italy, ‘bacon’ as the Anglo-Saxon world knows it, doesn’t really exist) and heat in a non-stick pan, in which you have added two whole cloves of garlic. You can use a dash of oil if you want but the pork will release a little fat as it cooks anyway.

Once browned, remove from the heat and set aside.

When the water has reached a rolling boil, throw in a good handful of rock salt. You can use a little less salt than you’d usually use as the pancetta and cheese will add some salt to the dish anyway.

Throw in the spaghetti, around 350 grams for 4 people, checking the time needed to make the pasta perfectly al dente.

Next, take 4 egg yolks and  1 whole egg. Combine in a bowl with 100 grams of pecorino cheese – or 50 grams of pecorino and 50 grams of parmesan, as you prefer. Add pepper to taste. Here’s where you’d add in a dash of nutmeg too if you’d like.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and pour into the bowl with the egg mixture. Add in the pancetta. Stir well. Serve and marvel at how clever you are to make such a fantastic pasta dish that is so easy to make!

A light un-wooded chardonnay is arguably the best white wine to enjoy with carbonara, however we advise as much experimentation on this point as you feel is responsibly required.

Now, something that tastes truly so great cannot be (and indeed, is not) all that great for you. With the pasta, pancetta, eggs and cheese, this is not the most diet-friendly recipe around. If you’d like to try a low-fat version of carbonara, which is also good for those who are not so keen not-really-well-cooked uncooked eggs,  then you may like the less calorific ‘Carbonara Finta’ – fake carbonara!

The mixture for Carbonara Finta, ready to coat spaghetti perfectly cooked 'al dente'

Head to your nearest Italian delicatessen and buy really fresh ricotta cheese. You’ll also need a dash of saffron, and salt and pepper, and of course, pancetta (or bacon).

Cook the spaghetti and pancetta as above.

In a bowl, mix the saffron into the ricotta and stir until you get a nice egg-yolk golden creamy mixture. Season with salt and pepper, and once your spaghetti is cooked al dente, drain then mix the mixture over the pasta, along with the pancetta. Stir well. Serve and marvel at how clever you are to make such a fantastic lower-fat version that is so easy to make!

To learn about the traditional Italian ingredients and learn to make delicious, typical dishes before indulging in a delicious meal made by you, we have hands-on cooking classes in Florence.

To taste Italian cuisine in situ, we have the Best of Tuscany small-group tour, a small-group full-day tour of the Tuscan countryside from Florence visiting famous hilltop towns in Tuscany known for producing typical tasty products, and being generally stunning.

Enjoy a top-quality Tuscan lunch when you join us for a Original Tuscany Bike Tour – a small-group guided bike tour through Tuscany including lunch and wine tasting or Tuscany Bike Ride and Villa Swim.  You can opt to skip the bike riding in Tuscany and head straight to the pool side for our Bella Vita Wine Tour and Villa Swim or simply enjoy La Dolce Vita Villa Swim and Lunch.

Stroll through the Tuscan countryside,  join us for a Perfect Morning in Tuscany small-group walking tour. Leaving from Florence’s city centre and heading to the surrounding countryside, this small-group walking tour includes, well, walking in Tuscany, as well as lunch with wine at a stunning Renaissance Villa Estate, accompanied by an expert tour guide.

The Taste of Tuscany at the Villa wine tour offers, well, a Taste of Tuscany at a Villa and is a small-group wine tour visiting an exclusive villa estate.

To explore Rome’s amazing historical city centre packed with great historical must-see sites such as The Coliseum, the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, we have small-group Rome guided tours with a great tour guide, and guided small-group, skip-the-line tour of the Vatican where you can see more classic artworks in the Vatican Museum with a great tour guide.

To explore more areas of Italy, can check out our Artviva Walking Tours website to read more about the tours we have to offer in Florence, RomeVeniceCinque Terre, Umbria, Naples, Pompeii and more. We also have a great range of fantastic private tours that cater to your every desire. From Florence (and Tuscany) to RomeVenice to the Cinque Terre and beyond, we are at your beck and call.


* Italians love their brioche, a flaky sweet pastry which forms a typical Italian breakfast combined with the morning-only cappuccino.

You may also like