Eggs, cheese, bacon and black pepper. Those are the components that go into pasta carbonara, a classic Italian dish that's a real crowd pleaser.
But what's pleasing to the public isn't always fulfilling for creatively inclined chefs. And so they come up with variations, some very faithful to the original dish and some so different that few diners would think to make the comparison. But they all sound delicious.
"My style is to be anything but beholden to authenticity," says Matthew Accarrino, executive chef at SPQR in San Francisco, "and my inclination is to shy away from anything that would start a comparison. If you sit in my restaurant comparing my carbonara to the 10 other carbonara pastas you've had in your life, I would submit you're no longer in my restaurant; you've gone somewhere else. Hopefully my food is singular enough to keep you in that experience."
Accordingly, Accarrino's riff on carbonara is listed as smoked fettuccine, sea urchin, smoked bacon and quail egg. "I like the dish to speak for itself," he said.
"This didn't start as a carbonara, but as intuition about flavors I like," Accarrino says. "I love sea urchin as an ingredient; it's one of my favorite reasons to be on the West Coast. And I noticed how creamy sea urchins made pasta. And American bacon isn't traditional to carbonara in any way, but who doesn't like bacon? But I wanted the smokiness to be more pronounced, so I got the idea of smoking the pasta flour to reinforce that flavor.
"A traditional carbonara would have egg, but the sea urchin is really the egg in this dish. So with smoked-flour pasta, bacon and sea urchin, it only made sense to put black pepper in at that point. And I thought, what if I put a quail egg on top? To me, a whole hen egg would turn the dish into soup, but the quail egg is just enough."
Pascal Lorange's Fig & Olive restaurant mini-chain includes three locations in New York City, one in Scarsdale, N.Y., and one in West Hollywood, Calif. — with a Newport Beach, Calif., store aiming for a November debut — and every one of them features Lorange's fettuccine with grilled shrimp, tomatoes and rosemary-infused mascarpone cheese. It doesn't sound at all like a carbonara, but Lorange says carbonara was part of the inspiration.
"I wanted something creamy and cheesy, and I came up with that," he says. "It's much lighter because there's no egg; the rosemary mascarpone, cut with a little shrimp broth to be lighter, gives the dish its creaminess. We use our own fettuccine, and we buy heirloom tomatoes from a farm in California and an Amish farm in New York."
"I guess I like to call my carbonara the ultimate bachelor pasta," says Carlo Espinas, chef at Comstock Saloon in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, "because you can make it with ingredients you have on hand. You usually have some bacon around, some salted pork if you're lucky, and any kind of greens."
Espinas' carbonara begins with fusilli pasta and adds house-smoked bacon or guanciale, Parmesan-egg sauce, black pepper, some olive oil and pasta water, and a vegetable of some sort.
"I usually want to add in something green — broccoli, turnip greens or artichokes," Espinas says. "Artichokes have roots in Roman cuisine as well, so it ties in that way too. We usually feature it on our Sunday menu, which is our home-cooking day, and it's featured in our free-lunch Fridays, when you order two drinks and get a plate of food."
Luigi Diotaiuti, chef/owner of Al Tiramisu in Washington, D.C., says he prefers minimal changes to classic dishes.
"I always try to give respect to the food," he says, "but, during the years of my career, I've made a few adjustments (to the classic carbonara recipe). For instance, I cure my own duck-breast prosciutto, so I'll use that instead of traditional guanciale. The prosciutto is beautiful and tender, and everyone can eat it, even people who are avoiding pork.
"Of course, some people want no bacon or eggs. So I make a vegetarian version, and what I do is put a little saffron in water for 10 or 15 minutes, and then add whole milk, cheese and pepper to the pasta. You get that same yellow color but no eggs or bacon. Personally, it's my least-favorite variation, but it can be interesting too."
Executive chef Trevor Ogden of Chambers Eat + Drink in San Francisco does a carbonara variation that's pasta-free; instead, the chef uses spaghetti squash. "It's like a carbonara, but with the squash there's no gluten, and it's lighter," he says.
"It's plated like a carbonara," Ogden says, "except we use a wheel of pancetta instead. We shave Estero Gold (an Asiago-style California cheese) over the top with basil oil, micro basil from the farmers market, a 70-minute sous-vide egg and a little cracked pepper.
"And I make chile flakes from dried sweet peppers and spicy aji amarillo peppers. You take a fork and break into the egg; the yolk is warm and makes the squash a bit creamier."
But how do diners receive twists like sea urchin? "For me, the magic is when somebody comes in and tastes the dish," Accarrino says. "Some people instantly says it's kind of like carbonara, and to them it's comforting. And some just don't get that reference at all, and they just enjoy the pasta.
"It makes me thankful that I don't write 'carbonara' on the menu. I don't want people comparing the validity of my food against some other model; I want them to enjoy my food. And that's why I cook."
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