Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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41 Responses

  1. Mike Dwyer says:

    Pasta carbonara was my first real experience in Italian cooking beyond spaghetti and canned sauce. I am not using hyperbole when I say it changed my life. I credit a single meal, around 1994, with making me into a serious foodie.

    Anyway, the recipe you posted is better than the one from France, but I think it’s lacking a bit. You have got to have the onions. This is my go-to, which I contend is the best carbonara on the planet:

  2. Chris says:

    This has been hotly debated among the Italians and people of Italian descent in my social media. Real, proper carbonara is pretty much my favorite pasta dish in the world, but I can’t lie, the French one looks pretty good too.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve learned in all of this is that the dish may have been invented as a way to use powdered eggs from American troops during the occupation of Italy.Report

  3. Damon says:

    Why can’t you find real pancetta Burt?

    Thinking about Italian, I wouldn’t mind some buscetta with spek.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Damon says:

      There is no Italian market here in exurbia. There is a decent grocery store. The butcher there thinks it’s a deli meat because it’s like salami. So she doesn’t think it’s her job to order it or stock it. The service deli manager only orders it irregularly. Most of the time, it’s not in stock at all. Sometimes it’s in the deli case, pre-cubed (albeit cubed smaller than I prefer). If it’s in stock in the case, then the kid who works at the deli counter wants to slice it thin like a salami.

      Which, in the kid’s defense, seems to be a way people really do eat it, sort of like Canadian bacon. But I need it cubed, so it’s a bit of a negotiation with the kid to get it as thick as possible — “I just want a slab of it. Can you just slice a slab off with a knife?” Quizzical look, as though I’d asked for the entire pig, or some bizarre piece of offal. Usually this works out. Alsotoo many of these kids think it’s pronounced “pan-sett-uh” so that’s been an occasional stumbling block in the past.

      But that’s when it’s there at all.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Burt Likko says:


        I think you have arrived at a critical juncture in your development as a cook. It might be time to make your own pancetta. I don’t know if they stock it everywhere but my Costco now carries whole pork belly (they run about $25). A simple cure and a few weeks in the fridge and you’re all set. You can then divide it into manageable sections and freeze.Report

  4. Marchmaine says:

    In saecula saeculorum.

    (Once, when no one was looking, I sauteed diced red peppers with the pancetta).Report

  5. Chris says:

    My (Italian) mother tells the story of making this dish for a group of mothers who met once a week, in either the late 70s and early 80s. Apparently several of the mothers refused to eat it because of the “raw” egg. So my mom had to make it again (for a subsequent group dinner) with poached eggs, which she described as blasphemy.Report

    • Marchmaine in reply to Chris says:

      I want a do-over button for the 70s.

      Besides, if you watch the video, it is clear she is using fresh pastured eggs, not raw eggs. At least that’s what I tell folks who dare question our using eggs from our hens.Report

      • Francis in reply to Marchmaine says:

        Fresh pasta too.

        Anyone have pasta recommendations? I use the boxed stuff, which is just OK.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to Francis says:

          Past few years, I have have really enjoyed the Barilla Protein Plus pastas (the yellow box).

          I’ve tried lots of different whole wheat, etc pastas, and hands down the Barilla is the best of the “not plain white pasta”. It’s just a tiny bit chewy, unless you cook the hell out of it, never gets ‘gluey’, and stands up real well to working in a pan dish, or a casserole, and reheating for lunch the next day.Report

      • I want a do-over button for the 70s.

        And the first half of the 80s, until they hired Roger Craig as a manager.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

      No. I will not poach your egg for a carbonara. I will heat up some tomato sauce out of a jar in the microwave for you instead.

      Then I will eat all of the carbonara myself, while you watch, grossed out at the notion that I’m eating a raw egg, which I’m not.Report

  6. The French should be trying to lower their carbonara footprint.Report

  7. Aaron David says:

    I must have made a thousand Carbs at the restaurant. Never again (or Fet Alfredo, for that manner.)Report

  8. CJColucci says:

    Spaghetti carbonara has been my go-to dish for decades. I ate it often in law school because it was fast, cheap. filling, and delicious. I have used it for seduction and, sometimes, succeeded. I fully endorse the instructions in the video, but, not being a complete purist, I make some room for variation. I don’t think there’s a significant difference between one whole egg and a yolk or two whole eggs. A dash of cream, but no more, is OK if you like it, but not needed. I accept onions as a legitimate addition, and know a place that makes an excellent carbonara with them, but I don’t use them myself. I also like to add a bit of garlic and crushed red pepper to the pancetta, and some white wine, not much, after it browns. Some parsley as a garnish is a nice option as well.
    Now I’m hungry.Report

  9. Stephen says:

    Love your recipe because it’s authentic and delicious. I’ve tried the same thing with a touch of garlic in the oil, and it enhances the dish as long you don’t burn the garlic- which is easy to do. Also, I’ve experimented with really good, thick American bacon instead of pancetta, and I like the American bacon better! Maybe it’s just because that’s what I am accustomed to, having grown up in the USA. To me, I’ve never had pancetta that was a tasty as some of the great American bacons you can get today.

    BTW, I heard from a Florentine chef that it’s called “carbonara” because of the black pepper which is, of course, carbon colored. Does anybody know if this is the actual source of the name?Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Stephen says:

      I’ve heard that the name comes from the coarsely-ground black pepper, and I’ve heard that the name comes from coal miners (carbonari) with whom the dish was popular. But I don’t see coal miners carrying two pans and a pot of water up the mountainside with them to cook their lunch. Some lardo de Colonnata with a hunk of bread and maybe a piece of fruit seems much more likely to have been a miner’s meal, in my opinion. Light enough to easily carry up the mountainside, calorie-dense to keep the miner working.

      I’ve heard stories that the dish originated in World War II, to make use of powdered egg rations that American GI’s gave to Italian families, and others that say the dish came from the peasants of rural Lazio more than a hundred years ago.

      My grandmother reports to me that sometimes her father served pasta carbonara before the war as a special treat, and she hails from coastal Tuscany. I’m not sure how much faith I want to put in her story, as her memory has become quite erratic with the passage of time. She doesn’t like to think about her pre-war and wartime years hardly at all, although I suspect that’s less from the ravages of advanced age robbing her mind of its memories than it is that the memories of those years contain some very, very awful things. I don’t like pushing her to remember those things.

      On the other hand, my grandfather was one of those GI’s. Before he passed away, he told different stories, including many stories of GI’s like himself befriending Italian families and sharing rations with them — but he never mentioned sharing powdered egg rations. Chocolate, coffee, and cigarettes seem to have been the big ones.

      So I don’t know where the dish came from. The legend about the GI’s is a good story, and there’s no better competing story with any real roots in the historical record that I know of, so maybe we just stick with the GI ration card story because there’s no better nor more charming explanation available.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Ever since reading Robert Anton Wilson’s excellent and underappreciated “Historical Illuminatus” books, I’ve had a soft spot for the idea that it was a reference to the Freemason-like secret societies of southern Italy, also known as carbonari (just as the Freemasons used the trappings of stone masonry, the carbonari did the same with charcoal burning).

        Seems unlikely, since apparently the dish is Roman and the secret societies largely sprang from Naples… But according to the Wikipedia page, there’s actually a decent chance that it’s no older than WWII and that any origin story is apocryphal.Report

      • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Sounds much like my mother’s story. She was 13 when the war ended and my grandmother got her apartment back in Paris. All the GIs in Paris were so well fed! And their uniforms were clean and snappy. Everything that she had was dingy and sad. So when she was old enough she joined the French Consulate in New York, did some translation work at the UN, went on a double-date with a friend of hers …. and met my dad.Report

  10. El Muneco says:

    (This was supposed to be a reply. Firefox tab fail on my part)
    Hmm. Just for clarity…
    Thin books, 70s garish psychadelic covers, set in present day (i.e 1970s), lots of drug use, casual sex, and Rand parodies, not heavy on plot, character, or, frankly, coherence? That’s the series he’s famous for, and my college-age self ate it up, but haven’t gone back in more than a decade, since I suspect it will have aged as well as the pop-culture references and background music will have…

    There was a later series, thicker books, subdued black covers, set in the 1770s, and it’s more about what Freemasonry looks like from the POV of a new post-adolescent initiate. Hard to find, because the publishing house that was going to bring out the second went TU between printing and shipping, then the house that picked it up dropped their fiction imprint between the second and third books…

    It’s cool if you bounced off either or both – if we all liked the same thing, there wouldn’t be enough oatmeal in the universe, after all. I call the later series “underappreciated” because the vast majority of people were either disappointed by his earlier work, or because the later series wasn’t more like his earlier work.Report

  11. KatherineMW says:

    I have tried to make carbonara, and it generally turns into alfredo sauce with some scrambled eggs in it. So now I just stick with a basic alfredo sauce.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to KatherineMW says:


      It’s all about the ratio of eggs to pasta and the timing of when you put it all together. I prefer 3 eggs to 1 pound of pasta.Report

      • Stephen in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Essential to the process is tempering the raw eggs/pamagiano- reggiano mixture with the hot pasta. If you just pour one into the other, you get scrambled eggs. The goal is to get a silky egg finish and this is the real skill in preparing the otherwise simple dish.Report