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How to Make an Authentic, Traditional Italian Carbonara

Byron Dean has travelled widely in the Mediterranean, gaining cooking tips from local 'nonnas', shopkeepers and professional chefs alike.

Learn how to make traditional spaghetti carbonara.

Learn how to make traditional spaghetti carbonara.

The Beauty of Italian Cuisine

Food is one of the great pleasures in life. The immense variety of ingredients and dishes across the globe is something to be celebrated and enjoyed. The history behind a dish often offers a unique and fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the people who created it, and the fact that this history can be brought to life in the kitchen and experienced in the present surely makes it all the more exciting.

The beauty of Italian cuisine lies in its simplicity: most dishes contain no more than four to eight ingredients and are relatively quick and straightforward to prepare. Unlike the elaborate haute cuisine of France, which was developed in the expensive kitchens of the bourgeoisie, Italian dishes have usually been passed down the generations by ordinary people, and tend to place greater emphasis on quality, fresh ingredients than complicated, time-consuming preparation.

Italian food is simpler than most people expect.

Italian food is simpler than most people expect.

Traditional Carbonara

The word carbonara is derived from carbonaro, which means charcoal burner. It is thought that the dish was first made by coal workers from Rome in the mid-20th century and cooked over a hardwood charcoal fire. It is an extremely simple but flavourful dish, with its richness deriving from the combination of the smoky flavour of the bacon and the sharp, salty flavour of the cheese.

A few years ago, during my first visit to Rome, I ordered a spaghetti carbonara from a small restaurant in Monti. The subtle contrasts of the flavours and the light, silky texture of the sauce made it unlike any carbonara I had eaten before. When I queried this with the waiter, he explained that carbonara in Italy is still prepared according to the traditional recipe, but that elsewhere in the Western world it is almost always overcomplicated. The addition of cream, garlic and other non-traditional ingredients often results in delicious concoctions, but the delicate flavours of the original dish are entirely overpowered and lost. Most dishes being served as carbonara are so far removed from the original recipe and flavour that they warrant being given a different name altogether. Consequently, most people outside of Italy have no experience with the traditional version.

The addition of non-traditional ingredients like cream is often delicious, but the delicate flavours of the original dish are lost.

The addition of non-traditional ingredients like cream is often delicious, but the delicate flavours of the original dish are lost.

Classic Accompaniments to Carbonara

The Italian meal is all about structure and variety. Italians rarely sit down to eat one large plate of food for their dinner, preferring instead a number of smaller courses.

Pasta dishes like carbonara are likely to be served on their own as a small course or 'primo', to be followed by a plate of meat or fish. For a rich, satisfying meal, a modest plate of carbonara may be followed by a cutlet of pan-fried veal, an eggplant parmigiana or a classic chicken cacciatore.

For something a little lighter, follow up your carbonara with a simple salad—being sure to use some fresh bread to mop up the sauce left in your pasta bowl (or, as the Italians say 'to do the little shoe')!

Traditional Carbonara Recipe

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

5 min

12 min

17 min

4 servings


  • 4 eggs
  • 5 ounces guanciale, pancetta is an acceptable alternative
  • 3 1/2 ounces pecorino cheese
  • Black pepper, to taste
  • 3/4 pound spaghettoni, ordinary spaghetti and penne are both acceptable alternatives
  • Olive oil


  1. Boil the spaghettoni in a pot of salted water.
  2. Cut the guanciale into strips and gently fry it with a little olive oil.
  3. Meanwhile, put four egg yolks into a bowl with the pecorino cheese and some black pepper. Beat the eggs, adding a tablespoon of the pasta water to thin the sauce.
  4. When the spaghettoni is al dente, drain it and put it in the pan with the guanciale. Remove from the heat and add the egg and cheese mixture. Stir well, adding another tablespoon of the pasta water if the sauce is too thick.
  5. Serve, sprinkling with pecorino cheese and black pepper.

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