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Mar 30, 2010
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Wine With . . . Spaghetti alla Carbonara

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

It’s hard to go wrong with spaghetti carbonara.  This is a dish that is almost universally appealing, calls for relatively inexpensive ingredients, is a breeze to prepare, and (we discovered) adapts deliciously to either red or white wine.  It makes a great first course at a dinner party, and we love it as an easy to assemble simple supper served with nothing more than a tossed green salad.

The various components of spaghetti carbonara seem so classically balanced that one might imagine it dates back to some historic time, ancient Rome perhaps, but in actuality there appears to be little mention of Spaghetti alla Carbonara in culinary literature before the post World War II era.  Spaghetti carbonara should not be an overly rich dish drowning in gloppy sauce.  Its dominant flavors of pork and cheese should blend seamlessly with the subtle tastes of egg and pasta.  The most traditional meat is guanciale (pork jowl), but pancetta is easier to come by in the US and contributes a nice spicy, piggy flavor.  Bacon is more aggressively smoky, but can be an acceptable substitute.  As for the “authentic” cheese, some recipes call for Parmigiano-Regiano, others for the funkier sheep’s milk Pecorino Romano--the ideal would probably be a blend of both.  A splash of cream, though frowned upon by purists, adds an additional subtle layer of silkiness to the dish that we find connects well with wine, but it’s easy to leave it out if you worry about being busted by the pasta police.  A little minced onion, garlic, parsley are all possible options, but anything else -- peas, mushrooms, asparagus and so on -- strays beyond the limits of carbonara, delicious though these additions may be.  Spaghetti is the traditional pasta to use, but penne, fettuccine or rigatoni can be acceptable substitutes.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, minced

4 ounces pancetta, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup heavy cream

2 eggs

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for passing at the table

Freshly ground black pepper

1 pound spaghetti

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Pour the olive oil into a medium skillet and add the onion.  Cook it for a couple of minutes, and when it has begun to soften add the pancetta.  Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for several minutes, until the pancetta is beginning to color and some of its fat has been rendered,  Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute or two.  Add the cream and simmer until it is warmed through.  In a bowl, whisk the eggs, then whisk in the 2 tablespoons cheese and the pepper.  Meanwhile, add the spaghetti to the boiling water and cook until just al dente.  Scoop out about ¼ cup of the cooking water; then drain the pasta.  Return the pasta to the pan, stir in the pancetta mixture, then add the eggs and stir vigorously to incorporate it thoroughly and coat all the strands of spaghetti.  Stir in enough of the cooking water to moisten the pasta if it seems too dry.   Serve at once, passing extra cheese at the table. 

Serves four as a first course, two as a main course.

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The surprise in our tastings was how well fruit-forward American wines worked with this dish, completely outperforming the European (and one South African) wines that had more pronounced secondary aromas and flavors.  We had thought that the dustiness in a Chianti, or the peppery accents in a Côtes-du-Rhône, or the spiciness of a Sicilian Nero d’Avola would complement the meaty note from the pancetta.  It turned out, however, that the cheesy, creaminess of spaghetti carbonara is such a dominant trait that the wine needs to have a lush, soft personality of its own.  Whether red or white, the wines that matched best were all smooth on the palate and full of fruit flavor.  



Approx. Price




Erath, Oregon Pinot Gris 2008









The lightest of the wines we’re recommending, this Pinot Gris had just enough heft to work with our spaghetti carbonara.  Its fresh fruit flavors resembled ripe pears with a hint of sweet spice, and there was plenty of acidity in the finish to cut through the richness of the dish.




Kenwood, Sonoma County (California) Merlot “Reserve” 2007





Though this wine tasted a tad too sweet on its own, it made for a fine match with a dish that, due to the cheese and cream, has a sweet edge as well.  Its soft tannins and silky texture only added to its appeal.




Robert Mondavi, Napa Valley (California) Pinot Noir 2008







Bright cherry and red berry fruit and a velvety mouthfeel made this red a definite winner with the carbonara.  It also had the advantage of being impressively long in the finish, something that helped it hold its own with such a rich dish.





Morgan, Santa Lucia Highlands (California) Chardonnay “Highland” 2008










We had guessed that a ripe, oak-laden Chardonnay would work well with spaghetti carbonara, and this wine definitely proved us right.  The lush texture, almost tropical fruit flavors, and vanilla-tinged finish all worked to its advantage.








Joseph Phelps Vineyards, St. Helena Napa Valley (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2008








Most Sauvignon Blancs surely would be too light-bodied and ephemeral to work with this dish.  This particular wine, however, being barrel-fermented and barrel-aged, had enough weight to satisfy.  In addition, its lemony flavors, floral bouquet, and appropriately acidic finish made it taste especially refreshing given the inherent richness of Spaghetti alla Carbonara.