“It’s not about a recipe,” said chef Riccardo De Pra. “It’s about a concept.” He was talking about spaghetti alla carbonara, the humble bachelor’s dish of pasta, eggs, and bacon that he serves “deconstructed” at his Michelin-starred restaurant, Dolada, in the foothills of the Alps, overlooking the serene Lago di Santa Croce. On the last evening of a very strange trip, I ate De Pra’s deconstructed spaghetti alla carbonara, paired with a profound Piemontese white wine made from an ancient grape called timorasso that had been rescued from near-extinction, and I wondered seriously if I would ever find my way home.
I’d been stranded in Italy for several days. This was in the spring of 2010, when an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name of Eyjafjallajokull erupted, spewing tons of ash and causing havoc for air travel. Many, at the time, called Eyjafjallajokull the worst disruption in the history of transportation. My trip was supposed to be a four-day jaunt to visit wineries in the Veneto, focusing on Prosecco, Soave, and Valpolicella. The plan: jet in; visit a dozen wineries in four days; jet out; return home; write article. Like millions of others during that shutdown of European airspace, I hadn’t factored a volcano into my plans. So the airline canceled my Sunday morning flight from Venice, with the earliest possibility of return on Thursday.
Hahaha. That seemed to be everyone’s attitude toward my plight. Poor Jason! Stuck for four extra days in Italy! As you can imagine, there was very little sympathy forthcoming from family, friends, and co-workers when I text them the news. “Awwww,” texted my wife. “It must be SUCH a struggle to be stranded in that boutique hotel featured in Architectural Digest!”
“You can always get a boat home,” texted my friend Pete, an Italian-American pastamaker. “That’s how my family got over to the States.”
When I let one friend know of my predicament, she simply texted: “You suck.”
But perhaps this was not such a struggle. On Sunday, the first day of my exile, I accompanied a young winemaker to lunch at the restaurant his family just opened on an island off Venice. It was a warm, sunny day. There were these delicious soft shell crabs you can only eat in Venice. And also lots of prosecco.
“Everything ok?” my mother texted.
“Yes,” I wrote, “All is fine, I’m just boarding the vaporetto back from lunch, and Matteo is going to give me a tour of Venice’s wine bars.”
No further reply or concern from Mom.
I’d love to tell you of a single hardship. That I paid $1,000 for a taxi to take me to an open airport, where I had to sleep on a cot. That my boss was really upset with me. That my children forgot who I was. But no. Basically, I just spent four more days drinking wine and eating in Italy.
At a certain point, I felt like the overprivileged son of a deposed dictator, one who lives in the lap of luxury, and yet will never go back to his homeland. The night before my flight was canceled, I’d had dinner in the beautiful hill town of Asolo. A famous exile, Catherina Cornaro, the Queen of Cyprus from 1474 to 1489, was sent to Asolo after she may or may not have poisoned her husband. During Cornaro’s exile, the Italian verb asolare — meaning to pass time in a delightful but meaningless way — came into usage. Perhaps that’s how I can sum up my brief stranding in Italy. I visited some more wineries. Made some more friends. Ho asolato.
On the last day of my exile, a winemaker told me, “You can’t drive Nature. Nature drives you.” She was talking about the wine, the way her family is only able to release vintages from certain vineyards in certain years, and how the grapes determine this, as well as if the wine will be aged for months or years, and whether that aging will happen in large barrels or small. “We never know what Nature gives us.” Of course I hear some version of this trope every time I ever visit a winery, no matter where it is. But during those days, the idea that Nature drives the world took on special meaning.
That night I went to dinner at Dolada, in the tiny village of Pieve D’Alpago, with a husband and wife who happened to be rival prosecco producers (and two of the finest), Cinzia Canzian, of Le Vigne di Alice and Umberto Cosmo, of Bellenda. Before dinner, Cinzia and Umberto and I debated which was more “serious,” red wine or white wine. “All of the wines I would call ‘unforgettable’ are white wines,” said Cinzia. “Certainly I drink a lot of wonderful red wines. But for me, white wines are much more often surprising and memorable.”
Umberto protested, but Cinzia’s argument was tough to refute since the white wine we were drinking at that moment, the one Umberto had ordered, was totally unforgettable: Vigneti Massa Timorasso Derthona. This was a strange, complex, full-bodied white, one that felt like everything at once, honey, ripe fruit, freshness, minerality, a unique nuttiness, and just a hint of yeasty funk.
It was Umberto who urged me to order Dolada’s “nuovi” spaghetti alla carbonara, which came served with a soft-cooked egg hidden under a coating of ground pepper, atop a nest of beautiful golden pasta and crispy guanciale. In order to construct what the chef had deconstructed, we broke the yolks and tossed everything together before tucking in. The richness of the pasta, and the mingling sensations of crunchy, peppery, and creamy was unbelievable. This was the greatest rendition of carbonara I’d ever eaten. Umberto mused sentimentally on how he used to make carbonara as a young man at university, and something about the coziness of this memory, paired with the foreignness of the timorasso and my odd week of exile, made me miss home badly.
In the years since that trip, I’ve tried to find a carbonara that approaches the one from Dolada, but I never have. Too many American restaurant renditions are literally just bacon and eggs over spaghetti. Or they commit the cardinal sin of adding cream. When I tried to replicate De Pra’s carbonara on my own, I kept failing. But I had a hankering for it a few weeks ago, and so I did what I should have done years ago: I called De Pra to chat about carbonara.
Carbonara is known as a classic dish of Rome, and so I wanted to know why a chef from the northern Veneto had perfected it. His answer was even more surprising. “The story actually starts in Japan,” he told me. As a young chef, De Pra had worked in Japan, which is extremely rare for an Italian chef, and he learned some decidedly non-Italian kitchen techniques. “I came back from Japan after a year, and brought my new ideas with me. And when I put them on the menu at my father’s restaurant, I immediately lost 80 percent of his customers,” he said, with a laugh.
One dish that intriqued De Pra was oyakodon, a homey rice bowl dish with chicken and eggs. He observed how the Japanese chefs used very soft, slow-cooked eggs, and decided that this would be a perfect way to update the classic carbonara. “The problem with carbonara, even in Italy, is that the egg can be too raw and runny or else it’s overcooked and it’s like eating scrambled eggs in spaghetti,” he said. Slow-cooking an egg at a low temperature creates an egg that’s a perfect balance of liquid and solid.
De Pra’s other secret is to use fresh pasta instead of the dry pasta that carbonara usually calls for. He tosses fresh pasta with olive oil, parmigiano, butter and beef stock to create a “pasta bianca” before adding the other deconstructed parts.
Finally, he insists that good black pepper makes or breaks the dish. After all, the name carbonara come from the word carbone, or charcoal, and it was reputedly a dish created by carbonaio, the men who made charcoal in the mountains near Rome. The pepper is supposed to represent the black charcoal. “If you don’t have good black pepper,” De Pra said. “You don’t have good carbonara.”
Nuovi Spaghetti alla Carbonara
This “deconstructed” spaghetti alla carbonara is from chef Riccardo De Pra, of Dolada in Pieve D’Alpago in the northern Veneto. Pra employs several tricks. First, he slow cooks his eggs for a half hour at a low temperature. Instead of the dry pasta typically used for carbonara, he tosses fresh pasta with olive oil, parmigiano, butter and beef stock to create a “pasta bianca” before adding the guanciale (not pancetta), pecorino Romano, and egg. Finally, Riccardo says: “Pepper. Good pepper. A lot of it.” The result is a carbonara that’s easy and elegant to serve to multiple people, and avoids becoming too gooey, chewy, or lumpy.
4 organic eggs
1 pound fresh spaghetti alla chitarra
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons beef stock
⅓ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
¼ pound thinly-sliced guanciale (about 3-4 slices per plate)
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400°F and put the guanciale in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.
Using a thermometer, heat water in a saucepan to 144-150°F (62-66°C). Add eggs and slow cook for 30 minutes. Be sure to keep the water no higher or lower than 144-150°F (62-66°C) during the entire 30-minute process.
When the eggs have about 5 minutes left, place the guanicale in the oven. Cook for 5 minutes or until crispy. Remove, drain on paper towels, and set aside.
When the eggs have finished cooking, take the eggs out of the water and set aside for a moment.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the spaghetti. Cook for 4 minutes, stirring constantly. Strain out the water and return spaghetti to the pot. Toss thoroughly with butter, stock, oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
To serve, twirl spaghetti into a loose nest in a large dish or bowl, hollowing the center slightly. Arrange 3-4 slices of the guanciale around the top of the nest. Peel the egg and gently place the soft egg into the nest. Top with a generous coating of freshly ground pepper. Serve with a generous handful of Pecorino Romano on the side of each dish. The diner should break the egg yolk at the table and toss it with the pasta, cheese, and guanciale just before eating.
Feature image and recipe photos by Julia Silva.