The bar was set high before last Christmas dinner. We had spent a week in Rome, Siena and Florence at this point, and had driven between these towns, stopping at every espresso bar for coffee, and every restaurant to sample one thing — Spaghetti Carbonara.
It’s nothing like what you get at most run-of-the-mill restaurants, and even some so-called authentic establishments just fix you a plate of spaghetti and slather their “Alfredo Sauce” with some peas and quickly fried ham pieces in it. It’s going to take serious therapy to get out of my head what these authentic Italian Restaurants in my San Fernando Valley have prostituted themselves into . But, in our story, we were in Italy, were we not?
Sheila (my darling, patient wife) and I adore Carbonara, one of the simplest pasta dishes. Simple, but when made well, will blow the winter out of your system like a Breva in the Alps, fill your stomach with childhood memories and your eyes with adoring love for humanity. Spaghetti Carbonara is Italian Heroin — A really good portion will just make you feel so good that absolutely nothing else matters, and your craving for it will never end.
During last winter’s trip to Italy, we had sampled Carbonara in multiple locations in Rome, Siena, a small family diner in Montefiascone, and now Firenze.It was a tie between the Antica Trattoria Tritone in Rome near the Bernini Fountain (see link for address), and the nameless restaurant on the southern end of Montefiascone. Both were amazing but completely different. Tritone’s pasta was light and perfect, with amazingly delicate pieces of Prosciutto and tiny Porcini slivers. The pasta’s freshness and taste demonstrated years of training and dedication to getting it right.
Our “Casa l’Autostrada” came about it from a different place entirely. The saffron-colored, fresh pasta obviously contained ingredients collected from a at most a few kilometers away, made the same way for decades, with slow, evolutionary changes by mothers in a familial line stretching back into antiquity. It was served straight and honest — a nice big portion, hot, with thick slivers of local ham, fresh, local, sharp cheese and mushrooms from the market around the corner. By eating this incredibly honest meal, you knew you were in a small, working-class town halfway from Rome to Siena. Where Tritone’s Carbonara represented what exactly could be done to perfect this dish, our Truck Stop defined its foundations and represented a pure, barrel-strength shot of honest-to-goodness UR carbonara. Different, but a tie for who’s best.
We had taken a few days off from our Carbonara Quest in Florence, sampling the Cinghiale at Il Latini with a cute and well-behaved Whippet never letting his eyes off my daughter lest she drop something, and various other restaurants that were as forgettable as Latini is memorable (Especially “Riviera” — I think that’s what is is called, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio – horrible, touristy and over-priced). Christmas dinner was coming up, and Sheila was putting no small pressure upon me to deliver something special or find alternate lodging; I found “La Giostra” on Borgo Pinti.
My usual Modus Operandi is to make reservations at the last minute, and they were the only ones that would take us after a seriously nice tip to our hotel concierge, saving my life. We arrived after a few-minute cab ride to find a small store-front restaurant run by the happiest and hippest father-son team I’ve ever seen. Christmas Dinner was prix-fixe at € 100. Even better, my daughter who hasn’t finished a meal since she started walking only wanted the Tortelini Soup (DELICIOUS), and they didn’t charge us. We scoured the options for our meal:
- Prociutto Plate with local cheese
- Bistecca Fiorentina
- Bruschetta with me.
- Crustini Fontina
- Tortellini Soup
- Bistecca Fiorentina
And so dinner begins. We chew on the Bread with incredibly perfect tomatoes in our appetizer, and my Prosciutto comes, so perfect that I don’t pay any attention to my wife’s Crustini, that is, until our chef came out and announced “MOLTO TARTUFO!” and proceeded to shave an entire node of incredibly fresh white Alba truffle all over her Fontina Cheese-covered crustini. You could barely see the plate when he finished.
All men are pigs, and when it comes to truffles, I’m the king of the Pigs. Sheila looked up at me with her eyes as big as manhole covers, unable to speak. I shot a look over at her, my best, most romantic GIVEMESOMEOFTHATNOW that I could possibly muster. She dutifully cut off a slice that turned out to be smaller than my thumbnail, stuck it on my plate with the tip of her knife, and then started laughing. Kira, my daughter, sensed that something cruel had just happened to me and joined in with my wife, pointing and nearly knocking over her hot chocolate. Traumatized, I offered up a few slices of my delicious Prociutto. More laughter as if I was trying to trade turds for gold bars. This was damned good Prosciutto, but I had the equivalent of the very best Popsicle Stand in Antarctica next to a Starbucks. In winter.
But that was only the First Round. Out came the Tortellini Soup for Sheila and Kira, and then my Carbonara. Oooh. This looks like a good one — it even had some of the Truffle shavings that they had managed to throw, I thought, in sympathy for the drubbing I took from the “Crustini Incident“. Giggles from my wife ensued as her completely-cleared crustini plate was picked up. I proceeded to get on with my life and this meal…
Out comes our owner-chef, and like the Grinch coming back to Whoville, a light shone down upon me from some unknown spot behind his head, back-lighting him like God bearing gifts… Another node of black sumptuousness and his trusty shaver. I thought for a second that he was going to slather to Tortellini soup in truffles and scar me for life. I decided to just ignore him as he yelled happily, “MOLTO TARTUFO!”.
Shavings slowly dropped in front of me, onto my Carbonara. Slowly at first, but accelerating, and I looked up to see his smile as he quickly covered my entire plate with shavings – I could no longer see the pasta that I was sampling, it was pure shavings on top. He smiled down at me. I never loved someone so much in that instant.
Sheila’s favorite dish is Carbonara. She looked over at me. I had just pulled four deuces to her aces/kings full house. This was about to be a BAD beat, one of Homeric proportions. I could feel her eyes drilling into the top of my head as I proceeded to eat this pasta as if i were the only one in the room.
It was delicious. By delicious, I mean it defined delicious. I didn’t know what delicious meant before. the pasta had the sophistication of the better restaurants, but the honesty of the countryside. Every strand of spaghetti was perfectly coated with egg. Finely, finely ground Parmesan/Pecorino clung to it, and slightly thick Prosciutto that had obviously been sliced specifically for this plate was mixed randomly throughout. No ingredient overpowered any other. Even the abundance of black truffle just enhanced it perfectly.
I shared. It’s Christmas. I had to. But I REALLY REALLY DIDN’T want to!
The pasta was almost cold when I finished the last bite. I knew that I was never going to cross a threshold like this again, and I truly wanted to savor it, and share it with my wife. Just unbelievable, period. It was almost anticlimactic when the Bistecca arrived, yet it too, was covered in these shavings of fungal-goodness, albeit without the preceding drama from the chef. Possibly the best meal I’ve ever had; definitely in the top three.
La Giostra’s Carbonara Recipe.
Giostra publishes their recipes, and for October 2007 they published their Carbonara:
It’s more fun in their mangled English here on their site, but if you’re in a hurry:
Carbonara of Alba’s white truffles
Arrange the hand made taglierini* very slim and cook in a way to keep it particularly “aldente” like we say in Italian. After that put it in a pan with a French walnut butter for a short while and dish up on the plate whisked with an egg’s yolk and a touch of water from the pasta’s cooking pot.
Then… strew with white truffle of Alba.
For the wine with, the old red wines from Piedmont are the best and the latest vintage were fantastic. According with Wine Spectator, the 2000 of Barolo is 100/100 vintage, and Barbaresco 1998 or 1999 are not below. From the wine list of the restaurant: Barolo “Ornato”, Pio Cesare 1999 or Barbaresco 1998 of Angelo Gaja.