I am always on the lookout for the best carbonara in Rome. (Yes, I know, it's a tough job but...)
Seriously, I do make it a point to run around Rome and taste-test all the traditional pasta dishes on a pretty regular basis. There are enough variations to keep me from getting bored (now there's a concept.) And there are so many restaurants to try, I still haven't gotten to them all yet! (April 2014 Updates on Da Danilo and Pipero Al Rex below.)
But actually, finding the best carbonara in Rome is not as easy as it sounds.
Now seriously, look at that photo. Don't you just want to eat that right off the page?? I did eat it! The other night! At L'Arcangelo, one of my top favourite places for carbonara in Rome.
I know what you're thinking - carbonara is too heavy, too fattening. Well, not if you do it right! Well, ok, maybe it's not not-fattening, but it's not heavy because it's not creamy. It's not creamy because there is NO CREAM in carbonara in Rome! Where it was invented by the way.
Spaghetti carbonara originated in Rome. There are a couple of theories as to how it originated.
Neither of these stories has been validated...but it doesn't matter to me which is true, since, in Rome, you can always get the "original" version of the dish. Which is to say, made with only the simplest of ingredients:
See? There is no cream in carbonara (in Rome.) The cheese and egg, together with the inevitable pasta water that you add towards the end of the cooking procedure, amalgamate to make the whole thing "creamy." (For some reason, when it left Italy, many things have been added to carbonara, the most common being cream. Also peas and onions. None of this is Roman. So if you have avoided eating carbonara until now, do not miss trying it the Roman way. When in Rome...)
Believe it or not, as simple as this dish sounds to make, it's not always easy to find it prepared well (as with the other classic Roman pasta dishes, cacio e pepe and amatriciana.) There are some very important factors such as:
As I said, I do a lot of taste-testing. I have not nearly covered all the great Rome restaurants yet (but it's a work in progress and I will get there!)
So far, I have found some pretty amazing carbonara in Rome. Here are my top picks to date (I will update this page as I continue with my taste-testing):
I love L'Arcangelo in general, for lots of reasons: The food is great (the best reason of course), the ambiance is wonderful (fun, warm, convivial but not too crazy), and, there are these cute little cars on the tables. That is a silly reason to love a restaurant, but it says to me, wow, did this guy donate his private toy car collection to his restaurant? What does that say about the owner (chef Arcangelo Dandini.) To me it says, he cares.
And it definitely shows in the cooking.
I've tried many different dishes at L'Arcangelo. The best ones are those that stick to pure Roman tradition. But since this page is about carbonara in Rome, let's discuss that.
At L'arcangelo, the pasta is Verrigni, and the carbonara is made with plenty of guanciale. So much of it that you (almost) have to make an effort to eat it all. Oddly, there is little or no pepper (but it's still fab without it, or, just add some if you like.)
Anyway, the creamy egginess of this dish is perfect every time. Just try it. It's sublime!
How to get there: Via Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli 59. Take any bus line that stops at Cavour. Open M-F for lunch and dinner; Saturday for dinner only. Closed Sundays.
You can't go wrong getting anything at Armando. I've never had anything there I didn't love. But back to the theme of this page: Carbonara in Rome. And Armando always delivers some of the best. Yes with spaghetti, not rigatoni, but as I've said, either one is typically "Roman." Look at all that eggy goodness. And see how nice and fatty the guanciale is? That's the secret to the smoky flavour you want. Buon appetito!
How to get there: Salita dè Crescenzi, 31. Just next to the Pantheon. Open W-F for lunch and dinner. Saturday for lunch only. Closed Sundays.
Look at that eggy sauce. Look at all that gorgeous fresh ground pepper. See that lovely grated pecorino on top? And how firm that pasta is?? Great carbonara. Trust me.
Baccano - yes I know, this restaurant is not (yet) on anyone's radar for having some of the best carbonara in Rome, but I am telling you, it's fabulous! It is not a typical Rome trattoria, where you'd hope to find this dish. It's more of a cross between an American Bistro and French brasserie, but they also have a lot of traditional Roman food on the menu, and they really do have great food. And they serve their carbonara with Verrigni pasta, already a sign they care about the quality (as does L'Arcangelo, above.)
How to get there: Via delle Muratte, 23. The street leading away from the Trevi Fountain towards via del Corso. Open daily from 10am until 2am. Yes! Open every single day, all day. Including Christmas and New Years.
Any traditional Rome restaurant worth its salt (no pun intended!) will make an excellent effort to produce the classic Roman pasta dishes in the classic way. So where carbonara is concerned, if you go to any traditional, typical Rome trattoria, you should be able to find this dish the way it's meant to be made.
But as we all know, not all restaurants are created equal and therefore not all carbonara in Rome is great. But here are some other wonderful Rome trattorias where you will find it made very well:
On so many internet lists of "best carbonara in rome", I kept coming across Da Danilo. So I thought I should give it a try (do I need an excuse?) I ate there recently with some Italian and expat friends, and we loved it, from the Roman artichokes to the carbonara (with perfectly crispy guanciale) to the amatriciana. Their puntarelle were also wonderful and light. But...
I sent other friends there (one who is a local), and he was treated incredibly rudely by the owner, who refused to make something not on the menu (for one of the people who was not eating meat or cheese for Lent), and insisted they order everything right as they sat down. My local friend and I agree, the food is good. And yet:
I cannot put Da Danilo in my "top" list because if by chance this woman assails you, it will certainly take a bit of the joy out of eating there.
If you want to eat here for the food (hopefully you will get a nice waiter and not the surly owner): via Petrarca 13, near piazza Vittorio in the Esquilino neighbourhood. Open Tues - Sat for lunch and dinner, Monday for dinner only. Closed Sunday.
In my now very serious quest for the best carbonara in Rome, I also had to try Pipero al Rex. (Alessandro Pipero is the owner of this now 1-star Michelin restaurant inside the Hotel Rex, which is not far from Termini station just off via Cavour.)
Yes I know that photo is not of carbonara. This is actually sad but yours truly dropped her camera during dinner and hence I do not have a photo of the scrumptious and amazing carbonara at Pipero al Rex! So I will have to go back.
Meanwhile I will report this: A friend and I tried the tasting menu (100€ without drinks), and were assured it would include their now world-famous carbonara. Well the above photo is the pasta that came out just before the carbonara (yes there was time to relax and digest between courses.) All the food was divine, including the above spaghetti with oyster and mussels emulsion, topped with flying fish roe. And the carbonara? Yes, it might be the best carbonara in Rome (although they are in a tie with Arcangelo and Armando.)
The pasta was perfectly al dente, and the dish was prepared with egg yolk (only) and excellent guanciale...but what did the trick was how beautifully prepared the guanciale was. It had been cut into small cubes, and then cooked to perfection, so it came out exquisitely crispy and crackly like the tastiest, crunchiest version of bacon you can imagine.
As I said, I will have to go back, but because it is a Michelin-star restaurant, and because just the carbonara (normally part of "poor-man's" Roman cuisine) costs 22€ a plate, it may be a while before I do.
And, because Pipero al Rex is a Michelin star restaurant, and not for everyone, and very special, I think a better place to classify this restaurant is under "best upscale restaurants in Rome" and also "best romantic restaurants in Rome." This is indeed a place you are guaranteed to get amazing carbonara in Rome. But I think it has to be classified separately.
How to go: via Torino 149. Coming down via Cavour from the Termini train station, take a right on via Torino. Also not far from Santa Maria Maggiore. Open daily for dinner and lunch.
I take cooking classes in Rome, with a Sicilian chef. One of my classes was all about i prime romaneschi. This means, "typical Roman first courses", or pasta dishes. Three of the most common are cacio e pepe, bucatini all'amatriciana and rigatoni alla carbonara.
The chef told us that every Roman has their way of making these dishes, and they are all "the right way." And, there is no need to use salt or olive oil in any of them. All use pecorino Romano cheese, which is plenty salty (and adds enough fat), and two use guanciale, or pork jowls, which are also fatty and salty. You may use some salt in the pasta water, but not too much.
Our chef said the success of any recipe is 80% due to the quality of the ingredients, 10% to the recipe and 10% to the chef. So try to find guanciale if you can (not pancetta), excellent pasta (preferably trafilati al bronzo), and real pecorino romano (not parmesan or other cheese.)
This recipe serves 6. (Italian portion sizes are smaller than American portion sizes, so you may consider this recipe could serve 4 if you want larger portions.) The original recipe uses metric measurements so I am providing rounded up/down measurements also in ounces if you prefer that.
Start heating the water for the pasta. Do not add salt.
Heat the peppercorns in a small non-stick fry pan, until they start to spatter and jump around (about 5 minutes.) Grind the peppercorns using a mortar and pestle, or a pepper grinder.
Slice the guanciale into bite-sized strips, and cook them on a low heat in an aluminium pan until they are slightly browned. Turn off the heat, and take out about half of the guanciale from the pan, leaving the rest in the pan, with the fat, covered and warm.
Once the pasta water is boiling, add the pasta, and a bit of salt (not too much.) While the pasta is cooking, beat the egg yolks in a large bowl with a fork.
Keep beating the yolks and slowly add two spoonfuls of the pasta water. Continue beating the yolks and add one spoonful of the guanciale fat, and a bit of the ground pepper.
When the pasta is not quite cooked al dente, take out about a cup of the pasta water and set aside.
Drain the pasta. Add it to the pan with the guanciale and remaining fat. Mix well, adding a bit of the pasta water as needed, to create a good emulsion.
Once well blended, add this pasta mixed with guanciale to the large bowl with the beaten egg yolks. Stir continuously and let the hot pasta blend well with the yolk mixture, so that it cooks it ever so slightly. Keep stirring and slowly add the pecorino, blending well.
Plate the pasta, and garnish with the guanciale and black pepper that had been set aside.
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