Light a fire: Pasta Carbonara sparks flames of romance

When Tony and I were talking about Valentine's Day, I asked him what his top choice would be for a romantic dinner for two. I expected him to rattle off something decadent and luxurious, like veal Oscar, lobster bisque or oysters. But his answer ...

Shrimp pasta the finished product from Sarello's. Darren Gibbins / The Forum
Shrimp pasta the finished product from Sarello's. Darren Gibbins / The Forum

When Tony and I were talking about Valentine's Day, I asked him what his top choice would be for a romantic dinner for two.

I expected him to rattle off something decadent and luxurious, like veal Oscar, lobster bisque or oysters. But his answer surprised me. "Pasta alla Carbonara is the perfect dish for lovers," he declared.

This humble dish is believed to have originated in Rome, and there are several theories about its name. Our favorite claims the name is derived from men who used to make charcoal, known in Italy as carbonai. These men would often camp outdoors while working in the Apennine Mountains, and the main ingredients in this pasta dish - bacon, garlic, eggs, cheese and pepper - were selected because they required no refrigeration or were easy to acquire from local farms.

Sophia Loren, who famously proclaimed, "Everything you see is because of spaghetti," fell in love with this dish in the 1950s after stumbling upon a group of carbonai while filming a movie in the region. The men offered to make spaghetti alla carbonara for her and the film crew, and it was so good that she returned the next day to get the recipe. Lucky men.

Tony and I were pleased to find that, like our recipe, Loren's version also included cream. Long noodles like spaghetti or fettuccine are typically suggested for pasta alla carbonara, so I was curious to know why Tony chose to use a short, tubular noodle like penne rigate for this recipe.


"Pasta alla carbonara is all about the sauce," he said. "And the ridges and hollow tube of penne pasta allow the noodles to catch as much sauce as possible."

While long noodles may seem more sexy and romantic in theory, that hardly ever translates well in real life. Unless you're planning to re-enact that famous pasta scene from the film "Lady and the Tramp," we suggest you forego any embarrassing slurping and stick with penne.

Pasta carbonara is delicious on its own, but for this occasion Tony added shrimp, which introduces a touch of elegance and brightens up the dish with its pretty pink color and briny, buttery flavor.

I'm allergic to shellfish, so for my pasta Tony prepared a chicken cutlet pounded thin "scaloppine-style," dredged in flour and cooked in olive oil for about three minutes on each side until lightly golden-brown. He then cut it into strips and added it to the pasta just before the egg yolk. I love this preparation, as the chicken remains moist, delicate and juicy, but grilled, rotisserie or roasted chicken will also work.

Pasta carbonara is wonderfully rich and filling, full of flavor, and surprisingly easy to make.

The signature ingredient in this sauce is the addition of beaten egg yolk at the very end, which is essential for a proper carbonara in both flavor and texture. While the cream may be optional, the egg yolk is not. Take care to remove the pan from the burner before adding the yolk, or you could end up with scrambled egg pasta, which would not be nearly as romantic.

You won't need much else to complete your meal. In fact, Tony suggested making a simple side dish of mixed greens tossed in a light vinaigrette of white wine or champagne vinegar and extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled with sea salt and black pepper. Pair this with a nice Italian white wine like Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco or Soave, and hopefully your date will be as impressed as Ms. Loren.

Pasta alla Carbonara


Serves 2


1/3 cup bacon, cooked and cut small-diced

2 tablespoons butter, unsalted

8 shrimp, raw, peeled and deveined (may also use pre-cooked but thaw first)

1 teaspoon garlic, minced

2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground

3/4 cup heavy cream


12 ounces penne pasta, cooked to al dente according to directions on package

¼ cup frozen green peas, thawed before use

½ cup parmesan cheese, grated

3 egg yolks, beaten


Cut two strips of bacon into small, diced pieces and cook over medium heat until they just start to crisp. Remove from pan and transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel.

In a medium-large sauté pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the shrimp, garlic and black pepper, and cook until the shrimp just begins to turn pink in color, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the cooked bacon pieces and cream and increase to medium heat. Cook until the cream thickens, about 3 to 5 minutes, until the creamy sauce evenly coats the back of a spoon.


Add the cooked pasta, green peas and cheese, and continue to cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly to ensure that all the pasta is coated with sauce.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool for 15 seconds before adding the egg yolks to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Pour the egg yolks in and toss with the pasta until well mixed. Serve with a light salad, crusty bread and enjoy.

Tony's Tips

  • Always be sure to cool the pasta a bit before adding the egg yolks or they will scramble. You may return the pasta to the burner and cook for one more minute before serving if desired.
  • Use peeled and deveined shrimp, and thaw first if frozen. Pre-cooked shrimp may also be used.
  • Italian white wines are perfect for this pasta dish, as they have enough acidity to cut through the cream. Look for varietals like Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco and Soave.
  • Use dried, packaged pasta. Fresh or homemade pasta will be too rich for this sauce.
  • Chicken breast may be substituted for shrimp, either grilled, rotisserie or roasted. Or you can cut the breast in half horizontally, and pound it into cutlets scaloppine-style. Then dredge each cutlet in flour and pan fry with olive oil over medium heat for 3 minutes on each side until lightly golden brown. Cut the cutlets into pieces and add to the sauce just before the egg yolk. Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 9-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at . All previous recipes can be found at

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