Like millions before me, I threw a coin into Trevi Fountain in Rome, making a singular wish: to cook and eat like the locals in Rome. I'd be willing to bet thousands of others have shared that very wish, as they, too, fell in love with this intriguing city of flavors, where each meal somehow manages to taste better than the one before. My wish was answered with a cooking class.
For days, I ate my way through Rome, led by the insightful guides Paolo Meschini and Antonio Rinaldini, from the company Roam Around Rome, to restaurants that ranged from classic to off-the-beaten path. There was the fresh olive oil I sampled near Sabina, just minutes from the Pompili & Figli olive farm; the homemade pasta with truffles at La Muraccia that fills my dreams; the caper hummus at Bancovino that opened my mind to new flavors; the memorable carciofi alla giudìa (Jewish-style artichokes) at Al Pompiere in the Jewish Ghetto; the simple and comforting pasta e fagioli at Lo Scopettaro; and the cooking class where I'd learned how to make spaghetti alla carbonara.
Looking back, the cooking class was perhaps the best meal of the trip, because it provided a souvenir: a skill (and flavors!) I could take home with me.
Two nights after flying back to the U.S., I was feeling Rome-sick. The Eternal City has a way of doing that to you, even if you're there for just a few days. Rather weep into my snapshots, the best way to cope, I decided, was to head to the kitchen.
As I separated eggs, chopped bacon and boiled water for pasta, I thought back the class I'd taken at Gambero Rosso, a company that offers cooking classes for chefs as well as hobbyists. They also produce a food and wine magazine and cooking channel.
Each student walked up to his or her work station in the industrial kitchen and saw the ingredients to make our meal: brown eggs in a bowl, shredded cheese, spaghetti, guanciale, salt and pepper. "We'll be making spaghetti alla carbonara!" announced chef Luca Ogliotti.
Ogliotti told us about the history of the dish, explaining that it was an easy way for soldiers to have bacon and eggs. Then he demonstrated. First, separate two eggs reserving the yolks and beat them, adding a handful of grated pecorino Romano cheese and a pinch of pepper.
He placed the noodles in boiling water and browned the guanciale, timing them perfectly. When the noodles were al dente, he added them to the sizzling pork, scooping in spoons of the pasta water and letting it cook down for a minute or two. He removed it from the burner and stirred in the egg yolks. "Too hot, you have an omelet," he smiled. The result was a glistening pasta, punctuated with kernels of meat, topped with billowy shredded cheese, picture perfect and restaurant-worthy.
We all returned to our workstations to try it ourselves. Many of my classmates were in pairs, but I was solo, and, maybe because of that, maybe because of poor judgment, I managed to fall behind. I whipped my eggs and cheese, sprinkled my pepper and chopped my guanciale. I set my noodles to boil, just as he had, and put the meat in the pan. Afraid of it sticking and burning, I kept the heat on relatively low, and, with that, screwed up my timing.
All around me, my cooking class mates were pouring their yolks into piping hot pasta, and uttering their first "Mmmm," while I was hopping from foot to foot, trying to get the attention of the chef to let him that I had a true emergency: My pasta was done but my meat wasn't. There was nary a strainer in sight to let the noodles sit idle.
The chef saw my frantic look and came over. I explained to him my problem.
"The pasta is al dente?" he said.
"Yes, definitely," I replied.
"Then you have to take it out." (Cardinal Italian rule).
He instructed me to put the pasta into the meat pan and let the meat finish cooking with the noodles. I was focusing on his instructions and trying to distract myself from visions of the soggy mess that may well come from this. As he spoke, I stirred the noodles in with the meat, added some water and let it all simmer. At this point, I was the only one still cooking, and my cheeks were beginning to turn the color of my guanciale.
When the water evaporated, I took it all off the burner, stirred in the eggs and then plated it. My first bite, though delayed, brought the same response as the others. "Mmmm." Problems aside, the flavor was perfect.
That cooking class stayed with me as I tried it at home. Having learned from a chef (troubleshooting and all), I had more confidence with this dish than I ever would have had flipping through a cookbook (particularly considering the inclusion of raw egg yolks, which I was raised to fear by a food-safety-centric mother). Calm and collected, I actually manage to get the timing down, matching al dente with crisp pork (I subbed bacon for guanciale), and stirring in eggs that thicken into a soothing sauce.
When it was done, I uttered my acceptance. "Mmmm."
Paired with the wine I'd brought back from Italy, it was like I'd never left.
I think back to the wish I made at Trevi fountain, and wonder what dishes I'll learn to cook next time, when that wish comes true.
To learn how to cook spaghetti alla carbonara, like the Romans do, visit Recipe.com.