This classic Italian dish is said to have been named for coal miners around Rome, because the black specks of pepper resemble coal dust. Carbonara contains just a few ingredients and takes mere minutes to prepare; when properly executed, it's rich, creamy, and truly satisfying. But it's not quite as simple as all that.
Traditionalists will tell you that Spaghetti alla Carbonara should contain eggs, cheese, black pepper, a diced cured pork product, and nothing else. But plenty of carbonara recipes out there call for dry white wine, heavy cream, and even garlic—though, of course, purists would never use them in an "authentic" preparation.
I was initially taught—by an Italian friend, no less—to make my carbonara with both a little white wine and a dash of heavy cream. In the time since, I've found that these two ingredients really aren't necessary to creating a sublimely delicious dish of creamy egg pasta. Spaghetti Carbonara has been a family favorite in my own home since my children were small, and I've tinkered with it for years, first eliminating the wine, then the cream, and finally learning that the real trick is to gently warm your eggs before adding them to the pasta, ensuring that they lightly coat each strand in their velvety sauce.
Some like the flavor of whole eggs, while others feel using just the yolks is best; I tend to discard the whites, but it's really a matter of personal preference. As a rule, I use about one yolk per person (or serving).
Here in Umbria, I use diced guanciale—an unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig's jowl—but if you can't find it locally, you can use pancetta or bacon in its place. As for cheese, Pecorino Romano is typically used in carbonara. However, I often incorporate an equal portion of Parmesan or Grana Padano, since the Pecorino is quite sharp on its own. And though the black pepper may seem like an insignificant ingredient, it helps cut through some of the richness and really brings the pasta to life. It's best to use fresh black peppercorns, crushed with a mortar and pestle or coarsely ground in a pepper mill.
Though not customary, I sometimes toss baby peas, tender strands of asparagus, or sliced artichokes into the pasta before serving. If you want to make this dish into a hearty main course, you can top each bowl of pasta with an egg that's been fried or poached in olive oil. When you cut into the egg, the yolk will run into the pasta, intensifying its creamy texture and flavor.