WOBBLING ROMAN BUNDLES

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Lipsmacking: John Hooper savours fagotelli carbonara, the signature dish at La Pergola in Rome

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013

Heinz Beck, the German chef of one of Italy’s most feted restaurants, says "even signature dishes need to be taken off the menu regularly". But his signature—fagotelli carbonara—has been served at La Pergola longer than almost any other dish. It’s a recasting of spaghetti alla carbonara, a Roman speciality—although there is no record of the recipe before 1944, which favours the theory that it originated as a way of using the bacon and powdered egg Allied troops brought to the city. Post-war Romans found it even more delicious when made with crisp fried guanciale (pig’s cheek), and sharpened with black pepper and the local pecorino cheese. But Beck thought the classic approach hard to digest, because the egg and cheese sauce hardened on the surface of the pasta. So he put it inside instead.

The result is a plate full of little parcels—fagotto means "bundle" in Italian—that you could imagine being tied to the stick of a Lilliputian tramp. They’re creamy yellow, lighter coloured than most fresh pasta, and sprinkled with minute cubes of brick-red guanciale and emerald-green zucchini (Beck says he added the latter to bring colour to a dish that might otherwise look a bit unexciting). There’s no visible trace of a sauce. 

The waiter gives you a spoon to eat with—a fork would burst the fagotelli and ruin the fun to come. First up is the firmness of the pasta, a little softer than al dente, followed by a rush of velvety yolk. This instantly gives way to an intense tartness of pecorino mingled with salty guanciale. The effect is punchy, but perfectly balanced: as soon as the flavour fades, you can’t wait to spoon up the next wobbling bundle. Small wonder La Pergola has three Michelin stars.

John Hooper is the Rome correspondent of The Economist and the Guardian, and author of "The New Spaniards"

Illustration Holly Exley