Spaghetti Carbonara Marius

by Min Merrell

Here’s the original Spaghetti Marius (Carbonara) recipe from El Sombrero in Naples, circa 1970:

El Sombrero Carbonara Recipe

My mother has been searching for the Spaghetti Carbonara Marius recipe we had at El Sombrero Restaurant in Naples, Italy in the early 1970s for years. She finally found it! 

Spaghetti Carbonara is a signature Merrell family dish that dates back to our time in Naples in the early 1970s. Except for Neapolitan pizza, no other dish has left such a deep taste memory on my parents, my sister, or me. It’s funny that we never wondered why the El Sombrero restaurant that introduced us to this life-changing dish was named after a Mexican hat!  

Spaghetti Carbonara is bacon and egg pasta, a simple dish made with everyday ingredients. The whole far greater than the sum of the parts, the spaghetti is coated with a layer of silky smooth eggs, parmesan cheese, and bits of bacon (pancetta). The key to a successful batch, however, is taking great care that the eggs cook just enough to smoothly coat the noodles without curdling. I vividly remember watching the elegant, tuxedo-clad El Sombrero gentleman prepare the Carbonara for us table-side with great confidence and flair but was too young to appreciate how managed this without scrambling the eggs. 

I started fooling around with this dish in the early 80s, back when pancetta was unavailable in most every supermarket outside of the Northeastern Italian belt. It definitely wasn’t available in Houston, so I substituted regular bacon, which works, but it just doesn’t have the right flavor.

My interest was renewed again in the mid-2000s as we all rejoiced the arrival of Boar’s Head meats in Nashville. The availability of pancetta changed everything. The recipe I usually made kept things simple with whole eggs and pasta water as the basis for the sauce. For some reason I adhered to the purist technique using the fewest, simplest ingredients, not wanting to add cream. Often the eggs curdled a bit, but it stilled tasted great. I’d still happily eat that version any day.

Then, Mom found the original recipe from El Sombrero, which they named Spaghetti Marius. Who knows who it was named after. 

The El Sombrero recipe does include some cream and uses only egg yolks, not the whites. This makes perfect sense to me. Whole eggs work without cream, but the cream and yolks give you better odds for silky success without curdling. Yolks have a higher coagulation temperature than the whites (that’s why you can have an egg with a runny yolk), so why not eliminate the whites?  The cream also guarantees smoothness.

The original recipe called for beef gravy that I imagine was seasoned stock that the kitchen likely had simmering on the stove. Salty pasta water works just fine. The recipe also includes a tiny bit of wine vinegar added to the pancetta. Seems to me this imparts a balancing zing to the whole dish. Maybe they used vinegar instead of white wine because the dish was prepared table side and they didn’t want to wait too long for it to evaporate. 

My journey with Carbonara continues. Here’s my whole egg/no cream Carbonara for a Crowd story and recipe. The information about making batches for a crowd is still valid, but I will definitely use just yolks and cream to eliminate quite a bit of anxiety. It’s rich so always serve a big green salad with a simple vinaigrette and/or a big platter of fresh summer tomatoes. Garlicy rabe or asparagus are also great accompaniments. Keep the sides fresh and simple to let the Carbonara shine. 

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