How to Make Spaghetti Carbonara, as Approved by the Late Paolo Tullio

My television companion and, more importantly, old friend, Paolo Tullio, died on 5th June after a long illness. Although we knew that he was unwell, I think his friends – and they are legion – believed that he would pull through when, eventually, the right kidney became available for transplant. So, the news of his sudden and rapid decline, culminating in his death, came as a great shock.

I’ve appended below a little appreciation of Paolo which I wrote an hour so after getting the news. It was published in the Irish Daily Mail next day.

I can think of several fitting memorials to the only universally loved figure in Irish food but I think the one he would like me to employ is a campaign for proper carbonara.

Paolo, the politest of men, could become a bit snappy if a waiter “corrected” his pronounciation of the word bruschetta. It’s bruce-kate-a. And he hated to see pizza being defiled with pineapple and sweetcorn.

But he reserved a special scorn for carbonara made with cream. In his book Paolo Tullio Cooks Italian (he always said “Eatalian”, by the way) he writes of this simple dish with a kind of missionary zeal (but is a bit hazy on quantities).

So, the day after Paolo died, I decided to make his version of spaghetti carbonara, taking careful measurements as I went along. So, now I can share Paolo’s recipe in a fairly easy-to-use way.

I used gluten-free spaghetti so if you think the pasta in the picture looks a little yellow, you’re right.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Okay, to serve four you will need the following:
A very large pot of boiling, heavily salted water
4 large egg yolks (The secret of creamy carbonara – without using cream – is to use only the yolks, according to Paolo)
60g of finely grated high quality Parmesan (use the best you can afford; it’s critical in this dish)
Freshly ground black pepper
A little water
2 tbsp olive oil
200g pancetta or unsmoked bacon lardons
 (Paolo pointed out that the purists insist on guanciale, a kind of cured pig’s cheek with plenty of fat; if you have it, use it, but it’s no vital).
400g good quality spaghetti (Barilla or posher)

Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl and then whisk in the Parmesan. Grind in “lots” (according to Paolo) of black pepper and then add one or two half egg shellfuls of water and whisk again so you have a creamy mixture. If it’s way too thick, add a little more water but do so very carefully.

Put the spaghetti on to cook (for as long as it says on the packet) and put four pasta bowls in the oven to warm through.

Put a colander or strainer in the sink.

As the pasta cooks, heat the olive oil in a pan and add the pancetta. Consider the timing here; you want to have crisped the pancetta and rendered all the fat from it at the point where the spaghetti goes into the colander in the sink to drain. Adjust the heat accordingly and stir to make sure the pancetta cooks evenly.

Whisk the egg and cheese mixture again, just to make sure it’s behaving (i.e. nice and creamy, thick but not heading for solidity).

Have two big forks ready.

When the spaghetti is done, let it drain and turn off the heat. Put the empty pot on a wooden chopping board or somewhere safe, off the heat, and pour the drained pasta back in.

Immediately pour in the egg and cheese mixture, followed by the pancetta with all its lovely oil and melted fat (it should sizzle as it hits the pasta) and toss with the spaghetti. When thoroughly mixed, the sauce will be creamy and clinging to the strands of spaghetti.

Serve it immediately in the warmed bowls. There’s no need for extra Parmesan on top but there’s no harm in it either.


Paolo Tullio 1950-2015, An Appreciation

The call came yesterday evening, not entirely unexpected. I knew that Paolo was very unwell and, indeed, that we might start to expect the worst. But I still can’t believe that he has gone.

We spoke on the phone just a few weeks ago, and we concluded our conversation by agreeing that we would have an outing, taking lunch together for one of my reviews. It seemed, at that time, that his appetite was improving and that such an expedition might well have been on the cards.

We enjoyed eating together and not just on television. Paolo was someone who believed, as I do, that breaking bread together is a form of communion, a kind of intimacy and acceptance. We didn’t do it as often as we should have, but it was a kind of bond.

Where do I start? Paolo wrote one of the greatest food columns in the history of Irish newspapers when he contributed weekly to The Sunday Tribune. I was restaurant critic there at the time and that’s when we first met. His essays were small works of art and passion, sensual and intellectual. He could write about the simplest of dishes in a way that stimulated not just the body, but also the soul.

We had a few things in common, apart from food and wine. We were both alumni of TCD and we both shared some experience of Downside School in Somerset, his a lengthy education, mine a homeopathic contact by comparison. In public what we shared was The Restaurant. From the start, Paolo was the good cop, and I was the bad.

It wasn’t just role play (but we did act up, I have to admit). No, Paolo was genuinely the good guy, the person who rarely, if ever, had a bad word to say about anyone. I used to tell him that his natural kindness was something that ill suited a restaurant critic. He just smiled.

I’m trying to think of the right word here. I was going to refer to Paolo’s love of food. That’s not quite right. Truly good food, which could be of the simplest kind, was central to Paolo’s life. It informed the way he cooked (and he was a brilliant cook). He used to say that Italians, meeting in the street, would ask each other what they were planning for lunch, if it were the morning, or for dinner, in the afternoon.

When I last saw him, in hospital, he had lost his appetite and hospital food was doing nothing to bring it back. I asked him if I could bring him anything to make his stay in hospital a bit more bearable. He had piles of DVDs and books.

“No, no,” he said, “I’m fine,” he said.

“Oh come on,” I replied, “There must be something.”

“Well,” he said, “Could you get me a small bottle of good olive oil?”

I went off and immediately got him a bottle of grassy, peppery Arbequina olive oil.

“My favourite!” he told me when I returned with it. I had no idea that he was so close to death at that stage, just a few short weeks ago. But I am so glad I managed to do that tiny thing for him that meant so much.

Paolo was, on one level, a very complex character. Leaving aside, as he would wish, his love life, he was an ardent technophile, literally the first person in Ireland to have an email address, a planter of orchards, an Aston-Martin driver (inherited from his father, it went on fire and was destroyed), a classical scholar, a fine shot, an enthusiastic vaper (e-cigarettes) and a talented author.

Is there more? Oh yes, of course there is. But the key to Paolo was his kindness, his generosity, his humanity. He was one of my dearest friends and he will leave a huge gap in my life.

He was such a considerate man that I know he wants to cheer me up now and he is doing so as I recall one of his Limericks, the brilliantly subversive one that goes:

There was a young man of Rathmines

Who thought Limericks should have just two lines…