Before GPS existed anywhere outside of the military, my sister and I foolishly attempted to navigate from Milan’s Malpensa airport to the city center, in a rental car, late at night, with less than $1 of credit on our phone. We called our host who informed us of the correct highway and, in the interest of not using all the money on our phone, asked us to call again when we reached a certain destination about 30 minutes into our 45 minute drive. I exited the highway per my instructions, pulled onto the shoulder and called. The directions went something like this. ‘Follow the highway towards the city center towards the train station, take the second right after the needle and thread, then follow the road until the man on the horse and take the first exit, continue two more streets and take a left, I am on the left’. I hung up the phone thinking that perhaps my friends’ father had lost it and positive we wouldn't ever make it.
Luckily, the directions were perfect and we had only just to trust them to find our way. Given that all Milan street names sound like pasta dishes to an American (Cappellini Alfredo? true story), this was indeed the only way we were ever going to get there.
When we arrived, rather frazzled, (Italian driving is still a breed of its own even at 11 o’clock at night) Gian Carlo, with a map of Milan spread out before him on the kitchen table, asked if we were hungry. I politely declined and Eliza hesitated, just long enough, for Gian Carlo to start digging around in the cupboards. He had just gotten back from a trip he apologized and had nothing in the house. But minutes later, pasta was on the boil and a sauce was on the hob. I don’t remember exactly but I think a red onion, tuna and capers were involved and it was delicious. We cleaned our plates and felt guilty that this lovely man had just cooked us dinner at 11 o’clock at night when he turned from the freezer and said “A drink?” and handed us two glasses. Sgroppino: vodka, Prosecco and lemon sorbet. Basically heaven on earth.
We finished our drinks sitting on the sofa thinking about what a great start to our European vacation this was, when Gian Carlo popped out of his chair and said “Let’s have a drink by the canal and see Milan by night!” Wedding and children aside, this was pretty much the best night ever.
A decade later his granddaughter showed up on my doorstep after a 24 hour journey from Sicily to be my au pair for the month, I had a flashback of this moment and how everything had come full circle. Everything except the fact that I had nothing to offer her. I had proudly denuded my refrigerator and cupboards in advance of my trip and the kitchen was literally bare, a far cry from well stocked! I vowed for that to never happen again and when times are lean I know I can always fall back on Spaghetti Carbonara. While not a Milanese street name it quite well could be, all you need are pasta, pancetta and an egg. Some parmesan and garlic make it extra delightful.
Boil salted water and cook the pasta to al dente. While the pasta is cooking, fry some chopped pancetta or bacon along with some whole unpeeled garlic cloves in a pan until the fat is rendered and the pancetta crispy. Depending on your preference there are two methods, you can either whisk the eggs (about 1 per person) in a small bowl or a large bowl. If you opt for small, pick the garlic out of the pancetta (save if and spread it on toast!), drain the pasta and dump it into the pan with the pancetta stirring it around to absorb all the drippings and to cool enough to add the eggs without scrambling them. With the big bowl option, drain your pasta, let it cool slightly and dump it into the eggs, stirring it around to cook the eggs, then remove the garlic and add the pancetta to the bowl along with the drippings. Top with parmesan cheese.
Either method is acceptable, Ruth Reichl prefers the big bowl option, I usually go with the pan as I’ve found my likelihood of scrambled eggs is lower but it’s up to you. And if it happens, while pasta with bacon and scrambled eggs was not your intention, it’s still pretty good.