It's just gone 9 AM when I walk through the revolving doors at Palatino, a restaurant near London's Old Street inspired by the food of Rome. I can hear a quiet buzz from the open kitchen, morning sunshine streams through the windows onto daffodil-yellow booths, and early birds scan menus written in the restaurant's namesake typeface.
Between Palatino's standard morning offerings of avocado, toast with jam, and fruit sits a more unusual breakfast dish: bucatini Carbonara. That's right, at Palatino, you can have your pasta for breakfast, and eat it.
"I wasn't sure if people would order it or not but they have been! People are definitely into it, which I respect hugely because it's a proper Carbonara," says chef and owner Stevie Parle, who I track down in the kitchen. "It's quite full on—it's egg yolks, it's cheese, it's guanciale."
Before we get into the nitty gritty of exactly how Parle, who also runs Dock Kitchen, Rotorino, Sardine, and Craft London, makes his version of the highly contentious Italian dish, I ask why he chose Roman food as the focus for his latest eatery.
"For me, Italian food is incredibly regional. If you're cooking Italian food and you're not cooking regionally, you haven't got a great understanding of it. When I worked at The River Café, one of the progressions I saw was that, while the restaurant was Italian, Rose [Gray] was very keen on making it more regional to be able to say, 'This dish is from Naples and this one from Piedmont,'" he explains. "Unification was late in Italy, it was in 1871. Before that, it was a load of principalities with completely different traditions and I think the food really shows that."
Parle continues: "When I was looking at Italian food and looking at the dishes that I really like, loads of them are Roman, like cacio e pepe, Carbonara, amatriciana, artichokes alla romana, gnocchi alla romana. They're all Rome, Rome, Rome. And then Rome itself is quite regional in its dishes, for example there's the Jewish quarter and the area around the meat market."
But he assures me that diners here don't get a history and geography lecture with their primi and secondi. Parle says: "Having that depth is important but this isn't an anthropological project. It's a restaurant and we're trying to make food that people want to eat but within a framework of Rome."
Talking of eating, it's time for pasta. And like any chef cooking Italian food who's worth their weight in Parmesan, Parle has some ground rules when it comes to Carbonara.
"Definitely no cream. Definitely guanciale (which is cured cheek), not pancetta," he states. "I guess mine is quite official."
In the kitchen, Parle separates bulbous, golden egg yolks from the whites but my eyes wander to some magnificent-looking globe artichokes being prepped by the chef next to us. Parle catches me looking: "You're not here for artichokes."
Warning heeded, my attention is back on the task at hand. Parle brings out a tray of bucatini, which is made fresh every day at the restaurant.
"We use bucatini, which is like a big spaghetti with a hole in the middle, for the Carbonara here. It's an important consideration what pasta goes with sauce and we just found that bucatini Carbonara worked well. That's the level of detail that I spend most of my life thinking about," says Parle, deadpan. But then he cracks a smile: "I think it's quite a funny pasta. It's just long tubes! There's something about it that I like."
Parle puts the guanciale into a hot frying pan. Now it's time to get into the nitty gritty of a good Carbonara. Think a dish with five ingredients is simple? Think again.
"Using guanciale is important because of the fat you get when it renders in the pan," he explains while putting the pasta in water to cook. "We cook all the pasta in this water so all the starch stays in it. This won't be as starchy because it's the first batch of the day."
I'm told the eggs come from happy hens in Devon and then it's onto the cheese.
"You're meant to use 100-percent Pecorino Romano but I like a mixture of Parmesan and Pecorino because I think that Parmesan has more umami than even the best Pecorino," says Parle, as impassioned as any Italian nonna. "If you don't add it, you don't get that deep savoury flavour that you get from really good Parmesan."
He adds: "And then a lot of black pepper is key. We use tellicherry pepper."
The cooked pasta is added to the guanciale and taken off the heat before the egg yolks, pepper, and cheese are tossed through.
"Adding some pasta water is the difference between the dish being claggy and glossy," adds Parle as he ladles some in.
Plating up, he says, "It's a dish that I've been cooking as long as I've been cooking. It's late-night teenage food, 3 AM stoned food—bacon and eggs in the fridge, whatever pasta you have in the cupboard."
But pre-12 PM is (hopefully) a less inebriated time of the day. Why is Carbonara on the breakfast menu?
"It's something I think about having if I'm hungover or need a boost. It's just like having bacon and eggs, isn't it? It's like an all-day breakfast pasta," says Parle. "I thought it was fun, I thought people would probably need it and want it."
I've already hoovered up half the plate before he's finished speaking. Turns out that Carbonara is indeed the breakfast dish I never knew I always wanted.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2017.