January 17, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Overstepping the mark

Spaghetti alla crudaiola: please don't add horseradish…
By Letizia Mattiacci
Published: 2017-08-26

amie Oliver has again put garlic in the carbonara. For those of you who don't know him, Jamie is a British celebrity chef and restaurateur who's long put his version of English cuisine on TV's front burner.

Don't get me wrong. I like Jamie. I think he's really cute. I also think he's a hero for promoting the concept that school food should be good and wholesome.

And a garlic clove isn't the end of the world. It's not even weird. Besides, using the name of a traditional Italian recipe doesn't mean follow all the traditional Italian details, right?

But the other side of the coin is this. Carabonara isn't just a dish. It's a cultural and traditional recipe with its own framework. It's no secret that playing with the name of a historically popular and delicious recipe can make you a lot of money. But shouldn't the celebrities raking in that money also make an effort to respect the tradition of a recipe when announcing their own "authentic" variation?

After all, celebrities are models to an often-uninformed public. If they say a carbonara is made with anchovies, or tastes better with anchovies, someone might actually believe it.

And what about food superstar Nigella Lawson, who got it into her head that she should (or could) substitute wine with vermouth in making carbonara. Her explanation? "I think spaghetti carbonara is what Meryl Streep cooks for Jack Nicholson in the film version of one of my favorite books, 'Heartburn,' and it is so right, for that chin-dripping, love-soaked primal feast…"

Garlic occupies a ubiquitous place in Italian cuisine, which is all the more reason not to abuse it.

But that's an American cultural reference, Nigella. It's not your "primal feast" to borrow from. Talk about mixing apples and oranges.

There's also Giada De Laurentiis' ravioli with wonton wrappers and her (again) "authentic" burrata and strawberry bruschetta.

I know what you're thinking: that I'm jealous of their creativity, not to mention their cash flow. But the truth is that some of the stuff marketed as Italian or "informed" by "Italian creativity," Italians wouldn't touch. They hate exaggerated tinkering.

I'm a practical person. I know I'll never make millions telling people sensible things. Who does? But please understand my annoyance. Some of these recipes are disappointing approximations at best. A few represent a downright thrashing of our culinary heritage.

Superstars are entitled to innovation. They can interpret Mozart, so to speak. Maybe some even think they even can one-up him. That rarely happens.

I'll always believe that if a recipe stands the test of time and becomes popular all over the planet, that's usually because it's good as it is.

So, dear superstars, please create your own classics. Don't pin the name Italian on them. Your own recipes à la Me will earn you respect and culinary devotion. The rest you should leave to the locals.

Now then, back to garlic. Hundreds of Italian recipes call for it, if not encourage it. Invent your own and make up a name. Throw in cream, peas, mushrooms, and pineapple. Add all the garlic you want. Just please don't say it's carbonara.

Spaghetti alla crudaiola (Serves 2-3)


  • 500 gr/1 lb cherry tomatoes.

  • 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil.

  • 1 garlic clove, very finely chopped or mashed with a garlic press.

  • 5 basil leaves.

  • 300 gr/ 10 ounces spaghetti.

  • pinch sugar, salt.

  • 1 fresh chile pepper (optional).


— Slice tomatoes, transfer into a bowl, and sprinkle lightly with salt. Add 1/2 tablespoon olive oil.

— Using a shallow pan )a non stick wok is ideal) sauté the garlic in olive oil over low heat until just fragrant. Do not under any circumstances brown the garlic. Add the sliced tomatoes with their juices and heat through, but don't cook. — Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar (no more than than you can hold between thumb and forefinger). Remove from heat.

— Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in plenty of well salted water until al dente. Strain and transfer the pasta in the sauce. Quickly stir on high heat until the pasta is coated with the tomato juices. — Add finely chopped chili pepper if using and the basil leaves. Remove from heat, drizzle with 1 tablespoons olive oil and serve with grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese on the side.

And Jamie, please remember I love you. Don't ask Gennaro Contaldo about the garlic — he doesn't know everything. Just give me a call instead.

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Letizia Mattiacci

Letizia runs Alla Madonna del Piatto, an Umbrian cooking school and B&B, and has a blog.

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