Pasta is a favourite of almost everyone. Gemma Simmonite, of Gastrono-me in Bury St Edmunds, shares what inspired her love of Italian food and shares her recipe for Carbonara
Once said by the iconic actress Sophia Loren: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”. If only that were true for most of us! I don’t think there is ever a day that I don’t fancy pasta, and I guarantee you it hasn’t made me look as drop dead gorgeous as La Loren. But I have always adored pasta in ALL its forms. Whether it’s lurking in a rich minestrone soup – ‘slurpable’ and comforting – or thick ribbons of egg pappardelle coated in a creamy Alfredo sauce; impossible to twirl yet so very delicious! Or little macaroni tubes coated unctuously in our four cheese Mac sauce that we’ve been making now for eight years. Or even the humble Napoli sauce on a tired evening that picks you up in all the right ways. All of them make me salivate and gets me planning my next meal.
At the beginning of the lockdown you can imagine my devastation upon seeing the desolate pasta shelves in the supermarket – more shocking than a scene from The Godfather. But do you know what I miss the most though? The independent archetypal trattoria.
Growing up in Cardiff we were inundated with fantastic family-owned Italian restaurants, thanks to so many Italians emigrating to Wales in the early 1900s. The valleys were flooded with ice cream makers and coffee shops that must have seemed so impossibly glamorous to the native Welsh. I’m not sure if that feeling was reciprocated to these brave settlers who had swapped the Calabrian countryside for our brooding, coal-filled valleys.
But something must’ve clicked because at one point we had as many as five Italian cafés on one street. On the high street you were spoiled for choice between pizzerias and trattorias. One of our favourites was called Waldo’s, a fabulously tiny but buzzing-at-the-seams restaurant on Church Street.
Over on the Hayes there was Giovanni’s, which had walls covered in photos of celebrities with a grinning Giovanni proudly posing by their side. Benedicto’s down Windsor Place was a little more exclusive and did the most perfect sauté potatoes and creamed spinach. Or there was our special haven, Lucianos overlooking the Bristol Channel in perfect Penarth. All of these establishments Italian owned, Chianti tinged and bursting with Neapolitan pride.
My beautiful mother and I would spend the happiest of lunches twirling spaghetti, sharing red wine and tearing at pungent garlic bread after shopping. Oh to be able to time travel back to that precious era. My beautiful mum is no longer with me, neither are many of these beautiful restaurants. I do believe Giovanni’s is still fighting fit, which is wonderful in this current climate. But many got swallowed up by chains, cynically created to replicate their magic, but they absolutely failed to do so.
These restaurants weren’t designed, they were patched together – red gingham tablecloths, Dean Martin crooning and homegrown with love. The proprietor had his name on the outside and his heart in the kitchen, and you knew that the young lad nervously lighting your Chianti bottle candle was his nephew or son, because that’s how family businesses worked, everyone mucked in to make the dream work.
Food was fresh and passed down from nonnas, and my god it tasted good. Am I tinged with nostalgia? Maybe. But there was a generosity, a feeling that you’d been invited in by family and you left feeling happy and full. That feeling was something I knew I needed people to feel 20 years later when we created Gastrono-me. Yes, people come out to eat because they’re hungry, but they also come out to eat because of the experience, the generosity and the atmosphere. To be wished buon appetito through a snowstorm of Parmegiano, to have your day enquired about, and to have your favourite dish remembered. So important.
So I have chosen to share with you today our Carbonara. A classic that everyone will know, but maybe not one that you attempt at home.
Carbonara roughly translates to ‘in the manner of coal miners’, which is interesting when you think how my passion for Welsh/Italian restaurants began. It may also have earned its name from the flecks of black pepper that appear like coal dust against the creamy coating.
As with all the best food, it is created simply and with great quality ingredients: Good quality spaghetti, free range egg yolks, parmigiano reggiano, guanciale or pancetta, olive oil, garlic and cracked black pepper. I love that on any given night most of these ingredients could reside in your kitchen, are fairly inexpensive, and within 15 minutes you have the most delicious dish.
We went one step further at Gastrono-me and added a poached egg in our dish. I loved the way it nestled in the spaghetti, and burst its beautiful yolk, coating the pasta even further. This is not necessary, but if you’re feeling fancy definitely one to try!
I hope you are all doing okay, and starting to feel like Bury St Edmunds is waking from its slumber. We hope to see your faces soon, but we know it’s a matter of safety and the right timing. Whatever happens, when we fling open our blue windows again, we will be so very excited to see you. And you know what? You’re gonna leave full!
Until then, stay safe x
3 large free-range egg yolks
45g of grated parmesan cheese
150g of diced pancetta or if you can find it guanciale
200g of spaghetti (look for rough edged pasta, it holds sauce so much better and usually denotes a far superior make of pasta)
1 clove of crushed garlic
1 tablespoon of olive oil
Cracked black pepper
In a large jug mix the egg yolks with the grated parmesan, season with salt and pepper – I like to add a tiny dash of olive oil, too. Mix it vigorously until it emulsifies.
Cook the spaghetti in a large pan of salted boiling water, cook it al dente for approximately 8 minutes.
Fry the pancetta in a little olive oil (you don’t need much as it will render its own lovely oils). When it’s nearly golden add the garlic, being careful not to let the garlic catch.
Before draining the pasta, carefully scoop out a good cupful of the boiling pasta water.
Drain the pasta and toss it into the lovely garlicky pancetta.
Now this is the tricky bit. . . You need to add the egg mix to the spaghetti, make sure the pasta is hot, but not so hot that the egg mixture scrambles. You need to work quickly and add enough of the pasta water to stop it being claggy. Do all of this off the heat. You will know you have got it right when the pasta is glossy/slippy (I know that sounds bats, but if you know, you know!).
Serve with a ‘snowstorm’ of grated parmesan, and a little more black pepper.
Gemma is executive chef and co-creator of Gastrono-me, Abbeygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Call 01284 277980