On the Gulf coast of Mexico, outside of Progreso, a small, somewhat rough-and-tumble Mexican port town famous for its 4 1/2 mile pier, there sits an Italian restaurant called “Elio al Mare.” The restaurant, a converted beachfront house, where the living room serves as the dining room, and the front deck places you in the middle of a stiff sea breeze that blows the tablecloths around, and a flat, motionless horizon that wraps around you in 180 degrees, is unusual for the area. Located on a treacherous sand road, alternately peppered with huge chunks of rock and perilous potholes, Elio’s is a bit of an anachronism in a town much more famous for its pescado frito and roadside coco frio stands.
Elio, an immigrant from Italy, opened the restaurant years ago, serving his version of classic Italian fare to a Mexican population largely unfamiliar with Italian classics. Elio himself will greet you at the door, his white hair and white apron equally dabbed with dinner, using his combination of Italian and Spanish that ultimately, perplexingly, becomes the common language between Elio and his expatriated customers. His flavors represent some of the best cooking happening in the area, using strictly homemade pasta, and having been tweaked only slightly for the local palette.
Elio’s pasta alla carbonara is one of my favorite dishes from his arsenal of ever-so-slightly tweaked classics. It uses no cream; the beaten eggs, hot pasta, mounds of Parmesan cheese, and a dab of pasta water combine to make a silky-smooth sauce for the pancetta-and-mushroom studded linguine. If the finished product seems too dry (which is unlikely) add a splash more pasta water at the end.
Linguine Carbonara with Mushrooms & Red Pepper
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup (about 4 ounces) pancetta or bacon, chopped
- 1/2 package of white button mushrooms (about 6 ounces), cleaned and sliced
- 1 pound linguine or other long pasta
- 4 eggs, beaten
- 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more to taste
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Put the oil and the pancetta in a large skillet and cook, stirring ocassionally, over medium heat until pancetta begins to brown, about 6 minutes. Add sliced mushrooms, small pinch of salt, and red pepper flakes, and cook until mushrooms begin to brown, about 3-4 minutes more. Turn off heat and set aside.
- In a mixing bowl, beat four eggs. Add the pancetta and mushroom mixture.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions and drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Immediately toss the hot pasta with the egg, pancetta, and mushroom mixture. If the pasta is too dry, add some of the pasta water. Add plenty of ground black pepper, and more Parmesan, to taste, and serve.