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Farmed Out: Locanda's Pasta Carbonara

Summer Sewell | October 4, 2013 | Story Ingredient

Welcome back to Farmed Out, a new online series, meant to ease farm-to-table fatigue by taking you directly to the source. In the last edition, we followed chef Dennis Lee to his primary farm for Namu Gaji. Today Locanda chef Anthony Strong takes us to the chicken farm where his crowd-favorite carbonara begins.

Locanda chef Anthony Strong takes a few road trips a week to visit the specialty purveyors who fill out his menu. You could call them mini vacations, but Strong deeply values the connections he forges with the people like Dawn Dolcini, the owner of Tully Dolci farm in Petaluma. Strong turns out about 35 carbonara pasta dishes for each dinner service. To make its addictive, creamy sauce, Tully Dolci eggs are key.

“We obsess over our eggs,” Strong says. “Ingredients are so important, especially with carbonara. It’s the sum of its parts. You can’t screw with it.” Every Locanda carbonara has two Tully Dolci egg yolks (about $1.10 worth) whisked into the sauce. “It needs to be dark and full of protein, but also silky and sweet. Other egg yolks aren’t as dense and don’t deliver the same richness.”

Every Thursday at the San Rafael farmers' market, Dawn Dolcini hands off 30 dozen of her eggs—the bulk of her farm’s supply for the day—to Strong. He’s been using her eggs since 2009, when Dolcini first started. Back then, Locanda wasn’t yet open, but Strong cracked these vibrant beauties onto pizzas and into soups at sister restaurants Delfina and Delfina Pizzeria.

“We call these our fancy eggs,” Strong said. As such, the eggs make limited appearances only where they matter most: in Locanda’s carbonara, and egg-centered stracciatella soup. For every other egg application, Strong uses free-range organic eggs from Dolcini’s neighbor, Wyland Orchards.

Last week, Strong drove 45 miles out of the San Francisco mist to the dry hills of Petaluma to visit Dolcini for the very first time on her 60-acre farm. Strong pulled off the long dirt road onto the farm slowly, hunched over the steering wheel, mouth agog. It was his first time, and he was already in love. Dolcini hugged Strong and he handed her his house-cured guanciale (that's pig jowl), some pecorino romano, and his recipe for his carbonara—for which she exchanged a fresh pig liver.

We chatted with a sheep farmer driving through to his land higher up on the hill, and then began our quest for eggs. It was desert-mirage hot and the hens scattered into the shade as we approached. Strong slowly crept behind them, phone camera ready, like a boastful parent on a playground. He asked Dolcini more questions than I did: How many birds are there? —About 350. Do they all lay eggs with the dark, thick yolk? —Most do because of their high protein and high soy diet, but the Rhode Island Reds are most reliable.

Dolcini let Strong and me amuse ourselves on an Easter-like egg hunt, but she knew we were too early in the day. She usually doesn’t collect eggs until late afternoon when all the hens have laid. We passed hours aimlessly meandering through the farm, birds darting about our ankles, before heading back to the city where crates of Tully Dolci eggs awaited us.

In the kitchen at Locanda on a Saturday night, Strong prepares for the night by cutting a 12-pound block of pecorino Romano cheese into chunks the length of his forearm before grating. He carves the house-cured guanciale into imperfect squares the size of his thumb “to give it more character.” He separates the eggs' yolks with his hands, mixes in the cheese, and purees boiled-down guanciale skin.

Carbonara usually relies on a long noodle, but Strong and his team tested different shapes until they found a better vehicle for the sauce. Strong landed on rigatoni—per Osteria di San Cesario where he staged in Rome—because the hole in the pasta tube is a tasty hiding spot for the sauce.

Over on the line, the constant rattle of pots and pans, and the sound of pork popping around in its own fat (with a bay leaf and onion petal) signifies that fewer than ten minutes until dinner service begins. “Low and slow,” Strong repeats. "Low and slow." He drains the guanciale, adds the cooked pasta and the egg sauce, all the while loosening the sauce with pasta water from a bubbling row of pots at his hip.

Staring at the final dish, I notice the velvety cohesion delivered by the egg sauce, and the richness of the yolk is evident, gushing out of the rigatoni tube. Still, the scene-stealers are the ten or so bits of guanciale, composed of a top layer like pork rind and a squishy middle. I stab around the bowl to see what texture I’ll catch next.

The Rigatoni alla Carbonara ($17) is available for dinner at Locanda.

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