Few foods remain as shrouded in mystery as pasta alla carbonara.
The plate — traditionally a rib-sticking combo of pasta, egg yolk, cream, pancetta, and parmigiano-reggiano — has several origin myths.
Some say the rich dish comes from the Apennine Mountains, where it became a staple of hungry woodsmen. Others claim that Italian coal workers popularized the recipe, explaining its name, according to Clifford A. Wright, a food historian who has written extensively on Mediterranean cookery. Speculation even remains that rations distributed around Rome after World War II, largely consisting of dried bacon and powdered egg, prompted locals to come up with new, creative meals — pasta alla carbonara being one of them.
There is one indisputable fact: Noodles seem to be the only possible vegan-friendly ingredient — and that’s only if the chef happens to pick an egg-free kind.
Cafe Viva, on the Upper West Side, courageously offers the hearty favorite sans meat, dairy, and eggs. But it’s only natural to wonder: Will Viva’s variety succeed, or will it suffer the same soylent fate of many veganized dishes?
Viva’s $11.25 made-to-order version comes with your pick of penne or spaghetti.
The generous portion comes out of the kitchen steaming, but freshness and volume don’t do enough to mask the soy-milk-based sauce, which is anything but creamy and savory. The legumey liquid winds up tasting a lot like lukewarm, vanilla Silk: watery and oversweet.
Flavor-wise, the seitan bacon deserves major kudos: Surprisingly, it succeeds. No, the fibrous, grainy texture doesn’t have a greasy, crackly mouthfeel — characteristic of fried porcine products. But the seitan, which appears to be made in-house, achieves a pleasant, meaty vibe without tasting of liquid smoke.
And, unlike many carbonaras, the casual pizzeria’s version does feature sauteed mushrooms, red onions, and green peas, lending much-needed vegetal balance to a generally starchy dish.
Viva’s plate, however aspirational, probably won’t impress die-hard carbonara aficionados. But it also won’t make them gag, which says a lot about a food that’s based on imitating far tastier foods.