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I grew up in Rome eating pasta carbonara and pasta all’amatriciana but, oddly enough, not cacio e pepe. These three pastas (plus one more, la gricia) were said to be so deeply Roman that no osteria, trattoria, or ristorante would dare not to serve them.
And yet for some reason, cacio e pepe was not on my radar. Carbonara was my first and truest love, shrouded in mystery as to its origins (did it come from charcoal makers—carbonaii—or was it invented when Allied troops liberated Rome and the Americans handed their rations over to eager restaurant cooks who, without much else, mixed eggs and bacon together to create a new dish?)
I wasn’t ever very concerned about where carbonara came from, I just ordered it at meal after meal all over Rome, sitting in boredom as my parents drank with friends and talked away the afternoon.
The first time I sat up and noticed cacio e pepe was oddly enough at Lupa, a Roman-style trattoria in New York’s West Village where a lot of my friends cooked and where I spent many late nights and into the wee hours of the morning, drinking with the chef and talking, of course, about food.
Eventually I started tracing cacio e pepe to its Roman roots, eating at the legendary da Felice in Testaccio, an old working class neighborhood that resisted gentrification long after my own neighborhood was so spiffed up you could barely find a trattoria on its winding streets.
In Testaccio, the dish came to the table with the noodles (tonarelli, a square spaghetti that’s suspiciously close to Abruzzese chitarra) piled atop the sauce. The waitress rapidly and deftly swirled the piping hot pasta in the bowl until every strand was perfectly coated with soft, creamy, melted cheese and speckled almost grey with black pepper. Having discovered this dish at last, it became what I mourned on those rare occasions when I had been foolishly distracted by something else on the menu.
Cacio e pepe (the name means simply cheese and pepper) seems elemental, what you might cook at home after a late night out because you need sustenance before heading to bed, or, like aglio e olio, something you could make on a whim any time, with ingredients that are always in your pantry—cheese, pepper, pasta. E basta.
The first time I made it, I followed instructions from my friend Rolando Beramendi, importer of Rustichella d’Abruzzo pasta, and it came out perfectly. I reserved some of the pasta water, then finished the pasta in a couple inches of the starchy water and showered it with cheese and freshly ground black pepper. The cheese melted into the water and as the pasta absorbed the water, the cheese sauce napped each spaghetti strand in a perfect creamy, peppery sheath.
The second time I made it, I used Szechuan peppercorns, something I’d heard about from a new-style Roman chef, but it was disastrous. The cheese seized up and I was left with spaghetti in a watery sauce shot through with clumps of melted cheese and overpoweringly strong Szechuan pepper.
Back to the drawing board. I perused the web. English language recipes all seemed to call for butter—a totally unacceptable, un-Roman ingredient that makes everything come together much more easily. Even at Lupa the cooks kept a pan of butter, water, and ground pepper warm in the oven, tossed the cooked pasta with it, and then added the appropriate amount of cheese, which made for a delicious, and easy-to-execute dish but one that did not reflect the original at all.
Elizabeth Minchilli, a Roman food writer and blogger, told me of another favorite chef in Rome who makes a slurry of cheese, ground pepper, and fizzy water, then tosses the hot pasta with that. Fizzy water is allowed; butter, no.
When I tried that method, it didn't work—although perhaps it was because the cheese slurry was just out of the fridge as opposed to being left at room temperature. I am not Science Guy when it comes to cooking and figuring things out—indeed, I’m the opposite. For me it’s about feel, and trial and error, and finding my way, more than assessing the temperature at which cheese properly melts or seizes up.
In the end, I took a few ideas from a few different places and with a careful study of the technique of it all, I can be pretty confident of making the perfect creamy sauce—using only cheese, olive oil, and water—that will coat the pasta perfectly every time.
Here's how I do it: While the pasta cooks, I steep crushed peppercorns (black not Szechuan) in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pot that's large enough to hold all of the pasta. Once the pasta is cooking, I add a little starchy pasta cooking water to the oil, then turn in the drained, but slightly undercooked, pasta to the olive oil pot (don’t throw out the pasta water!), set it over low heat, and twirl and swirl until the oily, peppery water is almost absorbed. Then I transfer it all to a warm bowl where I shower a handful of cheese onto the pasta, still twirling and swirling. When the cheese has just melted, I add another small ladleful of warm pasta water and twirl and swirl, adding another handful of cheese. I alternate until all or most of the cheese had been used up and the spaghetti is beautifully coated with perfectly creamy melted cheese and black peppercorns.
- 2 tablespoons whole black peppercorns crushed in a mortar and pestle or 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- 500 grams spaghetti
- 3/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano
- 3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- About 3/4 to 1 cup of cooking water
Cacio e pepe is a quick and easy dish once you understand the technique. It’s something I make during the day when I’m hungry and I don’t want to leave the house and there isn’t anything in the pantry but pasta, cheese, and pepper. But as far as late night food after a lot of wine, I still stick with aglio olio because that is even easier and doesn’t require a mastery of technique.
One caveat to my recipe for cacio e pepe: I know I sneered at the idea of butter as a forbidden non-Roman ingredient. I will admit that if I make cacio e pepe the Roman way with 100% Pecorino Romano, I find the whole dish too salty and sour. I cheat and use half pecorino and and half equally-forbidden Parmigiano or Grana Padano.
As we say in Italy, wishing someone good luck, “In bocca al lupo!” And you know what, if it doesn’t come out perfectly the first time it will still be edible—and most likely delicious, too!