For a recipe that has only five ingredients, this Roman pasta dish is crazy-delicious, the kind of late-night, empty-fridge recipe that dreams are made of. And while it has few ingredients, the success of the dish relies almost totally on technique, and it may take you a few attempts to perfect it. But once you’ve mastered it, this recipe—made entirely with things you probably always have on hand—is yours forever.
Rather than drain the pasta through a colander when it’s ready, I use tongs to transfer it directly from the water to the pan containing the butter and toasted black pepper, then I add the Parmigiano and toss. Some of the cooking water clings to the noodles and the pot is at my elbow if I need to add a bit more of that starchy water to help the butter sauce emulsify. The amount of pasta water to add depends on the brand of dried pasta you’re using; it gets easier to figure out with experience. You want to add enough to aid the melting of the hard cheese but not so much that the sauce becomes watery; the goal is a bowl of al dente noodles cloaked in a creamy sauce made from the combination of butter, cheese (I use a mixture of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Romano), and that starchy pasta cooking water.
I like the Rustichella d’Abruzzo brand of dried pasta. If you can’t find it, look for another Italian brand that is extruded through bronze dies (the label will likely boast of this), which gives the exterior of each noodle a rougher texture, something the sauce can cling to. —Jessica
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; add the pasta and cook until al dente.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a heavy frying pan over medium heat. Add the pepper and cook, swirling the pan, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Set aside.
When the pasta is al dente, use tongs to transfer it to
the frying pan and place the pan over low heat (keep the pot of pasta water nearby: you may need it). Add the Parmigiano and 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water to the frying pan and, with tongs, immediately toss the pasta until the cheese melts; you want to keep everything moving so the cheese doesn’t sink to the bottom of the pan and start clumping. If a film of cheese begins to form on the bottom of your pan, reduce the heat and continue tossing. Add more pasta cooking water as necessary; the sauce should be creamy and emulsified and coat each strand of pasta.
Remove from the heat, stir in the Pecorino, and toss to coat. Transfer to bowls and serve hot.