A food snob might be tempted to dismiss this quintessential Roman dish as nothing more than an Italian version of mac ‘n’ cheese but he’d upset a lot of Romans if he did and he’d be wrong. The flavors are much more sophisticated and to prove the point you won’t find many mac ‘n’ cheese addicted children falling in love with the strong bite of pepper and the salty acidity of the pecorino romano. These are adult flavors.
Apparently this was Anthony Bourdain's favorite pasta dish and his favorite place to have it was Roma Sparita in the heart of the Trastevere district in Rome.
Many years ago cacio e pepe was a shepherd’s dinner in the mountains with simple ingredients that he could carry easily and wouldn’t spoil. All he needed was some dried pasta, pepper and a thick wedge of aged pecorino preserved by its high salt content. Then with fire, water and a pan he could quickly create this wonderful dish. It’s so good in its original form that it never needed to be adapted for modern conveniences and it still doesn’t.
You can find this dish in any restaurant in Rome but elsewhere, even in Italy, chefs increasingly feel the need to add some unnecessary creativity to it, as chefs tend to do either out of boredom or to justify higher prices. But they shouldn’t, it’s perfect as it is.
And once you’ve discovered the secret to making it properly at home you’ll never order it in a restaurant again because like a lot of simple pasta dishes the time it takes to get from pot to plate is critical and no restaurant can match the speed of transfer possible at home.
I’ll get to the critical technique in a second but first it’s necessary to understand the theory behind it. Dried pasta has plenty of starch contained within it that releases into the water and this is why Italians add some of the pasta cooking water to many of the sauces they make because it helps the sauce adhere to the pasta on the plate. In the preparation of cacio e pepe the amount of cooking water is reduced half way through the process in order to concentrate the starch even more. It’s this high starch content that enables the cheese to coat every strand of the spaghetti in a thin emulsion instead of clumping in a nasty sticky mess as cheese typically does when added to hot food.
If you do this properly you’ll never have to experience the unattractive lumpy embarrassment that we had to eat the first few times I attempted cacio e pepe until, out of frustration at making such a mess of something seemingly so simple, I sought professional help from Italians. In fact don’t even think about consulting English language websites because they’re all wrong in so many ways.
Ingredients for 2 people:
280 g (10 oz) spaghetti (or tonnarelli if you’re a purist)
100 g (3.5 oz) finely grated pecorino romano DOP
1 tablespoon freshly ground black peppercorns
1 tablespoon olive oil
1.5 liters water
3 teaspoons sea salt
1. Like all Italian dishes with very few ingredients it’s essential to use the highest quality possible because it will show up in the final result if you cut corners. Therefore buy a good brand of spaghetti like De Cecco (easy to recognize from its blue and yellow packaging) or la Molisana and make sure it’s actually made in Italy. The cheese has to be pecorino romano, nothing else will do, not even other Italian pecorino cheeses. The black pepper should be freshly ground (but not too finely) or just crushed with a mortar and pestle so you can smell the fresh pepper aroma.
2. Other than a large pan for the spaghetti you’ll need another saucepan, a sieve, a ladle and tongs or a fork with a long handle like the fork that goes with a carving knife. Also, a good cheese grater so the pecorino can be grated using the smallest possible holes because big flakes of cheese will not work with this dish.
1. Grate the cheese and grind the pepper.
2. Bring the 1.5 liters of water to the boil. Add the salt and the spaghetti, and set the timer for five minutes. Keep the water on a rolling boil.
3. After 5 minutes drain the water into the second pan through the sieve and return the pasta to its original pan. Immediately add back to the spaghetti a couple of ladles of the water and keep the heat high under the spaghetti pan. Add the olive oil and half the ground pepper.
4. You now cook the spaghetti a bit like a risotto. Stir the pasta continuously for the next 6 or 7 minutes using the tongs or long fork and add more of the cooking water back to the pasta pan slowly as it evaporates. There should be enough water and steam to cook the pasta even though it won’t be completely submerged from this point on. Don’t add too much water because none of it will be discarded at the end and you don’t want too much water left when the pasta is ready.
5. Most dried pasta is fully cooked at about 12 minutes and if that’s what it says on the packet start to taste the spaghetti at 11 minutes. As soon as it’s still slightly al dente turn off the heat. There should be some water left in the pan with the pasta but not too much.
6. If there’s someone else there to help, have them add the cheese to the spaghetti while you stir it vigorously. Take about 30 seconds to do this, add the rest of the pepper and then you should be left with a beautifully creamy dish with no lumps anywhere. In fact the cheese should hardly even be visible.
7. Serve immediately and have the pepper mill on the table so you can add more if necessary. This dish should have a real peppery bite to it.
This is not a dish to get your best bottle of wine out for. Full bodied Italian white wines from Lazio or Campania like Fiano di Avellino or Falanghina would be fine. Our choice and always a good option when uncertain about paring wine with food is to go straight to one of the local wines, so in this case we picked a Frascati from the hills just outside Rome. Red wines with cacio e pepe are a difficult combination.