Cacio e Pepe
Another post in honor of Italy. This pasta—cacio e pepe, or “cheese and pepper,” in English—is an absurdly simple, yet incredibly delicious, Roman pasta dish. It will literally only take you a few minutes to throw together in the evenings, but is surprisingly elegant. A perfect weeknight meal, in my mind.
Patrick was itching to have some real Roman cacio e pepe while we were there, and yet (for whatever reason) we found ourselves in Rome, on our last night in Italy before flying home to San Francisco, and we had not eaten cacio e pepe. What?! Clearly, the situation needed to be rectified, and fast. So we walked down to Trastevere, got a beer at this amazing dive bar, had one last Aperol Spitz, and then headed here for some authentic cacio e pepe. All I’ll say is that it was a fantastic way to spend our last night in Rome, not to mention our last night in Italy.
I love this dish because, for me, it embodies the best of Italian cooking. It’s simple. A little rustic. Made with the freshest ingredients. And oh-so-good. You really can’t beat Italian cooking. Especially when it’s this easy to make!
CACIO E PEPE
Adapted, a little, from Bon Appétit
Serves 2-3 as a main
1 package of pasta (egg taglioni, buccatini, spaghetti, or linguine)
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 scant tbsp. whole black peppercorns*
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup finely grated Pecorino
Bring a pot of well-salted water to boil.** Add the pasta, and cook according to package instructions (stirring occasionally), until about 2 minutes before tender (it will finish cooking the the pan). Drain the pasta, reserving at least a cup of the pasta water.
Meanwhile, crush the peppercorns using a rolling pin or heavy skillet—this will give you very coarse pepper, which works well in the dish. I crush the peppercorns by placing them on a wooden cutting board, covering them with a piece of parchment paper (to keep them from flying everywhere), and then smashing them with a rolling pin until coarsely crushed (see photo). Don’t be afraid to hit the peppercorns hard—you need a little muscle here. It’s a good way to take out any stress after a long day!
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a large pan over medium heat. Add the pepper, and swirl in the pan to toast, for about a minute. Next, 1/2 cup of reserved pasta water to the pan, along with the remaining butter, and bring to a simmer. Add the cooked pasta. Reduce the heat to low, and then add the Parmesan, tossing with tongs until the cheese is melted. Remove from the heat, and add the Pecorino. Toss with tongs until everything is melted and combined, and the pasta is well-coated and al dente. At this point, you will probably want to add a little more pasta water to moisten the dish—it should be silky and creamy, not dry. Taste for seasonings, and add more pasta water and/or salt as needed.
Divide among bowls and serve immediately. Pretend you’re in Rome and enjoy!
* Sensitive to spice? Just use a little less pepper. I like my cacio e pepe to have a nice kick, so my version of this dish calls for a scant tablespoon. But I’ve seen other recipes call for as little as a teaspoon. Go with what works for you.
** What does well-salted mean? I mean go to town with the salt. You should use a small handful of salt, so that the water is almost the salinity of salt water. Sounds crazy? It’s not, I promise. Using enough salt is the only way to truly flavor the pasta noodles while they’re cooking. And the pasta water will be built-in seasoning for your sauce. But always remember to taste as you go when seasoning, either with pasta water or just straight up salt—it will not only ensure that you have a well-seasoned dish that suits your tastes, but also gives you an excuse to snack (certainly one of the perks of cooking!).