“Another bite” is a series of occasional posts about food, presenting the delicious local products, tasty dishes and other gastronomic delights we encounter on our tours and cruises.
A few weeks from now, our first ever tour of Rome will take place, as always led by extraordinarily well-informed expert guides. The inauguration of our Exploring Rome tour is a good occasion to offer a quintessential Roman recipe: cacio e pepe.
A Roman Classic
The name of this pasta dish means "cheese and pepper", which is highly accurate, but it is not what your pocket dictionary (if you have one) would suggest: that would be formaggio e pepe. Cacio is an alternative term used in Rome and parts of Southern Italy; such peculiarities are typical of the remarkably varied language that is Italian. The dish is distinctly Roman rather than generically Italian; it is considered one of the four classic Roman pasta preparations. Its simplicity is very much an expression of the long history of a city that has usually had a mostly poor population, its cuisine based on the produce of the surrounding regions.
I remember the first time I encountered cacio e pepe, and how unexpected it was to me. It was on a family visit to Rome when I was barely a teenager. My knowledge of Italian cuisine was at that time determined by what Italian restaurants in my Northern European homeland (and more generally in the Western World) served - pasta drenched in sauce, usually red. The approach to pasta I grew up with was just that: wheat noodles, slightly overcooked and treated as a protein-filler, the main theme being the sauce, and variation usually attempted by adding complex ingredients, like forest mushrooms, unusual spices etc.
So, my first experience of Roman pasta dishes was a revelation, but not an entirely voluntary one. It entailed a whole family trying to order food and a Roman waiter asserting superior knowledge - correctly, as it turned out. What I was served, so many years ago, was a classic cacio e pepe, and it surprised me by its lack of suffocating sauce and its emphasis on the pasta and cheese as the main ingredients, deftly assisted by the other elements - so few of them, so simple and so well balanced. It was nothing like the pasta dishes I knew: superb in its stark simplicity and its easy reliance on high-quality components.
A caveat and a few words on the main ingredients
Before I continue, I should stress one thing: there is no consensus even in Rome as to the definitive cacio e pepe recipe - in fact, there is no such thing. The issue appears to be a little controversial... So, what follows here cannot claim to be canonical; it is simply a workable, simple and delicious version, based on a friend's instructions.
In the case of cacio e pepe, there are two key ingredients to look out for: the pasta and the cheese.
In Rome, the dish most typically uses tonnarelli, an egg pasta shaped more or less like spaghetti and native to the region of Lazio near Rome. If you can't source tonnarelli, you might be able to find spaghetti alla chitarra from the Abruzzo area. If all else fails, just use high quality spaghetti.
Even more important is the cheese. Either all or no less than half of it must be Pecorino Romano, the most traditional of Rome's cheeses, descended from local sheep's milk cheeses already produced 2,000 years ago and carried by Roman legionaries as part of their daily ration. Today, most Pecorino Romano is made on nearby Sardinia, but it is not to be confused with Pecorino Sardo! Pecorino Romano is hard, somewhat brittle, salty, a little spicy and has a lemony note. It is advisable to a Pecorino that has been aged for at least six months. Some versions, such as mine below, also use Parmigiano-Reggiano (Parmesan).
In any case, I highly recommend using the authentic Italian cheeses, not local "equivalents".
Cacio e Pepe – recipe
500g (18oz) pasta (ideally tonnarelli, but spaghetti alla chitarra or simple spaghetti also work, see above)
125g (4.5 oz) aged Pecorino Romano, grated
75g (2.5 oz) Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1.5 tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely crushed in a mortar
Salt to taste
1.In a large saucepan, prepare the pasta water: salt generously and don't use any oil (it is important for this dish that the cheese sauce attaches itself to the surface of the pasta). Set to a high heat.
2. While the pasta water is heating up, pour the olive oil into another mid-sized to large saucepan over low to medium heat. Add the crushed peppercorns, stir and let them fry for a few minutes. Eventually, stir in 125ml (half a cup) of hot water - you can use some of the pasta water, then turn the heat off (or to its lowest possible level).
3. As soon as the pasta water is boiling, add the pasta. Time it for 2 minutes less than the recommended cooking time.
4. Once that time has elapsed, drain the pasta or remove it from the water - but make sure not to dispose of the pasta water yet! With the starch from the pasta suspended in it, it still has a major role to play in this dish...
5. Add the pasta to the saucepan with the oil-pepper mixture and stir constantly over a low heat until the water has evaporated.
6. Immediately, add 2 large tablespoons of each of the grated cheeses and continue stirring. If the mixture looks dry, add a spoon or two of the pasta water and stir on. Once all is smooth, repeat, adding cheese, and pasta water as needed, and stirring all the time. Continue until all the cheese has been used up. This step is the most important one: what you are aiming for is a thick and creamy coating, with no lumps, evenly attached to all of the pasta.
7. Add salt and ground pepper to taste (probably none will be needed) and serve with no delay. A light green salad is a fit accompaniment. There is no need for grated cheese!
I hope you enjoy this deceptively simple recipe. If so, you should consider joining us sometime on our Rome tour!