Cacio e Pepe
Spaghetti with Cheese and Pepper, a Roman masterpiece.
- Servings: 4 to 6.
I've been fortunate to have visited Rome on several occasions and every time I go, I order this local specialty pasta dish whenever I see it on the menu. My palate finally got it memorized and I figured, hey, how tough can it be to toss spaghetti with grated cheese and pepper. I was wrong. If you don't following the cooking and combining details carefully, you'll get a bowl of glop.
Like all great Italian recipes, the answer lies in great ingredients and using them with knowledge. Some recipes for Cacio e Pepe say to add butter or oil, but that will change the finish and thus, steal its potential for a perfect combination of tender strands of pasta, the grainy salt of good Pecorino, and the bite of freshly grated pepper.
Follow this exactly, and you, too, will have swooning guests asking for seconds.
- 1 pound dried spaghetti or spaghetttini. The #11 DeCecco spaghettini is perfect. Do NOT use fresh pasta for this recipe as it will deteriorate into a gluey mess, no matter how good the pasta or your skill in cooking it perfectly.
- 1 1/4 cup grated Pecorino-Romano
- 2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper. Use your pepper mill or a spice grinder and grind the pepper just before cooking so that the pepper has its fullest flavor. Coarsely ground pepper is better but not so coarse that it will be be in unpleasantly large pieces (not like you'd use in a steak au poivre). Your goal is to have lots of pepper flavor but not pieces to get stuck in your teeth.
- Have a large serving bowl ready to use.
- Prepare the grated cheese and freshly ground pepper. Hold aside.
- Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water according to the package instructions until al dente (do not overcook).
- While the pasta is cooking, fill your serving bowl with very hot water from the sink. This lets the bowl get warm so that the hot pasta won't cool down when you place it into the bowl. Just before the spaghetti is finished cooking, drain the bowl but do not towel-dry it.
- Just before draining the pasta, reserve a 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water.
- When al dente, drain the pasta quickly in a colander (you don't have to shake off all the water as the extra moisture will help the cheese coat the pasta) and place it in the warmed serving bowl.
- Immediately toss about a 1/2 cup of the grated cheese over the spaghetti and quickly toss to coat. Keep moving so that the cheese doesn't clump together. Continue to toss while adding more cheese a couple of tablespoons at a time, up to 3/4 of a cup in total, as well as some of the pasta water to help create a slightly creamy emulsion of the cheese and warm, starchy pasta water (start with about 1/4 cup of the water) until there's a presence of the cheese throughout the bowl of spaghetti. Much of the cheese will melt but some will be little bits left whole (this is a good thing).
- If you have a pasta fork, this is a great tool to use because it helps separate the strands; if you don't, use large forks to toss as a spoon will keep the strands together and they won't get coated.
- When you've incorporated about 3/4 cup of the grated Pecorino, sprinkle in about 1 tablespoon of the ground pepper. Toss again. Taste for the combination of cheese and pepper. You want the flavor to be the tender spaghetti and a forward presence of salty cheese and pepper heat. Add more of either or both the pepper and cheese if you think it's needed.
- Serve immediately.
Tip: Pecorino-Romano is a hard sheep's cheese from the Lazio region of Italy (Rome is in Lazio) that resembles Parmigiano-Reggiano but it is less refined in its flavor, saltier, and pungent. For this recipe it's essential that you use a coarser grated cheese so that when it's tossed with the warm pasta, it both melts and coats the strands while also staying a tiny bit unmelted, adding little bursts of salty cheese flavor. Do NOT use your microplane zester to grate the cheese. Instead, put pieces of the Pecorino into your food processor and pulverize it into tiny bits or else use the ragged holes of a box grater. I learned the hard way that cheese grated on the rasper will produce a melted gluey clump.
Tip: A perfect and easily available brand of Pecorino-Romano to buy is Locatelli (about $10/pound).
Tip: If for some reason the cheese doesn't mix successfully and you need more "slip," try adding a small amount -- only about 1/2 tablespoon -- of good olive oil and toss thoroughly. Resist adding more oil because it will change the dish into pasta with oil and cheese, and frankly, that's another dish.
You can pass a bowl with extra cheese but if you've added the right amount, you guests won't ask for more.
Serve with a simple green salad and a bowl of room temperature oven-roasted tomatoes. Or with a plain pan grilled fish or meat and a steamed vegetable, leaving the pasta to be the flavor-filled star of the meal.