To say that cacio e pepe is having a moment would be an understatement. The dish has been popular in central Italy for centuries, but until the last decade or so it was mainly a simple meal to be eaten at home or in a casual trattoria. Perhaps because of an increased interest in traditional, “slow” foods, cacio e pepe has been catapulted into the international spotlight.
The story goes that, because hard sheep’s milk cheese, black pepper, and dried pasta were so portable and accessible, cacio e pepe was a peasant’s dish, and particularly a shepherd’s dish. Shepherds would have had abundant access to Pecorino Romano, also known as “cacio” in local dialect. A simple pasta with grated cheese as the centerpiece makes sense for hungry people working long hours with low provisions.
Cacio e pepe has three ingredients: pasta, Pecorino Romano, and pepper. Five ingredients if you count the pasta and salt, but that’s it. Many recipes, and indeed many restaurants, add butter or olive oil to make the sauce come together more easily, but this is wrong. Any additional fat will mute the perfect, unadulterated flavor of real cacio e pepe, and can make the final dish unappealingly greasy.
Some cooks also replace a portion of the pecorino with Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, in an effort to “balance” the flavor of the salty, funky, punchy pecorino. To that I say; if you don’t like pecorino, don’t eat cacio e pepe. We as humans are not pure, but cacio e pepe should be.
The variations in real cacio e pepe come not from adding or taking away any ingredients, but in the technique. Some cooks add grated cheese and pepper directly to cooked pasta, along with some cooking water, and mix like crazy until a glossy, thick sauce forms. Others make a paste out of the grated pecorino and hot cooking water, which then lusciously coats the strands of al dente pasta. Still others blend the grated pecorino with cold water, then thinning the amalgamation out with hot cooking water added to the pasta. Each technique has something different to offer, and with the proper skill, will yield a silky, decadent bowl of perfect cacio e pepe.
The most traditional pasta used in making cacio e pepe are tonnarelli, fresh noodles that are similar to spaghetti alla chitarra. Since the pasta is fresh, it cooks quickly, and yields a chewy bite. Dry spaghetti are also commonly used, which makes for a pasta with a little more heft. When preparing it at home, dry spaghetti is the easiest choice (unless you have a fresh pasta shop nearby or want to make pasta at home).
Some pitfalls to note: cold dishes will shock the cheese and can make it coagulate. To prevent this, warm your serving dishes, as well as the bowl you’ll be serving the pasta in. I warm my bowls by running them under hot water from the tap and drying them off just before serving. Issues may also arise if you don’t toss the pasta with the cheese quickly enough. This is a great dish to make for one or two people, but making large quantities of cacio e pepe at once can get dicey. Lastly, watch that you don’t add too much cooking water or it can become a soupy (but still tasty) mess.
Cacio e pepe is about two things—balance and restraint. Balance in the flavors comes from the saltiness, fattiness, and slight acidity of pecorino, along with the cutting, warming bite of freshly cracked black pepper. Restraint comes from letting these pure, uncomplicated ingredients shine on their own.
That being said, once you master cacio e pepe in all its humble glory, a little bit of experimentation is acceptable. I’ve had a delicious cacio e pepe with the addition of a bit of crushed peperoncino, and I hear lemon zest lifts the dish in a pleasant way—but traditional cacio e pepe will always reign supreme.
Recipe: Cacio e pepe
½ lb pasta (250 grams) (either spaghetti or tonnarelli)
1 1/3 cups (135 grams) very finely grated Pecorino Romano, plus some for serving
~1 ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
Note: You can either use pepper from a mill or crack it yourself with a mortar and pestle, but make sure the pieces are irregular—you want some larger pieces for texture.
Put a large pot of water on to boil.
Put the grated pecorino and freshly ground black pepper in a medium bowl. Using a fork, mix everything together with a splash or two of cold water (~2 tbs), added gradually. Press the cheese through the tines of the fork, making a smooth, thick paste. It should be almost cement-like in texture.
Once the water comes to a boil, salt it well and add the pasta. Once the pasta is al dente, reserve at least 1 cup of cooking water and drain the pasta. Immediately put the pasta in a warmed bowl that’s large enough for tossing. Add the grated cheese mixture, and, using tongs, stir/toss aggressively and energetically, adding splashes of cooking water as needed, until a smooth, glossy sauce forms. It’s important to work quickly so the cheese doesn’t have a chance to coagulate. If it looks too sauce-y, gradually add more grated pecorino and continue mixing until it reaches the desired consistency.
Plate the pasta (bonus points for warming the dishes first) and top with a flurry of grated cheese and a bit more pepper. Eat immediately.