I know it’s hardly news, but I must be one of the few who had not realised that “cacio e pepe”, a simple pasta sauce made with Pecorino Romano and black pepper, has taken over the world. From Singapore to Los Angeles, to Lima and Cape Town there is cacio e pepe to be had in all corners of the world.
Such a level popularity is actually baffling to Italians of my generation. I have grown up in the 1960s, when a bowl of spaghetti tossed with cheese and pepper appeared on the table when you were out of luck with dinner. It was a rare event, because my mum *always* cooked a proper meal, but if in a hurry, we would have spaghetti with butter and Parmigiano or with oil, garlic and chili pepper or with Pecorino Romano and black pepper.
Quick and easy doesn’t mean insipid. As a matter of fact, I am convinced that any traditional Italian pasta recipe can be heavenly when made with good quality ingredients. However, until 7-8 years ago, I would never have expected that one of our last minute meals would acquire world-level notoriety.
In Rome, cacio e pepe is everywhere. I have seen it served with potato chips, on pizza, as a filling of arancini, as a sauce for risotto, poured over all sort of meats and vegetables among which – a mortal sin – deep fried artichokes.
However, there is always a price tag attached to popularity.
While some chefs shine with perfect technique and ingredients, others dish out a concotion that is often a pale imitation of the real thing. Pecorino Romano, which is added liberally on the original recipe, is expensive. You can easily tell the sauce is poor when the cheese is barely discernible, the pepper is old and all you get is a white sauce with a flat, unidimensional flavour. A greasy puddle at the bottom of the plate is also not a good sign.
If you plan to visit Rome for the first time, I suggest to try to make cacio e pepe pasta at home first.
Not only you will enjoy the process, but you will know what to expect. I also suggest to research where to taste all of the famous Roman pasta dishes: carbonara, amatriciana, gricia and, obviously, cacio e pepe. The Romans are your best source of information and you can find, and easily translate, plenty of reviews and articles written by locals. I often interview someone I meet in a shop or in a park and they are always happy to advice their favorite trattoria.
Making a perfect cacio e pepe sauce requires a little practice, but once you have command of the method and don’t make mistakes with temperature and texture (see below), it works very well every time. Important steps are marked in bold. Please be accurate!
• Pasta pan
• container to reserve the pasta water
• large shallow bowl or pan at room temperature
• a set of salad servers or spaghetti server
• 250 g (1/2 lb) spaghetti or tonnarelli, stringozzi or other thick fresh noodles
• 80 g (about 3 oz) Pecorino Romano, at room temperature, very finely grated
• 3-6 tablespoons of whole milk, at room temperature
• freshly ground or cracked black pepper
• 1 cup reserved warm pasta water for thinning the sauce, if needed
Grate the Pecorino romano very finely and allow both the milk and cheese to get to room temperature.
As for the pepper, it’s best to use coarse freshly ground or crushed black pepper and, for a more intense flavour, toast whole peppercorns in a dry skillet before grinding. The toasting brings out the underlying sweetness and fruitiness of the pepper and intensifies its fragrance.
I use about one pinch of peppercorns per person and heat them over a low heat in a small skillet until they just start to look shiny (1-3 minutes), then crush them with a mortar and pestle. It’s important to keep the ground pepper covered to preserve its aroma until ready to use.
Cook the pasta
Bring a pan of lightly salted water to a boil, add the pasta and stir. Fresh stringozzi will cook in one minute. If using spaghetti, cook according to the package instructions, usually 9 to 12 minutes depending on the amount and quality. Do make sure to cook the pasta until al dente.
Meanwhile, transfer the cheese to a large bowl and beat-in the room temperature milk very gradually to make a thick paste.
When the pasta is cooked, strain, but reserve a cup of pasta water just in case you need it for thinning the sauce. As an alternative, scoop the pasta from the water with tongs so that it stays moist. Quickly add the noodles to the cheese mixture in the bowl, keeping the warm pasta water to hand.
Toss vigorously with the salad servers, adjusting with a tablespoon or two of pasta water at a time, as necessary.
Add more grated cheese if the sauce is too thin.
What to expect
Generally, the sauce becomes creamy quite quickly, within a minute or so. If it doesn’t, please keep stirring for another minute. As long as the cheese does not coagulate, a creamy sauce will form as the cheese reaches the correct temperature, approximately 55°C (130°F).
Should your pasta cool off while saucing, put it back in the empty pasta pan which should still be hot and re-heat it for the briefest amount of time. Be cautious with heat as Pecorino is creamy at low temperatures, but it becomes lumpy at high temperatures. Add some pasta water to keep the sauce fluid, if necessary.
Sprinkle with the black pepper, divide between warm bowls, serve and eat immediately with additional black pepper on the side if desired.