Cheese. Pepper. Pasta.
That’s it. No joke. The world-trending Roman classic, pasta cacio e pepe, is exactly what it translates as: cheese and pepper pasta. We set out to make it ourselves with the help of a local because you’d think that with three ingredients it couldn’t possibly be that hard. Although it seems simple, it wasn’t the easiest dish to make. There are so many nuances to making good cacio e pepe.
Personally, I had heard of the dish a while ago because Maialino in Manhattan has it as a staple on the menu and my family has been ordering it for years. Interestingly, cacio e pepe used to be Roman peasant food but it is popping up on first-class menus worldwide.
If you aren’t in Rome or Italy note that cacio e pepe is very specific in that it requires these essential ingredients: pasta (fresh if possible), Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper. If you see this dish on a menu elsewhere and it has parmesan (or another cheese) and white, pink, or other pepper, a real Roman would just call that a cheese and pepper sauce, not the coveted cacio e pepe.
Pasta (fresh egg tonnarelli is classic Roman but dried spaghetti works just fine)
Pecorino Romano cheese (grated)
Black peppercorns (ground or cracked)
First we crushed the pepper. In order to get a variety of textures we used three methods of cracking the pepper:
A typical household pepper mill: with a few cranks you can produce very fine pieces.
A mortar and pestle: by putting some umph behind grinding the pepper, it produces relatively fine pieces.
A knife: place a few grains on the counter and lay the flat blade of a large knife on top. Smack down on the knife to break up the peppercorns to make relatively chunky pieces of pepper.
Then we grated the cheese. With a similar intent, we grated the cheese on two different graters to create different consistencies. This is not necessary because the cheese will melt, but we wanted to get the grating done quicker so with two people we used different graters. For three people we grated nearly an entire chunk of Pecorino Romano because the amount of cheese necessary is partly based on your own taste, your eye-balling skills and how many people you are feeding–this recipe is not the best for a big group since it requires precise, last-minute timing. To get the right consistency and flavor of the final dish always have extra cheese and pepper ready to adjust the seasoning plus some of the pasta cooking water to keep the texture as it should be.
After the cheese, we measured out the pasta. Interestingly, with fresh pasta a hefty handful is the serving size (around 110 grams or a little less than 1/4 lb) for the typical person. With that in mind we quickly threw three handfuls (for the three of us) into lightly salted boiling water to make sure each strand was cooked equally. Note: the pecorino cheese is quite salty so don’t oversalt the water and remember to keep the cooking water as it’s needed for the sauce.
Fresh pasta cooks faster than dried pasta so after stirring and allowing for it to cook 4-5 minutes we took it out and put it in a pan with a little bit of pasta water. One of us was constantly stirring with a wooden spoon, the other dumped a healthy portion of cheese and pepper into the mix. It is pertinent to constantly stir the mixture because if it cooks and congeals the dish falls flat.
While vigorously stirring over a low heat we added more pepper, cheese and cooking water according to the look and the creaminess of the dish (this is essential). During this process the pasta cooked a bit more to be perfectly al dente. After mixing to create the right combination of cheese and pepper with our pasta, I indulged and ate the dripping cheese and pepper from the spoon (feel free to give this honor to your favorite houseguest).
We quickly served the cacio e pepe–it should be steaming hot–and sprinkled a little bit of extra cheese on the dish for perfection! Buon appetito!