Having Italian blood on both sides of the family has certainly allowed me my fair share of pasta. The Italian-American tradition of pasta marinara on Sundays has always been a highly anticipated meal of the week, without which I feel something is missing. But tonight, I finally tried the pasta dish that may just surpass all others: cacío e pepe—or cheese and pepper. So simple, so ridiculously fast and easy to prepare, and so incredibly gratifying. Am I subject to hyperbole? Let’s just say it’s in the DNA. But the thought of denying oneself the pleasure of this grown-up macaroni n'cheese seems silly.
Cacio e Pepe has always seemed intriguing to me. I’ve read about it for years, but I never really got around to making it. Maybe I imagined that it could never surpass a traditional marinara, a sinful carbonara, or an oily pesto. Over the last few weeks, my boyfriend, John, was eager to go see a new spice shop in Oakland that opened over the last year—the Oaktown Spice Shop. The store was beautiful, the gentlemen working there were knowledgeable (and delightfully free of the East Bay smugness), and we walked away with a great assortment of spices, including the wonderfully aromatic Kampot peppercorn varietal from Cambodia.
Fast forward to today. In the cheese shop where I work part-time, a customer came in who was shopping for three different kinds of cheese to make Cacio e Pepe. He was using a recipe from a famous chef, he said, and he wanted to get it right. Although on a strict diet, he explained that Cacio e Pepe was the one indulgence he allowed himself every month. He had me at “indulgence.” As a pasta fiend, his level of passion intrigued me. He offered up a few recipe instructions, I scratched down some notes, and he left.
The clock ticked, slowly inching its way towards closing time. With my blood sugar dropping and some preparations yet to make for dinner, I decided to simplify and bought a half a pound of Pecorino Romano on my way out the door. When I finally got home at 8:45, hungry and tired, the only thing I could think about was pasta. I set the water to boil. When I looked down at my notes from my customer, I realized that there was a lot of missing information: how much pasta did the recipe call for? I decided to just go by feel and hope for the best.
The most surprising part of the dish is the Pecorino. It hasn’t traditionally been one of my favorites, and it always seems to play runner-up to Parmegiano. But there’s no comparison here, not for this dish. As one of the most ancient cheeses in Italy once used to nourish Roman soldiers at war, this sheep’s milk cheese is sharp, dry and salty. Beware of the American version; it is made entirely from cow’s milk and lacks much of the nuance and complexity of the Italian original. Several other recipes suggest adding Parmegiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or Cacio di Roma. Experiment how you see fit. As for me, I chose the easiest route, and it turned out to be really tasty. While adding different cheeses can certainly create more depth of flavor, I was glad to reevaluate my relationship with Pecorino.
All you need are a few ingredients, so go ahead and treat yourself to the best you can find. I made a pound for two of us so we would have leftovers. I write this still in ecstasy, mere minutes after licking my plate clean. It is so good that I admit to having scarfed down my bowl only to spend the last ten minutes of dinner staring longingly at John’s as he finished at a snail's pace.
NOTE: Since the dish showcases ground pepper, I definitely recommend using the good stuff and grinding it fresh. If you are short on time, you can also buy high quality pepper that comes in a spice jar coarsely ground, which is always the quickest solution.
Serves 4 (or 2 twice)
1 pound of good quality spaghetti or tagliatelle
2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano
½ cup olive oil
2½ tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tsp coarsely ground pepper (less if you’re using finely ground)
Heat two small ovenproof pasta bowls or dishes in the oven at 200°F. This will prevent the pasta from getting cold once it's ready, just in case you take as much time to eat it as John does.
Fill a large pasta pot with water and bring to a boil.
In the meantime, grate the Pecorino Romano and set aside. With a peppermill set to a coarse grind, grind out the pepper. It will only take a few minutes of elbow grease, but saddle up.
Just before the pasta water comes to a boil, add a few tablespoons of kosher salt and a splash of olive oil to the water. Pour in the spaghetti.
While the spaghetti is cooking, roast the pepper dry in a frying pan for a minute or two to release the aromas. Then add the butter and olive oil and keep the heat on medium-low.
Just before the spaghetti is finished cooking (al dente), spoon out about a half to three-quarters of a cup of the boiling pasta water and add it to the pepper, butter, and oil. Take the pasta off the heat, drain, and pour it back into the pot. Toss the pasta with the pepper, butter, oil, and one cup of pasta water. Using tongs, slowly add the grated Pecorino Romano and stir until the cheese and pasta water integrate into a light, creamy sauce.
Remove the warmed bowls/dishes from the oven and serve hot.
WHITE WINE OPTIONS: With whites, I tend to prefer matching the texture of the wine with the texture of the dish. A nice, medium-bodied white that’s free of oak (although perhaps aged on its lees) would be a great pairing. Look for a Roero Arneis from the Piemonte (Italy) or a Soave from the Veneto (Italy), which both have enough acidity to cut through the richness of the dish, but enough viscosity to coat the palate.
RED WINE OPTIONS : The idea here is to keep the wine light and bright, with enough acidity to complement the rich cheesy flavors and cut through the fat. It shouldn’t overwhelm the dish ever. Since the dish showcases pepper, you can also look for wines that have a more traditionally peppery flavor like a Rossese from Liguria (Italy) or a Puneau d’Aunis from the Loire Valley (France). A juicy Montepulciano d’Abruzzo or a tangy Dolcetto d’Alba would be bolder but equally tasty options.