Rome is famous for many things: the Colosseum, Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Trevi Fountain, the Vatican, the Spanish steps…the list could go on and on, but most important in my book (perhaps unsurprisingly) is the food. From pasta carbonara, to fried artichokes, to fantastically portable pizza (no shade to Neapolitan pies, but sometimes you need to grab a slice on the go!), I find Roman food to be utterly delicious and crave-able. One of my favorite Roman dishes is also one of the simplest – cacio e pepe. Translating to “cheese and pepper” from the local dialect, it’s basically like grown up macaroni and cheese, and it only requires 3 ingredients: pasta, Pecorino Romano, and pepper (though I’ve been known to add butter…don’t tell the Romans).
Pasta in Rome
There are four main pastas that you’ll see on nearly every restaurant menu in Rome. The first, and probably most famous, is pasta carbonara which features a sauce of egg yolk (or whole egg depending on who you’re talking to), Pecorino Romano cheese and guanciale (cured pig jowl, or as I like to call it, cheek bacon). Second is my favorite, cacio e pepe, followed by gricia, which is essentially cacio e pepe with guanciale. Finally, there is Amatriciana, which is made with tomatoes, guanciale, and Pecorino Romano. Usually these fab four are made with long noodles such as spaghetti or bucatini (spaghetti with a hole in it like a straw – particularly popular with Amatriciana sauce), but sometimes you’ll see short tube pastas like rigatoni, especially with gricia. All four pasta dishes are absolutely delicious when executed well and made with high quality ingredients, and I would not turn down a plate of any of them…but cacio e pepe has a special place in my heart. It’s simple, it comes together in mere minutes, and is exactly the type of comfort food you want to eat after a long day (or long night – it’s an ideal midnight snack!).
Ingredients in Cacio e Pepe
Because there are only a few ingredients in this dish, it is important that they are high quality. Splurge a bit on high quality dried pasta. Noodles that are extruded from a traditional bronze die typically have a slightly rough exterior that holds onto sauce better, and they release more of their starches into the pasta water, which helps to emulsify the sauce. Also, ensure that you buy real Pecorino Romano - a sheeps milk cheese made only in certain parts of Italy. Cheeses labeled just “Romano” are typically made from cows milk and are a poor imitation of real Pecorino Romano. They’re not nearly as tangy and can be quite one note, meaning the finished dish will lack depth of flavor. Finally, be sure you’re using freshly ground or crushed pepper as these processes help to release oils and therefore flavors in the peppercorns.
Making Cacio e Pepe
Like many seemingly simple dishes (pie crust, mayonnaise, sourdough bread, etc.) Cacio e Pepe can be a little difficult to master. You have to get the timing just right in order to have a silky sauce that perfectly coats your lovely al dente noodles, but as long as you prep everything in advance, you’ll be good to go. Traditionally, you boil the pasta until it’s al dente and reserve some of the pasta water. Then, you whisk the hot water into grated Pecorino Romano and when a thick sauce comes together, you add the pasta and a generous sprinkle of ground pepper and toss furiously until the sauce coats each strand. I prefer a slightly more foolproof method, which involves par cooking the pasta in a large pot, then transferring it to a skillet with a cup or so of the pasta water to finish cooking. Once it’s al dente, I remove it from the heat and stir in the cheese. This (along with a bit of butter) allows the sauce to emulsify and coat the noodles more easily. If you’d like to go the super traditional route, I recommend this great recipe from The Guardian.
Recipe for Cacio e Pepe
12 ounces of high quality dried long pasta (spaghetti, bucatini, linguini, etc.)
3.5 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons butter
Bring 3 quarts of water to a rolling boil. As your waiting on the water, finely grate the Pecorino Romano, preferably with a Microplane or similar grater.
When your water is boiling, season generously with salt and add your pasta. Cook for four minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, heat butter in a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat and add in your pepper. Cook until fragrant (about 1 minute). When your pasta has been cooking for 4 minutes, scoop out 3-4 ladles (about 1.5 cups) of pasta water and add to the skillet with the butter and pepper. Bring the butter, pepper, and pasta water mixture up to a boil to emulsify, then, using tongs, remove the pasta from the pot and add to the skillet. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, about 3-5 more minutes. If the skillet begins to look dry, add another ladle of pasta water.
Remove the skillet from the heat and add in your cheese, little by little, tossing constantly with tongs until the cheese is fully melted. Add a bit more pasta water if the sauce seems dry.
Enjoy straight out of the pan (or transfer to a warm bowl if you’re more civilized than me) and imagine you’re in a lovely Osteria in beautiful Roma.
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Chelsea is one third of the Euro Travel Coach team (and is the daughter of the other two thirds of the team, Greg and Betsy). She has a passion for food and wine and has a background in hospitality. She attended Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and interned with two of New York City's best restaurant groups while she was in school. After graduation she worked at the number one wine auction house in the United States, Chicago's Hart Davis Hart Wine Co. There, she organized various wine centric events for HDH's most valuable clients. She and her husband moved to Copenhagen, Denmark in 2016 and then to Bristol, UK in 2018 and have traveled extensively during their time living in Europe. Her expertise in food and wine and her experience living abroad helps her to find amazing accommodations, delicious restaurants, and unique experiences for Euro Travel Coach clients.
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