cacio e pepe + italy
When Cos and I decided to plan a wedding, we had somewhat competing interests. All he really wanted was to throw a great party for our friends, while my vote was to save money by skipping the party and spend it all on a honeymoon. In the end, we did both, with a compromise that they’d be spaced a year apart. And in the end, they were both about the same thing - eating a lot good food. The wedding, which happened one year ago today(!), was more like a boozy dinner party. Its something I’ve meant to write about but haven’t yet. Like I said, my thing was always the honeymoon, and it finally happened. We recently returned from two weeks in Italy that were so full of food and drink decadence that my tattered gut is still not speaking to me. Frankly, it’s still unclear whether she ever will again. I regret nothing.
We started the trip with a short stop through Rome, where I had my favorite bowl of pasta of the whole trip (gricia!). Then we mainly stuck around Northern Italy where white fish was served every way imaginable and I was baptized by the holy spirit in a bowl of gnocchi with spider crab. At the end of the first week we took a train up to Zurich, where we pretended to be on a “pasta break” but still managed to put away what I found to be shockingly large portions of schnitzel, spaetzle, rosti, bratwurst, raclette cheese, and chicken cordon bleu, all in 36 hours.
The second week we attempted to “slow down and relax” (which I almost did) by setting up shop at one hotel, up in the hills of the Amalfi Coast, and exploring that area by car and ferry. I had the best pizza of my life in Naples and shared some anchovies with a cat. We drank our weight in cappuccinos and red wine, and ate at least one bowl of pasta a day, which is a shit ton of pasta for me and the ideal amount for Cos, the pastaterian.
It exceeded every expectation I was audacious enough to have, but I still can’t say I wouldn’t change anything because - do you see this one coming? - I didn’t have any cacio e pepe. Not one bite of it. In fact, it wasn’t even on the menu of any place we went. The reason is essentially: rain, and matters neither here nor there. The fact is that I returned home with a cacio e pepe shaped hole in my heart and there was only one way to fix it.
What’s kind of cute in retrospect is that I first made this recipe right before we left so that it would be fresh on my mind, thinking that I’d be so inspired by any version I had on our trip that I could then come home and make it even better. Who’s to say what inspiration I might’ve had, but what I can tell you with the certainty that only comes from eating pasta almost 14 days in a row is that this recipe doesn’t need any tweaking, perfecting, or fixing. It never will. It is already the most perfect version of itself.
That’s largely because it’s less of a recipe and more of method. (I mean, really a way of life, u kno?) This method comes straight from the brain of Flavio de Maio, Roman chef and owner of two restaurants in the heart Rome, and it’s here to save us all from the endless trial and error required to master the authentic - toss-toss-toss splash’a pasta water - way of making cacio e pepe. That way is hit or miss for everyone, chefs included. You can tell because chefs are always suggesting that you add an ingredient to help emulsify the cheese. Even my fave food geek adds both oil and butter. Others add cream.
But we need none of those extras because we have Flavio. He blends the cheese and pepper together with a few tablespoons of cold water. which turns it into a smooth paste-like mixture. The mixture is then tossed with the hot pasta until it forms an astonishingly smooth sauce that clings to each noodle with perfection. Watch him make it here with an immersion blender, but a food processor works too.
As for leftovers, we saved half of the cheese mixture in an airtight container in the fridge and later that week had fresh cacio e pepper in the time it took to boil some pasta. I’d say the mixture will last about 5 days refrigerated. And I promise you this, it is impossible to screw up. It’s a magical and inspiring recipe like that. I know there’s probably a metaphor somewhere in here about looking for inspiration in far away places and then finding it at home, but real talk, I’m too busy looking for an excuse to go back to Italy to find it.
[Photo Key and other Dining Recs, if you’re interested. Top set: Positano, Capri, Positano, Sorrento. Second set: Sorrento, Naples. Food set: Fried filet of sole and greens from our hotel (which we LOVED) in Sorrento, saporita pizza at Da Attilio in Naples (highly recommend!!), margarita pizza with sausage, anchovy pasta, and grilled greens at L’Incanto in Positano (a solid option in a v touristy area), pasta alla gricia, beef involtini, and spinach at Trattoria Etruria 39 in Rome (best!), a tiny olive pastry from Polletti in Cernobbio (good prices and huge selection), scallops still in the shell at Nevodi in Venice (BEST!). Bottom set: Cos being cute at Osteria Beuc (locals go here, excellent wine selection including Lambrusco, tho not our fave food), me making love to gnocchi with spider crab plus Cos’s pumpkin ravioli at Nevodi (my fave meal overall). We also loved the view and ambiance for a nice dinner out at Il Gatto Nero in Cernobbio, and Rheinfelder Bierhalle for affordable beerhall fare in Zurich.]
All of the Notes
How much cheese? The ratio is ½ oz for every oz of pasta. We used 4 oz grated for 8 oz of pasta, but between me snacking while I cooked and the shower of fresh cheese we rain down of each of our bowls, we make it through a 5 oz brick every time.
How much pepper? This is the most fully subjective aspect of the recipe and also a make or break. The amount should be on the heavier end of as much ground pepper as the spirit dictates. I really love heat and put red pepper flakes on everything, but the taste of black pepper is one dimensional to me and too much makes me sneeze. I put 20 turns of a pepper grinder in a little ramekin I stole from a restaurant and added most of it. Start with less than you think you need, you can always add more. The second time you make this you’ll know exactly how much pepper you want.
What kind of pasta? Cacio e pepe is traditionally made with tonarelli, which is a fat spaghetti of sorts made in Lazio, the region in Italy of which Rome is the capital. (Cuz this is a Roman specialty, ya know?) I’ve used both spaghetti alla chitarra that I found in the bourgie pasta section at Whole Foods (v similar to tonarelli, but originates from the neighboring region of Abruzzo), and also just regular degular shmegular spaghetti. Do make sure to avoid thin spaghetti and angel hair because they will break too easily during the toss-toss-toss.
What else? Salt the shit out of your pasta water, please ma’ams and sirs. Make it taste like the ocean. And when you add the pasta water to your pasta to loosen the sauce, please do so only one small spoonful at a time. The biggest offering of this method is that is allows us to avoid soupy sauce. Allow it to work it’s magic by saying no to giant splashes of pasta water added willy nilly. FWIW, the last time I made this (and took these photos) I didn’t need any pasta water to loosen the sauce. I had added enough while attempting to smooth the cheese mixture out with the immersion blender, and the pasta was still pretty wet from being boiled.
Timing? Don’t make this until you are ready to eat. She was not meant to sit on the counter.
Using a food processor. Pros are that it (1) is less manual, and (2) gets the cheese and pepper mixture super smooth with less water. Cons are (1) pulling your heavy ass food processor down from the top shelf for an otherwise v simple meal, and (2) so much scraping to get the mixture out.
Using an immersion blender. Pros are that (1) cleanup is much faster, and (2) it’s just much easier despite being more manual. Cons are that (1) it is a little difficult to get it super duper smooth with this small of an amount; it works better with larger amounts, and (2) you have to fight with the blade a little to get all the cheese mixture out. I used a few more splashes of cold water to get the cheese to smooth out with the immersion blender, and then didn’t need any to loosen the sauce when I tossed with the pasta.
Cacio e Pepe, from the brain of Flavio de Maio, via Elizabeth Minchilli, via my fave
4 oz pecorino romano
8 oz pasta
20ish turns of a pepper grinder, roughly 2 teaspoons (start small and add!)
Set a pot of well salted water to boil. Grate all of the cheese and set a few nice big pinches for garnish.
Blend the cheese, pepper, and 3 tablespoons of cold water to start, according your choice of method (detailed above). Blend for longer than you think you need to, adding cold water by the tbsp as needed until the mixture is about the consistency of softened cream cheese, a skosh thicker than frosting.
Cook the pasta until al dente, or whatever doneness you like best. You don’t cook the pasta any further after boiling, so this is how done it will be when you serve it.
Quickly drain the pasta and drop it into a bowl, not worrying if a little pasta water comes with it. Scrape half of the cheese mixture into the bowl with the pasta and toss toss toss. Add more of the mixture to thicken, or pasta water to loosen (a spoonful at a time pls!) and keep tossing until the consistency is right. Taste and check for pepperyness.
Give it a final toss, and portion into serving bowls. Garnish with cheese and maybe a little more pepper if you’re feeling it. Eat straight away!