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Cacio e pepe: creamy, peppery sheep cheese pasta

IMG_8535If you find yourself in a good pasta restaurant and see cacio e pepe among the offerings, do your mouth a favor and your waistline a grave disservice, and order it.

You might be tempted to pass it over because the recipe lists only noodles, pecorino cheese and black pepper, while the next pasta in the list features 10 expensive-sounding ingredients. But this quintessential Roman preparation has the ability to grab your soul by the lapels and shake it.

I hadn’t had it in years, until luck brought it to my attention — first at KR Steakbar, where chef Chris McDade makes terrific pastas, and then at a restaurant in Chicago. Now, I’m frankly obsessed.

Cacio e pepe is essentially pasta saturated with ewe’s milk cheese and flecked with black pepper — rich like carbonara, but far more elemental. It tastes sheepy and milky from the cheese, prickly and fruity from the pepper. The bare sheen of sauce is creamy rather than oily.

“It’s easy to make, but a difficult dish to master, ” said McDade, when I called him for a tutorial. “You’re just looking at three ingredients, so each ingredient needs to be good.”

McDade, who first fell for this dish in Italy, says it classically starts with a dried strand pasta such as bavette or spaghetti alla chitarra, though he uses his own handmade tonnarelli. The cheese should be Pecorino Romano Fulvi, which is made about an hour north of Rome. Unlike Sardinian pecorinos, which are drier and saltier, this one lends itself to forming a cheesy sauce. And then there’s freshly ground or cracked black pepper. That’s it.

So what turns the cheese into glorious cheesy sauce?

Unlike some recipes published stateside by the likes of Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, McDade maintains “there’s never any Parmesan, never any butter, and never any olive oil” beyond a scant drizzle you might use to toast the black pepper. You simply add a ladle or two of pasta cooking water and stir it with the steaming hot cooked pasta, grated cheese and pepper. When you can master temperature, proportion and motion, you get a creamy rather than clumpy sauce. A final dusting of cheese and pepper, and the pasta is ready.

I consulted a number of Italian cooking websites and blogs, and have discovered that both home cooks and food scientists alike are obsessed with creamy cacio e pepe sauce. Many say you should toss the ingredients in a pasta bowl pre-warmed with pasta cooking water; others prefer flipping the pasta in a saute pan.

Some people prefer using a different cheese — a semisoft variety called Cacio di Roma. Others say a blend of the two cheeses makes the perfect cacio e pepe. The latter strategy appealed to me, and I ordered both Cacio di Roma and Pecorino Fulvi through Tim Gaddis, the cheesemonger at Star Provisions.

The Cacio di Roma is indeed sliceable and melty, and I’ve learned it’s pretty brilliant in omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches; I can’t wait to melt some on a burger.

When I made the cacio e pepe using the warmed bowl method, it kind of clumped up a bit and didn’t melt into the sauce as hoped. I quickly transferred it to a large skillet, added a couple more ladles of pasta water and tossed it with tongs over the heat until all the cheese melted.

And then my head exploded.

That pasta was soooooo good. If you like a little Velveeta in your mac and cheese, or Kraft Singles on your burgers, then you’ll want some of that smooth-melting Cacio di Roma in your pasta.

I’m sorry to report that I had three servings of pasta at dinner, and then finished the leftovers for breakfast.

I’m staying away from it for now.

Cacio e Pepe

Hands on: 10 minutes Total time: 20 minutes. Serves: 6

  • 1 pound spaghetti alla chitarra or other strand pasta
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano Fulvi
  • 2 cups grated Cacio di Roma
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper, ground unevenly with a mortar and pestle

Cook the pasta until al dente in well salted water. Transfer to a heated large skillet; add two ladlefuls of cooking water, the grated cheese and pepper. Remove from flame. Stir with tongs to toss well. If the cheese doesn’t melt, return to flame and add another ladleful of water. Toss continuously to keep the cheese from browning or sticking on the bottom of the pan. Add more pepper, cheese or water as needed. (You’ve got to master this one on your own.) Transfer to serving bowl and garnish with grated pecorino and black pepper.

Per serving: 500 calories (percent of calories from fat, 30), 28 grams protein, 59 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams fiber, 16 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 58 milligrams cholesterol, 678 milligrams sodium.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

12 comments Add your comment

Michael Erickson

October 28th, 2013
8:59 am

La Tavola has this on its Molto Monday menu every Monday night for only $10. Delicious!


October 28th, 2013
4:04 pm

Leave it up to a restauranteur to taint a wonderful story and recipe with their annoying promotions.. @Michael’s comment reminds me of those annoying rectangular ads on Youtube videos..


October 28th, 2013
5:24 pm

Well Will, perhaps some of us might like to know a restaurant in Atlanta that serves it. Frankly John should have noted it in the column.


October 28th, 2013
5:58 pm

Anthony Bourdain made this dish even more “famous” in a No Reservations episode a few years back. The pasta was served in a parmesan cheese bowl. During the episode, he teased the audience by refusing to name the restaurant out of fear that it would become a tourist destination and lose its romance; low and behold that happened anyway and Ristorante Roma Spirita has become quite popular. Good news is that its still quite good! Thanks for the recipe JK, you saved me airfare.

John Kessler

October 28th, 2013
6:41 pm

Thrasher, did you actually read the column? :)

John Kessler

October 28th, 2013
6:45 pm

Will, Mr. Erickson might have mentioned he’s the marketing manager for Fifth Group, indeed, but I’m very glad he told us about the special.


October 28th, 2013
8:24 pm

It sounds dangerously delicious!

Michael Erickson

October 29th, 2013
9:06 am

My apologies for not being more transparent with my comment. I will make a point of better identifying myself in the future. Either way, great story and an even better dish to enjoy at two great restaurants!


October 29th, 2013
5:50 pm

Sorry John, I did read the column but thought you were saying KR Steakbar was in Chicago. My bad. At any rate, it sounds great.


October 29th, 2013
11:32 pm

This is food that I ate as a twenty year old on a budget. Obviously, I used cheap ingredients but I loved it. Funny that a whole column is devoted to something so innocuous. Star Provisions must have overstock.


October 31st, 2013
5:46 am

Does anyone know If the ingredients spaghetti alla chitarra, Pecorino Romano Fulvi, and Cacio di Roma can be found in Atlanta?


October 31st, 2013
5:51 am

Sorry , Star Provisions for the cheese.