Cacio e Pepe is a traditional Roman pasta dish. It is more than just a fancy way to say spaghetti with cheese. It is the best dish on the planet when done right. If you are in New York, go to Lupa in the Village and try their Cacio e Pepe (as a bonus, the last time we ate at Lupa, we sat two tables away from Alan Rickman). If you are in Rome, you can order it anywhere. Do yourself a favor and try this dish at a café (aptly) called Cacio e Pepe. There is no menu and no English and it is (or at least was) cash only. But go anyway. This is where I first fell in love with the simplicity and amazingness of cacio e pepe. It is also where an amazing Italian couple sitting at the table next to us held our six month old twins while we ate so that we could enjoy the meal. And it is where my husband and I both forgot our wallets (traveling with twins, people), resulting in his high tailing it across Rome to get said wallet while I sat at the table with both babies and hoped he would make it back before dinner was served. Did I mention that neither of us speak Italian?
Cacio di Roma, the traditional cheese used in this dish, is a sheep’s milk cheese from the Roman countryside. It is not easy to find where I live but can be found in city markets (if you are in Los Angeles, try Bristol Farms). Most recipes for Cacio e Pepe in the United States use Pecorino Romano or Parmesan. I’ve tried it with both and would definitely pick the Pecorino over the Parmesan. Boy, do I sound like a food snob here, but trust me, with something this simple, the ingredients count.
I’ve tried several recipes for cacio e pepe over the last few years. The first (and best so far) was Mario Batali’s version in Molto Gusto. I am a big fan of pepper. However, even I had to reduce the pepper in this recipe. Try as I might, the dish has never been as good as it was in Rome or at Lupa in New York. That does not stop me from trying again.
Tonight, I compared three recipes: my original Batali recipe from Molto Gusto, this recipe from via A Cup of Jo, and another Batali recipe. Each started with a different amount of pasta so that meant that comparing involved math. This is, by the way, the reason we started cooking with our kids – to improve their math. Another story for another time. Anyway, here’s what I went with:
3T unsalted butter
3T olive oil
2T freshly ground pepper
¾ cup pecorino romano
I followed the directions in Molto Gusto mostly because my kids were each playing games on my phone and iPad so I couldn’t access the online recipes. Don’t forget to reserve the pasta water as all three recipes recommend. This makes a huge difference in the final result. No clumps of cheese. Smooth, creamy texture with no cream. I also used a mix of peppercorns rather than only black pepper. The results this time were good. Not outstanding, but really good. I still felt that there was too much pepper on balance with the cheese. My husband said he thought the cheese was perfect. The kids loved it.
I need to say a word here about the steak that we had with our cacio e pepe. I mentioned in my last post that my husband is a natural cook. As if to prove my point, he made the most amazing T-bone. Thick cut, perfectly seasoned, and perfectly grilled. The recipe he used was also a Batali recipe – T-bone Fiorentina (Molto Italiano, page 400). If you make nothing else out of this cookbook (ok, this and the meatloaf two pages prior), you will have made a solid investment. Thank you again Billy and Julie for the best wedding present.
With our very tasty steak and pasta, I sautéed a simple batch of Brussels sprouts with a little garlic, butter, salt and pepper. I thought I might fall over when Gus said, “Mom, I like Brussels sprouts now.” How did I get so lucky?