Tag Archives: Cacio e pepe

Roman Classic: Cacio e Pepe

3 Nov

A few years back, in the dead of an interminable Maine winter no less, my friend Joe began to email enticing food photos from Rome, where he and his wife Joel were holed up for a month. There was the Carciofi alla Giuda (fried artichokes, Jewish style), the Trippa alla Romana (tripe in tomato sauce with cheese and mint), the Puntarelle in Salsa d’Acciughe (chicory salad with anchovy dressing) and of course Una Grande Varietà di Pizza (lots and lots of pizza).

But the one type of photo that wound up most frequently in my inbox was of Spaghetti a Cacio e Pepe, literally with nothing but cheese and black pepper.

Joe and I are alike in this way. We enjoy the simplest things best.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided not to share a recipe for cacio e pepe with you here. After all, do you really need me to tell you to dump some grated cheese over a pile of spaghetti? But the bigger reason is this: I find it difficult to make a really good cacio e pepe. A traditional one anyway, where the only ingredients are the cheese and the pepper, plus pasta and a little bit of, well, water.

Start adapting the dish by adding things like olive oil or butter or even a little cream and your chances of success are far greater. (I had a fine, if a bit modernized, cacio e pepe just the other evening at my go-to local spot, Enio’s.) But go the old-school Roman route, as I do, and, well, you take your chances. Technique becomes way more critical, I think. Failure isn’t only an option, it’s a distinct probability. Joe, for instance, tells me that he has “never gotten it right — not once!”

I know. I should just shut up already and cook. Fine, have it your way.

Just don’t come crying to me if things don’t work out for you the first time you try this. Or even the second, come to think of it.

First of all, I’m only working with 1/2 lb. of pasta here, so double the ingredients if you’re making a full pound. This is around a cup of grated cheese and a heaping teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. We’re all friends here and so I’ll be straight with you. I used a combination of two different cheeses this time, Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano (see the color variation?). But I’d suggest using all Pecorino instead. The saltier cheese makes for a better cacio e pepe, I think; plus, it’s more traditional to use Pecorino. And don’t skimp on the pepper either. It’s important.

Mix the cheese and pepper thoroughly.

Boil your pasta (spaghetti alla chitarra here) in well-salted water. When the pasta is done reserve some of the water before draining (1/2 cup should be enough for a full pound of pasta).

Return the drained pasta to the pot that you cooked it in, but make sure the heat is off. Add some of the pasta water (1/4 cup per half pound of pasta is a good guide) and stir so that the pasta is evenly moistened.

This is the tricky part. And I won’t lie to you either: I only get it right maybe half the time. You’ve got to very gradually stir in the cheese — and then pray that it doesn’t clump up rather than coat the pasta evenly. My best advice is to go slowly — and practice, practice, practice. (There’s a reason I’ve only used 1/2 lb. of pasta here, you know.) Either that or use another recipe. I won’t mind.

Believe me, there are way more fool-proof methods of making cacio e pepe than this hardcore traditional one.

Just ask Joe, he’ll tell you.

Playing my guitar

9 Mar
Not exactly the image that comes to mind when you think about Mardi Gras, is it?
Me neither, but then I didn’t get to spend yesterday (aka Fat Tuesday or Carnevale) in Venice or Rio de Janeiro or even New Orleans. I spent it in Maine, a place with little if any affinity for the annual period of pre-Lenten celebration for Catholics the world over. 
As New Orleans was long the home of an important member of my inner circle, it seemed fitting that I do something to mark the occasion. And since Louisiana and music are so tightly woven together, I decided that I might play the guitar for the lady. 
A stretch, I know. But romantic of me, yes?
It’s a double-sided number, this instrument of mine. Well over a hundred strings in all. It takes some practice to master, but I can teach you how to play in about ten minutes.
You’ll need a rolling pin, not a pick. Because we’re making pasta here. And with a chitarra, not a Fender Stratocaster. (This is a food blog, after all.)
Chitarra is Italian for guitar and, considering its design, it is also the term for the pasta tool you see here. It’s a very old-style tool, this chitarra, invented around 1800 or thereabouts (in Italy, but of course you knew that). It’s made of hardwood and metal; not a single bit of plastic resides anywhere on the thing. The reason it has two sides is to accommodate two different noodle widths. On one side the strings are close together, so as to make spaghetti noodles (hence the term spaghetti alla chitarra); the strings on the other side are further apart, for more of a fettucine type noodle.
Speaking of the strings, they can be loosened or tightened by turning this knob, just as guitar strings might be adjusted, and the strings can also be replaced. (If you’re interested in more information, or want to buy a chitarraFante’s in Philadelphia is a good place to poke around.)
What the lady had requested on this particular evening was a simple cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) with spaghetti alla chitarra noodles. The sheet of fresh pasta dough you see here? I rolled it out by hand, not by machine.
The idea here is to let the strings cut the noodles. You start by pressing down and moving the rolling pin along the pasta sheet; this scores the individual noodles.
As you go back and forth with the rolling pin the spaghetti strands will start to fall through the strings.
Often you might help the noodles along by running your fingers over the strings as well.
Until they’ve all been cut and have fallen through.
After working on a few sheets of pasta dough this is what I wound up with for our Fat Tuesday feast.
And the cacio e pepe, a simple dish that actually takes quite a bit of practice to master if I do say, was just what the lady ordered.
I think.
Here is the briefest of clips showing how one man uses a chitarra (mostly using his fingers). The whole thing is under three minutes, but if you want to fast-forward to the actual chitarra demonstration, it begins at about the two-minute mark.
And just so you know, Louie Prima provides the soundtrack, so if you’re at work or in church or maybe pretending to be doing important research at the library, you may want to turn off the sound.
Me, I like a little music when I’m playing my chitarra.

You call that cacio e pepe?

2 Aug

Never underestimate the power of a good wine buzz. It can lead you to interesting places.


Take the fava bean-inspired concoction you are about to witness. Never woulda happened had the vino not first been swigged.

But swigged it was and so here we be.

See, I’d been planning to make a nice bowl of cacio e pepe the other evening (a simple Roman pasta dish made with cheese and ground pepper). But I got a phone call early in the prep stage, during which a very respectable bottle of Nero d’Avola managed to become uncorked.
Next thing you know I’m shelling the favas that I’d fetched from the garden that afternoon. And by the time I was off the phone there were a bunch ready for eating, but no plan on what to do with them.

So I did what seemed reasonable. I poured another glass of the Nero, stepped outside on the back porch with the dog and pondered the strategic blunder I’d made by getting involved with those damned (er, lovely) favas in the first place.

Soon enough, as happens often and without warning to me (regular readers know this) my mind traveled to (where else?) the chunk of mortadella in the fridge.
And so I chopped me up some of that.

And commenced to making the cacio e pepe — only with two pretty major additions that I do not think the Romans (that means you, Massimo!) would approve of.
You got your freshly grated Pecorino Romano.
And ground black peppercorns.
A pack of spaghetti alla chitarra.
And there you go.

Here’s a recipe for cacio e pepe from Saveur (they use two different cheeses, but using the pecorino alone is fine). As for the favas and mortadella, I tossed them in at the last minute.

Just as I was polishing off the first bottle of wine.