How did a simple pasta dish of grated cheese and pepper take over our consciousness? That’s easy. Cacio e Pepe is Italian mac and cheese with a zing. It’s made of four ingredients: grated Pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper, pasta and water. The success of the dish lies with having the skill to emulsify the cheese and water without the addition of butter or corn starch, so that you have a creamy sauce that coats the pasta without clumping.
For me, Cacio e Pepe is synonymous with the Roman restaurant Flavio al Velavevodetto. It was the final restaurant meal I had on my recent trip at a table outside with my two pals, journalist Elisabetta Povoledo and my dear Elizabeth Minchilli. The meal brought me so much pleasure that I wanted to share it with you here.
While I’ve seen Cacio e Pepe made with Parmigiano, it’s actually the sharper Pecorino Romano that is the backbone of the dish. And if you’re going to try to make it at home, then for goodness sake, grind your own black pepper. Instead of using a peppermill, I grind enough peppercorns for the week in my spice (coffee) grinder. I find that I can control the grind better and get a consistent result.
The traditional pasta shape for Cacio e Pepe in Rome is tonarelli, a long spaghetti-like noodle that is square instead of round, and made from flour and water. I use two different methods depending on whether I’m cooking for myself or for friends. The first is simply to let grated cheese sit with a couple ladlefuls of pasta cooking water, and then toss hot pasta into it, stirring well to emulsify. It’s quick and good enough for dinner for one, me.
The second is the method used by Flavio de Moia of the restaurant Flavio al Velavevodetto in the Roman neighborhood of Testaccio. He first creates a paste of the cheese, pepper, and a bit of cold water. To create the dish, he mixes the paste along with pasta cooking water and the pasta to get the creamiest result. It makes sense that a restaurant would create a paste first since they have to serve hundreds of orders a day. I find that taking the time to create the paste first makes the recipe foolproof, and if you have some leftover, you can slather it on bruschetta or toss it into a vinaigrette or risotto.
My friend Elizabeth Minchilli made my two favorite videos of the two different methods. The simpler of the two was made by a cheesemaker south of Rome. The second video is of Flavio making the dish in his restaurant.
In July, LA Times columnist Jenn Harris did a deep dive into Cacio e Pepe in LA and found that the flavor profile was represented in more than the classic dish. Here are a few of her suggestions.
To have great Cacio e Pepe in LA, go to Felix where the Cacio e Pepe-obsessed chef Evan Funke has served thousands of plates of the stuff. He’s opening a Roman-focused restaurant in Hollywood this fall called Mother Wolf, and I’m sure Cacio e Pepe will make a strong showing. At the Rose in Venice, Chef Jason Neroni goes off piste and adds miso butter made with yellow miso to Pecorino and pasta water to create a sauce.
If you want the spicy cheesy goodness on pizza, go to Pizzana, where Chef Daniele Uditi has made a craveable offshoot. But another genius idea I can’t wait to try is the Cacio e Pepe Risotto that chef Daniel Cutler was making at Ronan. He’s not doing it anymore, so I guess I’ll have to just make it myself at home. Jeffrey Merrihue, chef-owner of Heroic Italian, is making Cacio e Pepe Arancini, which are deep fried rice balls.