Updated: Dec 23, 2019
A few years ago, we were taken by a friend along charming cobblestone streets to a small, seemingly unremarkable ristorante off a small piazza in Trastevere - that wonderful part of Rome that comes alive every evening as its bars and restaurants fill with locals and travellers alike and everyone seems up for a good time. We'd been taken there because he said he'd found a new place that he thought made fantastic cacio e pepe: traditional Roman pasta meals. It was the first time we'd tried it, and we’ve been hooked ever since....
On the surface it's a simple meal. The ingredients are basic: cacio is ‘cheese’ in a number of Italian dialects and ‘pepe’ is pepper. Add some pasta and water and you pretty much have it. But as many have found to their own disappointment, there is an art to its creation that makes it challenging to recreate when you’re back at home.
Legend has it that cacio e pepe goes back to ancient Roman times. In the warmer months Italian shepherds would take their herds to graze on rich pastures found on the rolling hills of the nearby Apennine Mountains. They’d be out there for months at a time, and for sustenance the shepherds would bring with them ingredients that could be easily carried and would not spoil. So into their bags would go dried homemade pasta and black peppers. The shepherds would also milk their ewes daily and use some of the milk to make a type of pecorino cheese. Hardy types, those ancient Roman shepherds.
These modest ingredients provided the basis for a hearty meal. They’d cook the pasta in boiling water, then make a tasty sauce by grating fresh cacio into some of the pasta water and blending in some pepper to add some zing. And the rest, you may say, is history!
Unlike that other Roman pasta staple – carbonara - no oil, cream or butter should be used in cacio e pepe. The starch inside the pasta and the grated pecorino combined in the right way are sufficient to create the cacio e pepe sauce. Whilst these days some restaurants use spaghetti as the pasta, traditionally tonnarelli was and is used. It looks like spaghetti but is a little thicker and is made with eggs which make it a little more chewy (although some suggest pici is the correct pasta: it’s short, clumsily rolled, thicker and also spaghetti-looking).
Of course, variations of the recipe can be found everywhere, and you can find cacio e pepe in ristorantes all across Italy and further afield (we had some at Brisbane’s Ecco restaurant last year – not bad) and different chefs are putting their touch into the sauce, but for us it should be eaten in the place where the recipe was written, so our first meal in Rome is usually cacio e pepe (with un mezzo di vino rossa della casa) and maybe a gelato on the way home to top it off. Bellissima!!
Now, if you aren’t heading to Rome in the near future and are keen to give cacio e pepe a try, here’s a recipe we've tried and it wasn’t half bad (although we're still learning the tricks to making excellent cacio e pepe).
Cacio e pepe (Serves 2)
2 tsp black peppercorns
200g tonarelli (or pici or spaghetti if you can’t find either)
80g pecorino romano (the best you can get) at room temperature, finely grated
First, toast the peppercorns in a very hot, dry pan until fragrant, then roughly crush. (You can use a little olive oil for this, but only a little and it is optional.)
Use a wide shallow pan to boil some well-salted water. You'll need enough eventually to cover the pasta - but not by too much. Bring the water to the boil, then add the pasta.
Stir occasionally and after five minutes (important - it needs to take on some of the starch from the pasta) scoop out 250ml of the water into a wide bowl to allow it to cool slightly.
When cooked al dente, drain the pasta and leave it to cool a little but only for about a minute.
Meanwhile, put the cheese and most of the pepper in a large, heavy bowl or pan and gradually add a little of the pasta water as you beat it to make first a paste, and then a sauce the consistency of a white sauce.
Add the pasta and toss while adding as much of the water (you shouldn’t need it all) as you need to make a sauce that coats each strand.
Place in warm bowls, sprinkle over a little more pepper, and serve immediately.
If thongs don’t go entirely to plan, don’t be disheartened – you aren’t alone in struggling to master making great cacio e pepe.
The one further piece of learned wisdom I can offer is that the quality of the pecorino is critical. You should try to get the best, sharpest Pecorino Romano you can find. And that’s it.
And if you want to try some great cacio e pepe, come with us on our Best of Italy 14-day escorted tour. We’ll take you with us to a few of our favourite ristorantes in Rome that I’m sure will become yours as well!