This post is all about one of our favorite pasta dishes in the world: cacio e pepe. Literally translated as “cheese and pepper” this Roman pasta dish is as simple as they come: cheese, pepper, pasta, and in our case a little bit of extra virgin olive oil (don’t tell the purists!).
Inspired by some of our very favorite restaurants in Rome, cacio e pepe is a timeless, delicious pasta. The ingredient list is simple, so be sure that you aren’t cutting corners. First let’s talk cheese: we’re using pecorino cheese, a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. It has a little more flavor than parm, which you can definitely use if pecorino is nowhere in sight, but if you’re in search of the best cheese for this recipe and the most authentic flavor, make sure and get a wedge of pecorino.
The second most important component of this recipe is fresh cracked pepper. Don’t even think about cooking with pre-crushed black pepper for this recipe. Because we’re only working with a few ingredients, the quality of your black pepper will go a long way.
Lastly, we’re using 8 oz. of pasta for this two-person recipe. Try to find a good quality brand of pasta for this dish- often times a high-quality pound of spaghetti only costs $2 or $3 as compared to the typical $1 box — worth it! And any extra virgin olive oil that’s decent quality will do.
Before we get started, let’s talk about methodology. There are a myriad of ways to make a delicious cacio e pepe, but the one issue that many home cooks experience with this seemingly simple pasta dish is cheese clumping as they assemble the pasta and their finely grated pecorino. After testing multiple renditions of cacio e pepe, our solution to avoiding clumps was ultimately nontraditionalist, but still used by some of the very best restaurants in Rome (Roma Sparita, Roscioli, etc.), and that is adding a touch of butter or olive oil to the pasta before adding the grated cheese. The butter helps emulsify the pasta and cheese without clumping, giving you a glossy, beautiful (and delicious) cacio e pepe. You’ll still have to vigorously stir your ingredients together once the cheese hits the pasta, but with a pair of trusty tongs and good instruction following, we have confidence in you!
Cacio E Pepe
- 6 ounces pasta spaghetti or bucatini recommended
- 3 ounces finely grated pecorino cheese parm works if you're in a pinch
- 1 tsp fresh cracked pepper
- 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to boil.
- While you're waiting for your water to come to a boil, grate your cheese. Cheese should be finely grated -- use a microplane zester for best results. Set aside a handful of cheese for topping at the end. Crack pepper into a small, separate bowl until you have about a teaspoon.
- Add pasta to boiling water, and cook until not quite al dente (al dente is typically one minute less than package instructions- cooked but still firm). For spaghetti this is about 8 minutes. Remove 1 cup of pasta water from pot and set aside.
- Just before pasta is done, heat olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce pan or skillet. Add crushed black pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add 1/2 cup of the pasta water to oil/pepper and bring to a simmer. Using tongs, add pasta to pepper and pasta water. Cook on medium high for about one minute. Remove from heat. Add pecorino to pasta, stirring vigorously (this prevents clumping of cheese) until well combined and pasta is al dente. Cheese/pepper/pasta water should transform into a glossy coating over pasta. You may add additional pasta water if needed, one tablespoon at a time.
- Serve immediately with remaining pecorino cheese and additional fresh cracked pepper.