Simple and Delicious
Whenever most Americans think of Italian food, especially pasta dishes, more often than not images of heaping piles of noodles buried under a quart of red sauce come to mind. And that's unfortunate because it is so stereotypical and so inaccurate.
To be sure, Italians love their pasta, often eating it twice a day. But the love affair with tomato sauce does not run so deep. In fact, a great many of the pasta dishes Italians frequently enjoy are made with nothing more than olive oil or butter, cheese, and a few herbs, spices, and seasonings. Served in moderate portions, they are light, satisfying, and delicious.
Pasta Cacio e Pepe is one such dish. A favorite in Rome, “cacio e pepe” simply means “cheese and pepper.” And that's all there is to this wonderful dish. It is usually made with long, thin pasta, such as spaghetti or linguine. The Roman classic is often made with tonnarelli, a kind of square spaghetti better known, perhaps, by its popular Abruzzese name, “spaghetti alla chitarra.” It's a fresh made pasta not usually found in supermarkets, so substitutions of dried pasta are acceptable.
As with any Italian dish, quality counts. You absolutely will not get the best results from the cheapest ingredients you can find. This is especially true of the pasta. Cheap store-brand or off-brand pastas are often made with inferior grades of wheat or are adulterated with fillers that will adversely affect the way they cook up. Mushy, overcooked spaghetti will ruin any dish. I recommend De Cecco or Barilla, although other quality Italian pastas can be found online or in specialty shops.
And also as with any Italian dish, there are as many “authentic” ways to make it as there are cooks preparing it. Here's the way I've made it for many years, and its never done me wrong. In fact, I made some night before last.
For my version of “PASTA CACIO E PEPE,” you'll need:
12 oz long pasta (spaghetti, linguine, bucatini)
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed, divided
1 ½ cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano
1 ½ - 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
½ cup reserved pasta cooking water
A lot of cooks just use Pecorino Romano, and that's fine. I like the blend of Pecorino and either Grana or Parmigiano. Each brings a nice flavor element to the table. Real Pecorino Romano is a sheep's milk cheese, although what usually lives on American supermarket shelves is made from cow's milk. Grana Padano can be very difficult to find and Parmigiano-Reggiano is expensive. I always use Parmigiano-Reggiano when I can't find the less expensive Grana Padono, but if a domestic Parmesan cheese is all you can get, go with it. Just make sure you never, ever, ever, ever use the cheese-flavored sawdust that comes in a green plastic or cardboard can under the “Parmesan” label. That, coupled with cheap pasta, will produce an inedible dish.
For the butter in this dish, I prefer European-style butter, which has a higher butterfat content and a richer flavor. Kerrygold Irish Butter is good, as is Plugra and a new entry into the market made by Land o' Lakes. Just make sure it's unsalted, because you want to be able to balance the saltiness of the dish yourself.
I'll mention here that some recipes call for a mix of butter and extra-virgin olive oil. That's great. I make it that way sometimes. This recipe is just a little simpler.
And do try to use freshly ground black pepper. The pre-ground stuff just isn't as good. I know two teaspoons sounds like a lot, but it really isn't for this dish. In fact, it's probably a little light by some standards.
Finally, reserved pasta water is essential to the success of this and many other Italian pasta dishes. The starchy, salty water helps develop the “sauce” and the finished product won't be the same without it.
Now, here's what you do:
Cook the pasta in plenty of boiling salted water, according to package directions. And I do mean plenty – four or five quarts – and salted – two or three tablespoons.
While the pasta cooks, melt half the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the pepper and cook, swirling the pan, for about a minute. Add a little of the pasta water and bring to a simmer.
Once the pasta is al dente, add it to the pan along with the remaining butter. I use tongs or one of those “spaghetti spoons” designed to lift and drain pasta. A little extra water on the pasta won't hurt. Reduce the heat to low and add the Parmesan or Grana Padano. Stir and toss, then remove from the heat and add in the Pecorino. Stir and toss again until all the cheeses melt. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately in warmed dishes.