Cacio e Pepe is a Roman pasta dish that boasts that it only uses 3 ingredients…cheese, pepper and pasta. When in Rome, this dish will be prepared tableside, in a giant wheel of pecorino cheese, indeed just using the cheese, pepper and spaghetti. A little bit of pasta water mixes in to make it a delicately, creamy pasta that truly is “to die for.” You may be doubtful that this could be possible, with only those few ingredients, but it truly is heaven. Twenty years ago, I ordered this dish in a small trattoria in Rome, just to see what the fuss was all about. I couldn’t believe my taste buds! Years later, I had this dish again (prepared in the wheel of cheese) on the lower Eastside of Manhattan, at a restaurant bearing it’s name, “Cacio e Pepe,” which is still there on 2nd Avenue . There was something in this spectacularly presented pasta dish that reminded me of something from my past. It reminded me of my all-time favorite way to eat pasta….with nothing but butter and grated Italian cheese. I loved this as a child. I especially loved it as a teenager, looking for comfort food to relieve the stresses of teenage life. In college, it was a sure way to fill up your stomach, when you just couldn’t eat any more of that cafeteria food. As a young bride, trying to live on a teacher’s salary, it was a delicious way to stretch a very minimal food budget. (I think we ate this twice a week for 2 years). As a parent, my son spent many years eating pasta only this way. And now, my grandchildren prefer this to just about anything else I might offer them. Perhaps this is just an Italian thing, but “pasta with butter,” as we call it, has been at the top of our “ comfort food list” for decades!
The true version of cacio e pepe is made in a bit of a more complicated manner than my version, but it’s worth taking note of because it is perhaps more refined. For all these years, I’ve simply put a generous amount of butter in a bowl and then added lightly drained pasta, a good bit of cheese, and tossed. I’d add a little ground pepper at the end. The Roman, and true version, of this pasta doesn’t include butter, but it does include a good bit more of the pasta water. However, upon researching this dish, I came across so many different variations of this recipe, and as always, it got a bit more complicated. Obviously we don’t have wheels of pecorino cheese sitting in our kitchens, so most recipes now have us melting butter together with olive oil (or maybe no olive oil at all) and pepper, and then adding the pasta, pasta water and cheese. Give it all a good mix and wow is this good!
You can really play around with this recipe, making it to your own taste. You might like more cheese, or perhaps no olive oil, just more butter. Even the order of the ingredients affects the taste. It’s up to you to make this dish your own. Keep experimenting with these simple ingredients, and it might just become your “comfort food” of choice.
I experimented by trying many of the various recipes that I found in several of my Italian cookbooks ( boy was this fun), and we were very happy indeed with the following, which is a combination.
RECIPE: serves 4
1 pound spaghetti
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 stick (8 TBSP) unsalted butter
Freshly ground black pepper, depending on taste, but you can use up to 1/4 cup.
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
extra cheese for serving
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- In another large pot or skillet, add pepper and heat for a few minutes, shaking the pan. Then add the oil and butter and stir until butter is melted. Remove from the heat.
- Cook pasta until al dente. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking water.
- Add 1/4 cup water to the oil and butter. Then add the pasta, tossing over medium heat. Add the cheeses and a little more water, as needed. Toss to combine well.
- Serve immediately and pass more cheese. I always like another sprinkle or two of pepper.