Cacio E Pepe
Pasta is important when you want to feed yourself well on a regular basis, and so I’m delighted to introduce a new post by Carly Diaz, one that’s about loving pasta in its homeland, Italy, and bringing it back home to the kitchen. Don’t miss her last story, about gyeongdan–Korean sweet rice cakes.
There is nothing that makes you feel like you’ve crossed over into adulthood like boarding a plane unaccompanied and destined for an international adventure on your own. When I was 20, I headed to Rome for a summer abroad program comprised of two courses: Roman Art and Architecture and Italian Film. Unofficially, I planned to study how to fill myself with pasta and vino on a student budget. It was my first experience traveling alone in a foreign country and I was eager to seem confident as I explored all aspect of Italian culture, especially its cuisine.
On the first evening at student orientation, I was introduced to Roman-style pizza topped with potatoes. Carb overload and delicious. The next day, I went to a restaurant in a few streets down from my apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood. I can’t recall what drew me to that particular restaurant, but I vividly remember the ravioli and how I nearly melted into my plate at the first bite.
I was completely sold on ravioli, ordering it at nearly every restaurant until I found myself in a small village on the outskirts of Rome renowned for its gnocchi that restaurants cooked up every Wednesday. Then I was ordering gnocchi at every turn.
I had consumed plenty of pasta in my life, but eating pasta in Italy is an experience unto itself. Each dish was better than the last, I thought it couldn’t get any better. And then, I was told I needed to try cacio e pepe. “It’s pasta with cheese and pepper. Delicious!” Not exactly an award-winning sales pitch, but I was dedicated to culinary exploration. The next time I saw cacio e pepe on a restaurant menu, I reluctantly passed over the ravioli, gnocchi and tortellini and ordered a plate. Delivered steaming, the twirls of noodles looked unremarkable. As I plunged my fork into the bowl, I observed an abundance of melting cheese and flakes of pepper.
The first delicious bite was simple and complex. All the satisfaction of pasta with the addition of sharp cheese and fragrant pepper. A sip of white wine to pause and reflect, then I dove back in. It was deceptively simple and so satisfying. As much as I wanted to pretend like I was a true adult who could traipse around Europe, culturally aware and not aching for home, the plate of ultimate comfort food was well timed. Pasta and cheese. It doesn’t get much better than that.
- 1 teaspoon freshly (not too finely) ground pepper flakes
- 1 cup Parmesan, finely grated
- 1 cup Pecorino Romano, finely grated
- ¾ pound spaghetti or bucatini (egg pasta recommended)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon butter
- cold water
- olive oil
- Heat a pan on medium high. Add the freshly ground pepper flakes and warm until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the cheeses and pepper, stirring in 1 teaspoon cold water at a time until it forms a thick paste.
- Bring a pot of generously salted water and the olive oil to a boil. Add the noodles and cook until al dente. Drain well, reserving ½ cup of pasta water. Toss the pasta and butter in the bowl with the cheese and pepper paste and stir ferociously, adding teaspoons of pasta water as needed until well the dish is combined and creamy.