I see myself as a good cook, not great but certainly serviceable. One dish I always thought I could pull off was a terrific cacio e pepe, perhaps the simplest Roman pasta dish imaginable. One evening, I was watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations where he was highlighting an unspecified restaurant in Rome that made "to-die-for" cacio e pepe. (For those who may have missed Italian 101, cacio e pepe is cheese and pepper pasta or said more simply, Italian, adult mac and cheese.) To die for, I pondered - I knew that I would have to find that restaurant on our next trip to Rome. That restaurant was Roma Sparita and it was located in Piazza di Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.
In retrospect, my cacio e pepe was adequate. I learned that five years ago when I went to Rome and visited Roma Sparita. How could that be, I thought. There are only 3 or 4 main ingredients. What was I missing? Marco, the chef at Roma Sparita gave me a lesson and it soon became apparent that while the recipe is simple, it is all about technique. Today, I am going to tell you what I learned about making impressive cacio e pepe and it will soon be a dish you can pull together at a moment's notice.
Here's what you need (for two people):
A lengthy pasta (1/2 lb) - I like Bucatini which is a thicker version of spaghetti but with a hole in the middle, like a straw.
Pecorino Romano cheese (3/4/ cup) - Don't grate it until you're ready to make the pasta dish
Black pepper (1 Tbsp) - Grind it into the pan
Butter (2 Tbsp)
Here are the steps:
Boil your pasta water
Once boiling, add salt - not before it boils because it changes the boil point of the water
Add the pasta - you will be cooking it in the boiling water for 2-3 minutes less than advised on the box.
In a non-stick pan over medium heat add 2 tablespoons of butter - work the butter in the pan until it starts to change color
Remove pan from heat and add 1/2 of a ladle of pasta water to the butter and mix - This stops the butter from cooking too much
Lower heat and place pan with butter/water back on range.
Grind a tablespoon of black pepper into the butter/water mixture - This may seem like a lot of pepper but it's not in this dish
Remove pasta from boiling water and add to pepper/butter/water mixture - mix well and add more water as necessary
Lower heat to lowest setting and gradually (a little at a time) introduce the grated pecorino romano cheese to the mixture
Mix and mix and mix. Add more water and cheese if necessary to get a creamy, coated cheese on the bucatini
Serve - dress with even more pecorino and more ground pepper.
Die and go to heaven!
Once I learned the technique, I elevated my cacio e pepe making skills to a different level. It's really remarkable that 4 ingredients can be so impacted by timing and technique.
If you really want to impress, you can make the small cheese bowls to serve the pasta in. This is really simple and takes about 3 minutes per bowl. Sprinkle grated pecorino or parmigiano cheese on a six inch non-stick pan on heat. When the cheese starts to bubble, use a small nylon spatula to remove the cheese and place while hot over a small dish or ramekin. Carefully, mold the cheese to the vessel. Let cool for 2 minutes and voila, a edible bowl for your pasta. (I once made 18 of these for Christmas dinner and it took 20 minutes. I was a machine!)
There you have you new go-to pasta dinner courtesy of Roma Sparita. And you never even had to leave home.