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Cacio e pepe

Img_8889My Italian friend O had just been to Osteria Mozza and he couldn’t believe it. “They put butter on the cacio e pepe!” he complained. “The pasta is supposed be dry! No sauce involved. And nobody in Lazio would ever use butter!”

Believe me, I felt for him. Everyone in O’s hometown outside Rome (Lazio is where the dish originated) is so passionate about food that feuds can be started over the proper way to make pasta e fagioli or eggplant Parmesan.

Curious what his own cacio e pepe would be like, I invited him over to make the pasta dish for dinner. The name literally means pecorino cheese and pepper -- and those are the only two ingredients, aside from the spaghetti. After checking with me to make sure I had a piece of real pecorino Romano, not pecorino Toscano (the Roman sheep’s milk cheese is sharper and saltier then the Tuscan), he showed up bearing his own spaghetti, a super-long type from Naples. He set a big pot of water to boil, threw in some sea salt and got to work finely grating a tall pile of pecorino on a hand grater. He tried out the pepper grinder to make sure it gave the proper coarse grind. It should resemble peppercorns crushed in a mortar and pestle. When the pasta was cooked al dente, he drained it (no rinsing!), shaking the colander vigorously.

Now, he told me, the secret is to wait about one minute. If you add the cheese when the pasta is too hot, it will melt, and that’s not what you want. After one minute, he frantically ground lots of black pepper over the pasta, added the cheese and tossed with a three-pronged pasta fork until everything was mixed. The cheese and pepper should attach to and dot each strand of spaghetti to give a tweedy effect. Don’t add olive oil, or pasta water, and above all, no butter! 

Serve immediately with a chilled white wine, usually a simple Frascati from the hills outside Rome. The combination of the salty cheese with the sharp blast of pepper and the pasta is lusty and delicious. It’s one of the simplest dishes you can make, says O, and very fast. It’s something you make when you have nothing else in the house.

I’m convinced.  Who needs butter?

-- S. Irene Virbila

Photo by S. Irene Virbila

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A guy goes into a restaurant and orders a meal. A little while later the waiter brings him a salisbury steak with feta on top, a fresh French baguette, mesculin salad and some hash browns. The guy says, "what's this?" The waiter says, "You ordered a burger and fries, right?" Of course authenticity matters! It's one thing to substitute out of necessity, like using bacon instead of pancetta if you honestly can't find it. It's quite another to be careless with culture. There are thousands of pasta dishes in Italian cuisine. Many are distinguished by just a couple of ingredients. Why not add sausage to cacio e pepe? Because then it would be "alla gricia." Why not add garlic and oil? Because then it would be aglio e olio. Why not use orzo instead of long pasta ? Because it would fundamentally change the texture and style of the dish. Put anything you want on pasta, dude, but don't call it cacio e pepe. Besides, this recipe is perfect as is. It needs nothing but a glass of wine next to it.

I'm from Frascati and just returned from there last week. The traditional recipe is as Irene described. A cook would never consider serving it any other way in Lazio. That said, I'm all for people putting their own spin on recipes for their own consumption. Sometimes we make due with what's in the pantry. Sometimes we just feel like letting our creative culinary juices fly. Just give the "spin" your own name and don't be surprized if it wrinkles a few noses. p.s. Don't forget to pick up a bottle of Frascati wine at your local retailer. It's a bright, fruity white wine best drunk young and perfectly matched with every Roman dish. Buon appetito!

Bah. Hoeey. I get tired of the age old argument of authenticity. I have about 10 Italian cookbooks and sure enough, I found some recipes for Cacio Pepe involving olive oil or butter. Just because your friend didn't grow up with it that way doesn't mean it's the end-all be-all right way to do things. I like butter. I would make this dish with butter. It's a peasant dish, they probably didn't use butter because it wasn't around. If they had butter? Who knows, they might have gotten a little crazy and thrown some in.

Thanks for profiling this heavenly pasta dish! I ordered it several times on my last tripo to Rome, and make it frequently at home. I have been using olive oil in mine, but I have seen recipes that call for butter or pasta water. I like how he waits a minute before grating the cheese over, I will try that next time.


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