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Cacio e pepe

August 24, 2007 |  1:50 pm

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