There are as many recipes for pasta as stars in the firmament but it still surprises me that it took me all these years to encounter one of the top classics. If you like cheese, black pepper, and pasta (and who doesn't') you will love this simple dish. The only part that's not simple is finding the best cheese, which is the main determinant of flavor in this recipe. I mentioned on the posting of Maialiono and the suckling pig that I was planning to return for lunch. My intention was to have a sandwich of the suckling pig but when I learned there was no crackling in it I decided to try a pasta dish instead. My dear friend/colleague Nancy Weber noticed cacio e pepe on the menu and said, This is my test of an Italian restaurant. My eyes had skimmed right over the unfamiliar words but on so strong a recommendation of course I had to try it. Wow! Firm pasta cloaked with creamy cheesy sauce and a most pleasant bite of intense slightly smoky black pepper. Nancy explained that cacio is--a great Roman cheese with excellent melting, properties with "the right suppleness and coefficient of blah to offset the tang of the pecorino. Did I mention that Nancy is a food writer and novelist? (Need I have?!) Maialino's version passed the test for Nancy and as for me, I enjoyed it so much I can't even remember the other pasta dish I had ordered though I do remember enjoying it--just not as much as the new experience of something I would never have thought to order. We both enjoyed a glass of bold red wine with the pasta--actually a half a glass so that we could try to go back to work after lunch--it didn't work.
A few days later, I checked the web and cacio was defined as "an Italian word for cheese," but on further research (Murray's Cheese, arguably the top cheese store in NYC, that used to carry the true cacio from Rome, referred me to Di Palo) I learned that cacio da Roma is a young sheep's cheese. After a quick phone call to ensure that they had the cacio in stock, I lost no time in speed walking over to the store on Grand Street in the heart of Little Italy. (As an aside, the last time I visited Di Palo, a mere 20 minute walk from my house, was when I was a student at NYU.
When I walked into the store, after a deep and satisfying inhale, I came to the immediate conclusion that I have wasted a good part of my life not visiting it on a regular basis: Di Paolo is an old country store--the kind of place where no matter how crowded, the sales people take the time to have you taste several samples of the cheese and to carry on a real conversation. In my case, as I was eyeing the juicy porchetta with mahogany crackling skin, they gave me a tiny taste and I immediately purchased a slice. It was going to be for lunch the next day but the more I thought about it the more I realized I was going to need to eat it much sooner. So I made a half portion of cacio e pepe and served the porchetta on the side. As you can see in the photo, the cacio e pepe is not at all creamy. But this was my first try. I learned that the cheese must not be heated at all over direct heat if it is to stay truly creamy. Here's the recipe as I have perfected it to my taste. It was Nancy's idea to add the butter, mine to add the crème fraîche for extra creaminess and slight tang (neither is traditional and both are optional)
Cacio E Pepe for Two
8 ounces of spaghetti or bucatinni
2 ounces cacio da Roma 2 ounces pecarino Romano (or a total of 4 ounces pecarino Romano)
1 teaspoon olive oil freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon butter (optional)
2 tablespoons crème fraîche (optional)
Grate the cheese into a large bowl.
Cook the pasta in boiling water with about 1 tablespoon of coarse salt. Shortly before the pasta is ready, heat a large frying pan over medium-low heat. Ladle and stir two or more tablespoons of the pasta cooking water into the cheese--just enough to make it creamy.
When the pasta is almost al dente (barely a bit of white in the center), add the oil to the frying pan and drain the pasta, reserving a little of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the frying pan and sprinkle it evenly with the pepper. Fry for 2-3 minutes to toast the pepper and coat the pasta. Then empty it into the bowl with the cheese. Add the optional butter and crème fraîche. Toss to coat well. If necessary add a bit of the reserved cooking water for a nicely creamy texture. Add salt to taste.