Last week you traveled with us to the Caribbean. We gently swayed back and forth upon the warm Atlantic ocean on a private boat while watching a tropical sunrise and enjoying a delicious coconut mojito cake. We love visiting new places and it’s even better when you come with us! So pack your bags and bring an appetite because today we are going to Italy! And with three clicks of our heels, here we are on a romantic Summer evening in Rome. The temperatures have cooled and a soft breeze fills the air, scented with the aroma of sizzling garlic. You hear laughter and clinking glasses as you walk past an old restaurant from the 1600’s built entirely from stone, and out front an older man in a black suit with combed grey hair and a neighborly smile is playing an antique accordion that fills the streets with traditional music, while couples holding hands walk by with satisfied bellies and adventure in their eyes. The night is young, so let’s go exploring, find some delicious food, a bottle of red wine, and see if we can learn a few tricks in the kitchen.
And just like that, after an evening of sweet cannoli and sampling every gelato flavor in Rome, we are back home. So what is it about Italian food that makes it so special? Many of the best dishes use just a few simple ingredients, yet they are some of the most flavorful meals we know. During summertime, we always look forward to fusilli with heirloom tomatoes: made with just a handful of ingredients like garlic, basil, and juicy tomatoes, that zesty pasta has more flavor than some gourmet entrees that require days of preparation. Today we are sharing something that is even more simple—using just three ingredients—but is a true classic of Italian cuisine. Over the years we have attempted to recreate cacio e pepe at home but it has never turned out right: it was either too dry, too bland, or not peppery enough. After trying a few recipes that didn’t work, we finally struck gold with a website called Tales of Ambrosia, a Roman cooking blog that reveals authentic Italian secrets on how to create this cheesy, savory, and spicy pasta in the comfort of your own home. This is the real deal. Made with sharp, aged pecorino cheese and heaping spoonfuls of freshly ground black pepper, this classic spaghetti will transport your tastebuds to the streets of Rome.
This truly is the simplest pasta dish we know. You may see other recipes online that call for additions like butter, olive oil, parmesan, or even heavy cream, but for authentic cacio e pepe, all you need is spaghetti, pecorino romano cheese, and lots of freshly-ground black pepper. With just three ingredients, each one is important: the pasta should be flavorful on its own, so be sure to use a good-quality brand (we like De Cecco). For the pecorino romano, the more aged it is, the more flavor it will have and the creamier the sauce will be! We tested this recipe with both an 8 and a 16-month cheese, and the difference was clear: older is better. And for the black pepper, we use one and a half tablespoons and grind it just before use to keep that spicy, peppery heat! The last important tip is to warm your serving bowl: when you toss the cooked pasta in a hot bowl, it helps melt the cheese and bind it to the noodles, creating a smooth, creamy sauce with almost no effort at all. We actually place our serving bowl right on top of the simmering pot of water as the spaghetti cooks, so it’s perfectly heated once the pasta is ready. With these simple techniques, you are guaranteed to have a delicious, perfect cacio e pepe every time, no plane tickets needed.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe
adapted from Tales of Ambrosia
400g dried spaghetti
200-250g finely grated aged pecorino romano cheese, plus more for serving (see note)
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more for serving
Fill a large pot with 4 liters of water and bring to a boil. When boiling, add 4 teaspoons salt, then add the pasta and cook according to package directions until al dente. During the last 3 minutes of cooking, place a heatproof serving bowl on top of the pot so it gets hot. Alternatively, if your serving bowl will not fit on top of the pot, you can instead warm the bowl by filling it with hot water and letting it sit while the pasta cooks.
When the pasta is done, reserve about 2 cups of the cooking water in a measuring cup, then drain pasta into a strainer. Place the pasta in the hot serving bowl, and begin adding the cheese and pasta water, tossing vigorously to evenly melt the cheese and form a creamy sauce. Continue adding cheese and pasta water until the desired consistency is reached, adding more cheese if it seems too wet, and more water if it seems too dry. Add the ground black pepper and toss briefly to combine. Serve immediately, with additional cheese and ground pepper at the table if desired. Enjoy!
— To get the creamiest and most flavorful pasta, the pecorino should be aged. We tried this recipe with both an 8-month and a 16-month cheese, and the older cheese gave far superior results.
— The cheese should be grated as finely as possible to ensure even melting. The best way to do this is by grating it on a microplane grater, or the smallest holes of a regular grater.
— Start with 1 1/2 tablespoons of black pepper, and if you’re feeling extra spicy, add an extra 1/2 tablespoon.