Cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper) is a Roman pasta dish that one can find all over this Italian city. There are only three main ingredients; Pecorino Romano, black pepper and pasta. The key to this seemingly simple dish is in how you treat them.
When fat-soluble spices, such as, black peppercorns, are heated in oil, their flavor compounds are released into the oil. This heightens the flavor of both the pepper and the oil. This process of cooking spices in fat is called “blooming” and adds complexity to the dish. Don’t skip this step.
With regards to the cheese, if you use a microplane grater, you will get a very finely grated cheese, which will melt into a smooth, creamy sauce, rather than a lumpy one.
As for the pasta, normally I would advise you to cook it in a large pot with an ocean of water that is as salty as the sea.
However, that is not the case here. Cooking the pasta in a skillet with only enough water to cover it, rather than a large pot, concentrates the starch in the water. This is important because there is no heavy cream in this dish. It’s the starchy water that emulsifies the cheese into a creamy, luscious sauce that coats every strand of pasta.
- 3 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounces spaghetti or buccatini
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 ounces (1 cup) Pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated, plus more for finishing
- Pasta water
- In a saute pan (large enough to hold the cooked pasta), warm the olive oil and pepper over medium heat just until it becomes fragrant, about 1 minute. Set aside.
- Using a large skillet, lay the pasta in the pan and add enough water to cover it, about 3-inches deep. Add the salt. Bring to a boil, stirring it as needed to keep it from sticking together. Just before it’s done, remove 3 tablespoons of the starchy pasta water and add to the pan with the oil and pepper.
- Using tongs, lift the pasta (and any water clinging to it) into the oil and pepper. Stir in the cheese until mixed in. Add additional pasta water 1 tablespoon at a time until smooth and creamy. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and or pepper if necessary.
- Serve immediately with a final grating of cheese on top.