I just returned from five weeks of eating my way through Italy….again. My last stop was Rome, one of my favorite food cities. I planned every pasta, secondo, snack and gelato I’d eat before my train pulled into Rome’s Termini station.
Wherever I’m eating in Italy, but especially Rome, I’m the eager diner with 21 questions about how the dish is made, ingredients, temperatures, etc. When the place is less crowded and a family-run business, they love my enthusiasm for the food and answer all questions with a smile. When it’s crowded, well, the waiters blow by my table before I can say, “scusi.” My mission this trip: Eat enough and ask loads of questions, so I could recreate my favorite Roman pasta dishes. After many questions and great conversations, I was ready to get cooking.
Not only that, when I got home, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation’s was in Rome. While many of you were watching the fight scene and trying to read along with the subtitles (you know who you are), I had my eyes firmly fixed on the happenings in the kitchen.
Cacio e Pepe (Cheese and Pepper) is a classic dish. It’s the simplest Roman pasta to make – you need pasta water, Pecorino Romano cheese, freshly ground pepper, and maybe a little butter. When in Rome, you should try it, at least once. Ask any Roman where to go for some of the best Cacio e Pepe, and they’ll tell you Roma Sparita. To make things even better, we had a back-kitchen pass to see the chef make it on No Reservations Rome.
The recipe below is inspired by Roma Sparita’s version of Cacio e Pepe, right down to serving it in the Parmigiano bowl. Purists beware - butter is in this recipe. It’s not in the classical version, but the chef at Roma Sparita put it in. (He added it before the pepper.) I’m sure the butter helps to more easily create the creaminess of the cheese “sauce,” not really a sauce but a cheesy coating. The quantities below are based on what I saw (a handful here, a ladle there); the results - a silky, salty and cheesey coating on each strand of pasta. With each forkful, the flecks of pepper cling to the cheese and add some heat.
This week, and maybe much of next, is dedicated to Rome. The blog won’t be in black and white (maybe I’ll pay a short homage to Bourdain and Fellini), and you won’t hear me talk about any angst, alienation, or existential B.S. Here, on the blog, instead I'll be celebrating all that I love about the Eternal City - recreating what I ate, and dishing about some of my favorite finds (food and otherwise).
Cacio e Pepe alla Roma Sparita
(Serves 2 people)
Half pound spaghetti
About 6 cups well-salted boiling water
For the “sauce”:
About 1 1/2 cups (2 large ladles) boiling pasta water
1 tablespoon freshly, coarsely grated pepper, plus more for garnish
2 tablespoons butter
1 3/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for garnish
For the Parmesan bowl:
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Regiano cheese
To make the Parmesan bowl, spread a very thin layer of the cheese onto a slightly warmed non-stick pan in the form of a circle, about six inches in diameter. (The cheese should slowly start to melt when you place it into the pan.) Cook for 3-4 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling. Using a spatula, slide the cheese circle out of the pan and onto a turned over bowl. (To create a pretty bowl like that at Roma Sparita, it’s best to use a mold/bowl that’s not higher than 2 inches, letting the excess fan out with creases at the edges.) Use tongs to press the cheese, only while it’s hot, down or out, as you like. Cool while you make the pasta.
Cook the pasta according to the directions for that brand. When the pasta is not quite cooked, about 3 minutes before you would normally take it out of the water, add the boiling pasta water, the butter and the pepper to a hot saute pan. Add the drained pasta to the pan and toss through the water mixture until the pasta absorbs almost all of the water. Remove from the heat, and add the grated cheese to the pasta. Quickly stir the cheese into the pasta. Place into the Parmesan cup and garnish with more grated cheese and freshly grated pepper, to taste. Buon Appetito!