If you find yourself in a good pasta restaurant and see cacio e pepe among the offerings, do your mouth a favor and your waistline a grave disservice, and order it.
You might be tempted to pass it over because the recipe lists only noodles, pecorino cheese and black pepper, while the next pasta in the list features 10 expensive-sounding ingredients. But this quintessential Roman preparation has the ability to grab your soul by the lapels and shake it.
I hadn't had it in years, until luck brought it to my attention — first at Atlanta's KR Steakbar, where chef Chris McDade makes terrific pastas, and then at a restaurant in Chicago. Now, I'm frankly obsessed.
Cacio e pepe is essentially pasta saturated with ewe's milk cheese and flecked with black pepper — rich like carbonara, but far more elemental. It tastes sheepy and milky from the cheese, prickly and fruity from the pepper. The bare sheen of sauce is creamy rather than oily.
"It's easy to make, but a difficult dish to master," said McDade, when I called him for a tutorial. "You're just looking at three ingredients, so each ingredient needs to be good." McDade, who first fell for this dish in Italy, says it classically starts with a dried, strand pasta such as bavette or spaghetti alla chitarra, though he uses his own handmade tonnarelli. The cheese should be Pecorino Romano Fulvi, which is made about an hour north of Rome. Unlike Sardinian pecorinos, which are drier and saltier, this one lends itself to forming a cheesy sauce. And then there's freshly ground or cracked black pepper. That's it.
So what turns the cheese into glorious cheesy sauce? Unlike some recipes published stateside by the likes of Mario Batali and Gwyneth Paltrow, McDade maintains "there's never any Parmesan, never any butter and never any olive oil" beyond a scant drizzle you might use to toast the black pepper. You simply add a ladle or two of pasta cooking water and stir it with the steaming-hot, cooked pasta, grated cheese and pepper. When you can master temperature, proportion and motion, you get a creamy rather than clumpy sauce. A final dusting of cheese and pepper, and the pasta is ready.
I consulted a number of Italian cooking websites and blogs and have discovered that both home cooks and food scientists alike are obsessed with creamy cacio e pepe sauce. Many say you should toss the ingredients in a pasta bowl prewarmed with pasta cooking water; others prefer flipping the pasta in a saute pan.
Some people prefer using a different cheese — a semisoft variety called Cacio di Roma. Others say a blend of the two cheeses makes the perfect cacio e pepe.