There are times when a surfeit of ingredients in a dish weave an intricate pattern of textures and flavors on your palette in a magical gustatory experience. Each bite proffers its own unique sensation that combines and recombines with other bites into a sometimes-harmonious, sometimes-contrasting (sometimes even balanced!) delight that leaves you struggling for the often inadequate words to describe it.
Then there’s cacio e pepe.
Cacio e pepe (lit. ‘cheese and pepper’) is a classic Romano dish with three main ingredients: spaghetti, cheese, and black pepper. It is comfort food, a basic meal for sustenance. What it lacks in nuance it more than makes up for in a single hearty, filling bowl of food.
My preparation is simple (but then again, anyone’s preparation of this dish should be simple). Cook the spaghetti al dente, drain the pasta but reserve the cooking liquid. Put some cooking liquid (use a 25 ml/2 oz ladle), butter or olive oil (maybe 10 grams) into a hot pan, sprinkle a little cheese in the pan to give the liquid some body, then add a single portion of spaghetti. Keep the spaghetti moving in the pan (shake; stir) as the liquid reduces and thickens slightly. Sprinkle a little more cheese in the pan and let it melt; keep the spaghetti moving. Add a bit more water if it’s sticking to the pan. Turn the pan out into a bowl, top with more grated cheese and fresh black pepper. Serve as the cheese settles onto the spaghetti.
There’s no heavy creaminess, no sharp acidic notes, no contrasting texture, nothing at all to detract from the flavor of the cheese and the sharp pepper. And it is precisely that simple, straightforward one-notedness of this dish that makes it so very good.
Freshness is key. No, the pasta doesn’t have to be freshly cranked, but it essential that both the cheese and pepper are fresh. Actually, ‘fresh’ is really a misnomer, as I will explain.
The cheese you use should be hard, with body, aged for months or years. Pecorino Romano, a sheep’s cheese from the Rome area would be the classic choice. Parmesan is a suitable (and usually more accessible) alternative. American cheese is not. Try to stick to Italian cheeses for authenticity, but if you prefer a firm Tomme, Cheddar or an aged Gouda is your thing, enjoy. It’s not about the gooey; save that for pizza. It is all about the body. The ‘fresh’ I refer to is when it was shredded. The cheese must be shredded moments before you are ready to add it to the pan, or even shredded into the pan directly. Buying pre-shredded aged cheese is a waste of money, plain and simple. Buy a whole piece from a cheese counter (200g is about ₪25 and can last quite a while), and most definitely avoid pre-ground Parmesan cheese from a jar in the refrigerator section, whatever you do. A cheese grater is no more that a few shekels and will last you for a long time. Ikea has a set called Chosigt for $5 that I have and am happy to recommend. I also happen to have a hard plastic dairy one that was 12 shekels. The holes are too large for this application, but it’s wicked sharp.
‘Fresh’ pepper means freshly ground. If you have an eight ounce canister of ground black pepper that has been in your cabinet for more than six months, it’s more closely related to sawdust than pepper. The oils have pretty much dissipated, and whatever is left is turning rancid (you’ll know by the horsey smell). I buy 100 grams of whole peppercorns in Machane Yehuda, and grind them in a spice grinder one ounce at a time. That amount usually lasts me a month, with the last flecks of pepper as sharp as the first. Whole peppercorns last for years, centuries if you ask anthropologists.
You can dress this dish up with artesian cheeses, Tellicherry peppercorns, flavored pastas, or even an edible Parmesan cheese bowl, but at the end of the day it remains a simple, soul-satisfying meal.
Now here’s my real question. Why isn’t this dish on any menu of any restaurant I’ve ever eaten in? The next time I’m at a restaurant like The Spaghettis, Pasta Basta, or Pera e Mela, I think I’m going to ask for it.
Final note: why do I use the term Romano? Well, because someone from the city of Rome isn’t really what I think of when someone says “Roman.” That makes me think of men in funny helmets and short swords.