When in Rome, one of my favorite pasta dishes is also one of the simplest: cacio e pepe. Translated from Italian, this means cheese and pepper. But because the dish is so simple, it requires nothing less than the highest-quality ingredients. So, don't be tempted to use pre-ground black pepper from a can, crappy pasta, or, god forbid, that sawdust-like grated parmesan cheese from a cardboard can.
There's not much more to this dish than pasta, cheese, butter, some olive oil and black pepper. However, timing is crucial, so have all of your ingredients lined up and ready to go before you cook the pasta. It's a very quick dish to make, and unbelievably delicious.
I like a mix of nutty-tasting Parmigiano-Reggiano along with sharper, tangy Pecorino-Romano for cacio e pepe. However, you could experiment with other cheeses too, such as Grana Padano.
This recipe makes two generous portions. You can easily double the recipe for more servings.
Salt for cooking the pasta
1/2 lb. good-quality pasta
3 Tbs. unsalted butter, divided and cut into small pieces
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. (or to taste) freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
1 cup reserved pasta water
Bring a pot of liberally salted water to a boil for the pasta. When the water is boiling, cook the pasta to al dente, according to the package directions. Before draining the pasta, set aside 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
While the pasta cooks, place the black pepper into a dry medium skillet over medium heat and toast the pepper for a minute or two. This helps bring out the flavorful oils in the pepper.
Add 2 Tbs. each butter and olive oil to the pepper and cook for another minute after the butter melts.
Pour 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta cooking water into the pan and bring to a simmer.
Drain the cooked pasta.
Add the pasta to the pan with the butter and pepper, along with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Stir well.
Reduce the heat to low and add the cheese mixture, tossing until it has a creamy texture. If the "sauce" seems too dry, add a little more pasta water.
Serve immediately in warm bowls with additional grated cheese.
Photos by Ted Scheffler