Although I like to pretend to be quite the accomplished chef, I recently came to the realization that after 5 months in Italy, not only have I not mastered the classic Roman pastas, I’ve never even made some of them! For the uninitiated, the traditional cucina romana primi features four staples: amatriciana, carbornara, cacio e pepe and alla gricia. These are all variations on a theme, sharing many common ingredients. Yet somehow, each permutation from the standard ingredients (guanciale, pecorino, black pepper, egg, tomatoes, etc) is rendered so differently and uniquely to truly yield four distinct dishes.
A brief rundown: my first attempt at amatriciana was last year, shortly after returning to New York from the trip to Rome that would provide the final boost for get me to up and move here, after mulling it over for two years. And I must say, it was delicious. Carbonara first entered my kitchen repetoire after a disastrous attempt in college that needed to be immediately rectified. I don’t think anyone complained about eating this lucious combination of eggs, cheese and bacon (please! no cream or peas!!!) for days while I got it right. Gricia is essentially an amatriciana bianca (without tomatoes), and some variation of that is pretty much my standard “there’s nothing in the fridge except pancetta and pecorino, oooo gricia!” lunch and/or dinner. Which brings us to the ever elusive cacio e pepe.
Cacio e pepe is one of those simplisticly perfectly named dishes that leaves no room for error. In fact, it’s one of those dishes I find particularly intriguing because it depends so much on technique. Hand two cooks the exact same set of ingredients and instructions to make this dish, and you could very easily get two plates that are worlds apart. What’s in cacio e pepe you ask? Well, cacio (cheese) and pepe (pepper). Weird, right? Oh, important side note before we proceed. While cacio is technicially a specific type of cheese, it’s also a dialect word for cheese in general. So, while I already waxed poetic about the elegantly simple name of this dish, it is not in fact made with cacio cheese, but with pecorino romano. Which is very important. Cacio e pepe. Not made with cacio.
Anyway, although I’ve consumed my fair share of the Roman Quattro, and made quite a few of them, I’d never tried my hand at cacio e pepe. Intimidated by the simplicity? Perhaps. Just as happy eating it out of a bowl of fried parmesan at Roma Sparita? Also a possibility. But whatever it was, until last night I’d never done it. But, there I was, cranking out sheets of freshly made pasta with a vegetarian and a half in the next room (forcing us to forgo that nice hunk of guanciale in the fridge), and my co-chef suggested cacio e pepe and I was all “I MUST MAKE IT”.
And so, as the pasta water boiled we disentangled the threads of angel hair-ish pasta, and set up the rest of the ingredients – namely a large pile of grated pecorino romano (about 200g for six people), a hefty dose of fresh ground black pepper, and set some butter and olive oil in a large skillet to heat up. With the generously salted water boiling and our fats melting together in a glorious buttery oily mess, I tossed the heaping pile of pasta into the water. Fresh pasta, and particularly fresh pasta as thin as we had made, cooks quite quickly, and within two minutes I was fishing it back out with a strainer and into the oiled and buttered pan. A few minutes of vigorous stirring over the heat later (you want every last bit of pasta covered in hot butter), with the emulsification aided by about three ladles of hot pasta water, and I removed the pan from the heat. We added the cheese and pepper and I resumed my vigorous stirring until the cheesy goodness was evenly distributed around the whole glorious mess. A twirl of pasta per plate, topped with an extra dash of pepper for good measure, and, well, let’s just say there’s a reason this simple dish has stuck around for so long.