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Pasta with cheese: preferred sustenance of children everywhere, bane of their precocious friends and ambitious parents.
Enter cacio e pepe, which, technically, is pasta with cheese, but also much more. It’s one of the classic pasta dishes of Rome, one that Marco Baccanelli and Francesca Barreca—Roman chefs whose recipe you’ll find on the next page—describe as “violent.” And he’s right: the sharpness of pecorino Romano cheese and heat of fresh black pepper whacks what would be a comfortingly bland bowl of food into one that is genuinely exciting to eat—and to cook. (Coaxing finely grated cheese and water together is more fun than, say, dumping a cup of parmesan onto egg noodles.) The result is mac and cheese that you can serve to adults and feel sophisticated and worldly about and think, Oh, look at this great technique I have. It’s a bowl of pasta and cheese that both my current and child selves—really, anyone—can get behind. Here are three takes on it: the aforementioned from Baccanelli and Barreca of Mazzo in Rome; a playful one from Barbara Lynch of Boston restaurants Menton, No. 9 Park, Sportello, and many others; and a vaguely Asian one from Tony Kim of Momofuku Noodle Bar. —Brette Warshaw
I was born in Rome and grew up in the Centocelle neighborhood. I could tell you, as a Roman, I’m from here—Roman culinary tradition is my mother tongue. But really, I think that’s bullshit. Cucina romana: sure, everybody does it here, but who does it well? Your birth certificate by itself doesn’t count for shit—you still need perfect execution and technique. For example, I believe that the Japanese are the best in the world at making cappuccinos—their technique is spotless! Pizza is another thing like that. It’s not just good in Naples—there’s awesome pizza around the world, too.
Our approach to Roman food comes from studying it. We’re not from the ranks of those chefs who can do every technical thing but don’t know anything about tradition. We love Roman tradition, we respect it deeply, and we study it constantly. The research never stops.
Cacio e pepe, as the tradition goes, seems like the simplest thing ever: pasta, pecorino, and pepper. The dish was born in the pastures of Lazio; in the winter, shepherds would eat slices of homemade pasta dough (water, flour, and salt) with pecorino and black pepper—the pepper would keep them warm. Our approach is to tweak the traditional recipe here and there—with respect, without changing the game—but with a more thoughtful approach. Instead of hot water, we add pepper broth to the cheese, which enhances the lighter, more delicate qualities of the pepper. We still grind pepper on the dish before serving so you have that stinging flavor, but by using the infusion beforehand, we have better control over two aspects of the same ingredient.
When cooking this dish, it’s fundamental to let the pepper broth cool down a little before mixing it with the cheese. It should not be higher than 130 degrees. If the water is too hot, the cheese will start to coagulate and the fat will separate, creating gummy lumps on one side and watery casein on the other. You don’t want that. Every pecorino has a different fat mass and will react differently when mixed with the warm water, so test it first. (This time around, we used Brunelli pecorino Romano.) When the pasta is finished cooking, let it cool for thirty seconds to a minute before mixing it with the broth-cheese emulsion, to avoid the same problem.
In Rome, most people just bring drained pasta and cheese and pepper out into the dining room, and mix it at the table. Or, worse—so cliché—they’ll mix it in the shell of a pecorino wheel. That, for us, is unacceptable. This is a fast, furious, violent dish, and it’s the technique and the tradition that make it so delicious.
The first time I went to Italy, I was twenty-one, and it was my first time outside the States. It was really my first time out of South Boston, where I grew up. I went with my friend Sarah Jenkins to her family’s house in a little town called Teverina, about an hour-and-a-half north of Rome, and it was the best trip ever. She taught me how to make gnocchi; we’d go shopping at the market; there was a huge prosciutto in the middle of the kitchen table. I’ve loved Italy ever since.
Anellini look like little Cheerios—I actually ate them for breakfast the other day. The shape is traditionally used for vegetable sauces or brothy sauces made with thick chicken stock. It can be cooked in a sauce for longer than other shapes and stay chewy. This gives you a bigger window of time when making something like cacio e pepe, since you don’t have to worry as much about overcooking your pasta while you’re trying to get the water and cheese to behave together.
Some tips: Before you start cooking your pasta, make sure all of your ingredients are ready to go. Incorporate the pasta water and cheese in stages, so that they better coat the pasta. Some people use a mix of parmesan and pecorino, but I think pecorino melts better. Garnish it all with frico—crisp cheese wafers—for texture, and you’ve got yourself a great bowl of Cheerios.
Recipe #2: Barbara Lynch’s Anellini alla Pecorara
Conventionally, cacio e pepe is made with water, pecorino Romano, and black pepper. That’s all there is. It’s the texture of the sauce that everyone is going for—this creamy mixture that just kind of glazes the pasta. It’s a perfect example of what cooks like to make for themselves: something simple that still takes some kind of skill to get right.
My idea with this version was not necessarily to improve or complicate cacio e pepe, but to do my own take on it. I took away the cheese component and replaced it with butter mixed with a little chickpea hozon, which is like miso made with chickpeas instead of soybeans. Instead of using just black peppercorns, I added Sichuan and white peppercorns, so there was a little more variety in the heat. And then I used fresh ramen noodles in place of spaghetti or bucatini—I like something with a little more chew.
Even though we’re using Japanese ramen, we’re still going to use some Italian sensibilities. We’re going to cook our noodles very al dente, so that they have the texture and chew we want, and finish them in the sauce. That way, the sauce gets absorbed into the noodles a little bit, and the starch helps bring the whole dish together. With a conventional cacio e pepe, you’ll see a lot of vigorous stirring happening during this stage, trying to get the cheese and water and starch to emulsify. Here, we have the hozon to help the sauce bind. The emulsification process pretty much happens on its own.
This is a great thing to make for yourself, but you can scale it up, too. The whole process only takes around four minutes, start to finish. It’s not meant to be overly contrived—it’s a really fun, simple thing to cook, and I think it does the true Roman cacio e pepe justice. Not bad for a Korean kid in New York, right?
Recipe #3: Tony Kim’s “Cacio” e Pepe
Correction: In the issue of Versus, we were idiots and listed the Cacio e Pepe recipe solely as Marco Baccanelli’s. It is both Marco Baccanelli’s and Francesca Barreca’s.