Romano Cheese & Black Pepper Combine in this Easy-to-Make Classic
Cacio e Pepe is an extremely popular pasta dish in Rome. Cacio is Italian for “cheese” and pepe means pepper. Combined with pasta, they form a deceptively simple dish that delivers big flavor.
The cheese of choice is Pecorino Romano, an Italian cheese made of sheep’s milk. It’s similar to Parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano), but has a more rough and robust flavor that is also saltier.
Black pepper is an ingredient we all know. Freshly ground pepper, and lots of it, is a large part of what makes this dish delicious.
And the best part of all? Pasta Cacio e Pepe is extremely fast and easy to make. It’s a great dish for a quick dinner — or as a snack after a night on the town.
Recipe: Pasta Cacio e Pepe
Spaghetti is the traditional pasta shape for this dish, but you can use whatever strikes your fancy. I do think that long, skinny shapes work better than short, tubular ones. That’s because the “sauce” formed by the oil, cheese, and pepper clings more evenly to long strands than to tubular shapes, coating them with a light tangy sheen. I prefer linguine for this dish because I find the shape more interesting than spaghetti.
This recipe is a compilation of many I’ve seen over the years. (All the recipes for this dish are essentially the same.) My go-to pasta reference is Giuliano Bugialli’s Bugialli on Pasta (link is to current edition; mine is the original edition published in 1988). I’m sure his thinking has influenced my recipe.
This recipe serves 2 as a main dish or 4 as an appetizer. You can easily scale it to suit however many hungry mouths you have to feed.
- ½ pound dried pasta (preferably linguine or another strand pasta)
- 1 tablespoon salt for pasta water
- 1 – 2 ounces freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus some extra for table use (you want lots, at least ¾ packed cup; may substitute Parmesan)
- 1 – 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus some for table use
- 3 – 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (or butter, or mix of both; see notes)
- 1 cup reserved pasta cooking water (optional, see notes)
- Bring a large pot of water (at least 4 quarts) to boil. Once it’s boiling, add salt (to taste; I usually add 1 tablespoon). Then add pasta. Stir pasta to prevent it from sticking to bottom. Bring back to boil, then lower to simmer. Cook between 7 – 11 minutes (depending on brand) to the al dente stage. I start testing at 7 minutes. Usually, I find it takes about 8 minutes or so before the pasta is done.
- Meanwhile, grate the cheese and grind the pepper. Heat oil in a small saucepan until it’s warm (do not bring to a boil).
- When pasta is done, turn off heat and reserve a cup of pasta water. Drain pasta, then return to the cooking pot (pot should be off heat). Add oil and toss to lightly coat. Add half the cheese and toss again. Then add remaining cheese and toss. (At this point, you will probably need to add some of the reserved pasta water in order to help the cheese properly coat the pasta strands. See notes.) Add pepper and give the pasta another quick toss to evenly distribute.
- Serve in pasta bowls or plates, preferably preheated (I add some hot water to my pasta bowls in order to heat them, then dump the water when I’m ready to serve the pasta). Garnish with extra cheese and black pepper.
- The easiest way to grind black pepper is with a spice grinder (I use an electric coffee bean grinder that I’ve dedicated to spice grindage). This recipe works better with finely (rather than coarsely) ground pepper.
- You do want your pepper freshly ground. Freshly ground pepper has an aroma that store-bought ground pepper lacks, and the aroma is part of the sensual pleasure of eating this dish.
- You want to use lots of black pepper. More than you’d think. It’s the primary flavor you should taste.
- Likewise, you want lots of cheese in this recipe.
- Parmesan can be substituted for Romano, but the taste will be creamier and smoother. Romano’s flavor is more assertive — and it nicely complements the black pepper. In fact, it’s a brilliant combination, so I really only make this dish with Parmesan if that’s all I have on hand and I’m too lazy to go to the store.
- It’s easiest to measure cheese by weight than volume for this recipe. Depending on how coarsely I grate my cheese, an ounce can produce anywhere from ½ cup to 1 cup grated. If measuring by volume, really pack down your grated cheese before you measure.
- Heat the extra virgin olive oil only to the point where it’s warm (don’t bring to a boil). You don’t want to risk volatilizing its fragrant aroma.
- I’ve seen recipes that replace some or all of the olive oil with butter (Bugialli’s, for example). I’ve tried that, but prefer oil. Using butter puts us on the outskirts of fettuccine alfredo territory. Why go there if you’re really looking for the taste that Pasta Cacio e Pepe has to offer?
- I’ve also seen recipes that omit the oil, and just use water to help lubricate and disburse the cheese. I’ve tried that, too, but have found that the oil adds a nice mouth feel that water alone doesn’t provide. The oil should just coat the pasta very lightly. We’re not anointing the pasta; we want the lightest possible sheen.
- It’s not strictly necessary to add pasta water at the tossing stage, but without it, the cheese might lump up on the bottom of the pot. You may find you don’t need to use it (I often don’t), but it’s nice to have on hand for insurance. The more oil or butter you use, the less water you’ll need.
- Be generous with the cheese and pepper garnish. More tends to be better in this dish.
Although you want to use lots of cheese and pepper, I’d be more sparing with the other ingredients. I’ve seen versions of this dish where the amount of oil, butter, and/or water is so large that you can see a pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl when dinner is finished. There really shouldn’t be much, if any, left over. When you toss the pasta with oil, cheese, and pepper, imagine you’re tossing a salad. The pasta should be lightly coated, not heavily drenched.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a bit of sauciness. Just ask Mrs. Kitchen Riffs! But Cacio e Pepe just isn’t the right venue.