My first mouthful of cacio e pepe was had at a small, unassuming trattoria tucked away in a quiet corner of Trastevere. I had just arrived in Rome. It was a Sunday in early autumn, the streets fresh from the morning rain were beginning to dry with the late arrival of sunshine and with that a cool break from the humidity. Undeterred, a crowd of locals filled the tables outside, tactfully twirling and slurping their way through plates of spaghetti, bucatini and rigatoni.
I took a pew and joined them with two plates of cacio e pepe - the first of many to follow on that trip - and enjoyed the silky strings of spaghetti dressed in the creamiest yet lightest of cheese sauce, bellowing with fiery pepper notes and an extra dusting of sharp pecorino.
In my mind there could have been no better introduction to Rome.
Cacio e pepe when translated simply means cheese and pepper, the two main components of the sauce. A little research will tell you that this classic dish originated as a meal of sustenance, with shepherds carrying pecorino (often referred to as cacio in Roman dialect), black pepper and dry pasta on long journeys to keep them fed and nourished. Now no longer just reserved for tired shepherds, cacio e pepe can be found on almost every menu in Rome - something that I found myself extremely thankful for.
For me it's the simplicity of this dish that makes it so comforting, and it never fails to amaze me how something so simple and with so few ingredients could have such depth of flavour and complexity.
Cacio e Pepe
30g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
30g grated Pecorino Romano DOP
1/2 cup of the pasta's cooking water
- Cook the spaghetti in heavily salted water until al dente.
- A few minutes before the pasta is cooked, melt the butter in a large pan with the ground pepper to infuse the flavours.
- Before draining the pasta, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and add to the melted butter - continue to cook for a minute or so.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the spaghetti to the butter sauce along with the grated pecorino - toss well until creamy and evenly coated.
- Serve immediately and with extra pecorino.