Cacio e pepe, literally ‘cheese and pepper’, is a very typical Roman dish, usually made with spaghetti, bucatini or—for the ne plus ultra version of this dish—tonnarelli, a kind of square spaghetti made with egg pasta popular in Lazio and Abruzzo, as well parts of Molise, Puglia and Le Marche. At its simplest, literally all you do is boil the pasta in well salted water, drain it (but not very well) and pour it into a heated bowl. Then add a generous amount of pecorino cheese and lots of freshly ground pepper, and mix well. The hot water that clings to the pasta should meld with the cheese to make a kind of creamy sauce. If the dish is too dry, you can add a bit more of the pasta water. If, on the other hand, you can still see water at the bottom of the bowl, add more cheese. Then top with more pecorino and another healthy grinding of pepper. That’s it!
NOTE: Like many simple dishes, cacio e pepe is easy to make passably well, but hard to master. You need to mix the pasta quickly but thoroughly, making sure that the cheese melts properly into a cream rather than clumping up into bits. The key is to balance water and cheese—and that can only really be done by eye as you mix. What I like to do is to keep a generous amount of grated pecorino on hand, about half as much as there is pasta by weight, and use as much as I need. Any leftover cheese can be sprinkled on top or kept for another use. But as often is the case with this sort of thing, no amount of coaching will substitute for practice, practice, practice.
There are some other ways to make cacio e pepe. A common modern variation, a bit more elaborate but less tricky than the traditional method, is to mix cheese and pepper with pasta water in a separate skillet and allow that to meld together over gentle heat until it forms a creamy sauce that you pour over the pasta. Some recipes also recommend adding a bit of butter or un filo d’olio before (or after) you mix the pasta, for a creamier texture. And finally, some people mix pecorino with the milder parmigiano-reggiano. To me, however wonderful parmigiano is, the salty ‘bite’ of pecorino is one of the attractions of the dish, so I wouldn’t dilute it with anything else. But, as they say, les goûts ne se discutent pas. If you like the idea of any of these variations, by all means try them and let us know how you like them!
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On making tonnarelli:
In Rome, pre-made tonnarelli are sold in any supermarket but elsewhere, you may find you have to make them yourself. That makes this dish considerably less quick, of course, but I think it’s worth the extra effort. Tonnarelli really are the best pasta for this dish—being an egg pasta, it absorbs the sauce more readily than either spaghetti or bucatini. At the same time, due to its thickness (and the optional use of semolina flourt) it provides more ‘bite’ than your average fresh pasta.
To make tonnarelli, you need a special instrument called a chitarra, or guitar, which is why tonnarelli are also called spaghetti alla chitarra. Here’s a picture of a pasta ‘guitar’:
The guitar is fitted with wire ‘string’s top and bottom that are used to cut the pasta. The strings are narrowly spaced on one side, and widely spaced on the other. For tonnarelli, you want to use the side with the narrowly spaced strings.
To begin, make some fresh pasta dough in the usual way—adding just a tablespoon or two of semolina flour per egg if you like for extra ‘bite’—and roll it out quite thick. The pasta should be as thick as it is wide, so you can be guided by the strings of your ‘guitar’. (Using a KitchenAid mixer attachment, use Setting 1 or 2.) Let the pasta sheets dry out for a good while (at least 20 minutes) so they will not stick too much as they are cut by the guitar.
Cut your pasta into sheets about as long as the chitarra, leaving some room on each end for the pasta to stretch out, which it will as you proceed.
Then, with a rolling pin, begin to flatten the pasta against the strings.
Very soon, the pasta will have passed between the strings, but will still cling to them, so that they will show flush with the pasta like this:
Now it’s time to ‘play’ your guitar. Run your fingers along the length of the strings until the pasta begins to detach from the strings:
Continue playing your guitar until the pasta has detached completely and fallen into the tray below:
Slide the tonnarelli out of the chitarra and lay them out to dry on a wooden board or towel. Repeat the operation with each additional pasta sheet. (NB: Depending on how dry the pasta sheets are, you may need to separately some of the strands by hand.)
Due to its thickness, tonnarelli take a bit longer to cook than other kinds of fresh pasta, as long as 5 minutes or more depending on how long it has been drying.
NOTES: Tonnarelli as sometimes made exclusively with hard durum wheat flour (semolina) and sometimes just with “00″ flour, which changes the character of the pasta considerably. I prefer neither ‘extreme’ and use mostly “00″ (or simply all-purpose) flour with just a spoonful of semolina.
Besides their use in the Roman classic cacio e pepe, in the cooking of Abruzzo, spaghetti alla chitarra (as tonnarelli are called there) are typically dressed with a lamb-based ragu.’ Tonnarelli are also very good with shellfish sauces. Indeed, they are extremely versatile and lend themselves to all sorts of sauces and condiments.
De Cecco makes a dry pasta version of spaghetti alla chitarra, which is available through amazon.com. I have not tried it, but I have to imagine that the dry version, while surely good, will not give the same results as the fresh.