the humble, fickle cacio e pepe…

…3rd (or 30th) time’s the charm!

For months, making one of Rome’s signature pasta dishes was elusive for me – Cacio e Pepe can be complicated beyond its station. With only a few simple ingredients – pepper, butter, pasta and a handful of both Parmesan and Pecorino cheese, why was it such a challenge? After a series of miserably bland or utterly clotted fails, it only took three more attempts for me to be pleased enough to claim victory.

Because it’s not just art. It’s science as well, and the tension between those two disciplines is what bears a lusciousness that is as much a thrill to the senses as a marvel of chemistry. I find photography quite similar, which is perhaps how I stumbled into the kitchen. Photos can be perfectly exposed and framed, but void of any emotion or passion. And they can be artistically beguiling without a hint of technical mastery. As for the pasta, those miserably bland first attempts were actually quite pretty, while the clotted fails were delicious monstrosities. When I can nod to both science and art I am pleased. And I am temporarily sated.

Which is where I am today.

The moment I usually blow it

We sneaked over Rome for ten days in October of 2019 shortly before the pandemic. It was a much-deserved reward for launching two boys into college and surviving (and frankly kicking ass) some treacherous life hurdles. While we weren’t complete novices to an immersion experience, Rome was our most bold destination together in over 25 years.

Rome was exhilarating, but easy and inviting – the city gave us every single thing we needed. Roman cuisine has an allure that we simply folded ourselves into. We surrendered. There is no other place on earth like it – Rome really deserves a spot on every bucket list. And no, I don’t mean a check-the-box day trip from Tuscany where you are shuttled from the Forum to the Colosseum in a sweaty, aggravated mass. That’s not Rome.

But first your challenge is to attempt the elusive Cacio e Pepe – we had it every night on our visit and were as amazed by the variations as by the familiarity. Variations and familiarity – now that’s Rome.

The final version

cheat sheet

  • Buy good Italian Parmesan (or Grana Pandano) and Pecorino Romano cheese and grate them yourself, preferably using a micro plane.
  • Decent pasta is a plus, but I’ve used store brands too. Current favorite is imported and bronze cut spaghetti.
  • Salt the pasta water generously. Do it.
  • Take the al dente part seriously! The pasta continues to cook (DO NOT RINSE IN COLD WATER.)
  • The cheeses melt at different temps. Find the flavor ratio you prefer (like 70/30 Parm to Romano) and add one at a time, Parm first.
  • Remove – totally remove – your pan from the heat to add the cheeses to begin the emulsification process. I transfer the final ingredients to a non-stick wok to do this so I can lift and swirl to regulate the temp.

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