Simplicity is the most beautiful yet most challenging aspect of Italian cuisine.
Because there are only 7 ingredients (including water), in this dish, you are forced to focus on every ingredient and focus even more on the process.
The first time I had this dish was at Giggetto, a small trattoria in the Jewish quarter of Rome, and it blew my mind. I had since tried to replicate and finally I’ve put some thought into what makes it work so well. Mark Ladner, the pasta master from Del Posto, gave instruction online to finally push it over the top.
Part of the realization of how to make next-level Cacio e Pepe is from time in Vietnam and Cambodia, the best places in the world to find high-quality black peppercorns.
The rest is just a classic European focus on ingredients and minimalism. This is truly a beautiful dish. Every time I cook it, I just hope I don’t fuck it up.
Ingredient Power Ranking
- Pasta. Always use high quality dried pasta for this dish. The shapes and sizes don’t really matter. Bucatini, rigatoni, and conchiglie (medium shells) are my go-to’s because they are a bit more dense and hold the sauce well.
- Cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Grana Padano can all be used interchangeably. I prefer fresh grated, or even the Whole Foods prepped grated cheese packages. Just stay away from the Kraft stuff that comes in the green canister.
- Pepper. You need a very course grind of a very high quality black peppercorn to make this dish shine. Peppercorns last a long time, so if you can get some OG shit from Phu Quoc or the Kampot peppercorns from Cambodia, then do it. Trust me it’s worth it. Regardless, make sure you have a good pepper mill filled with whole black peppercorns and set it to the highest setting for a course grind.
- Olive oil. This doesn’t need to be fancy, just use what you normally do.
- Butter. Unsalted is preferred, but use what you normally do.
- Salt. Kosher always my go to, but this is only used to season the pasta water, so nbd.
- Water. I hope your water supply is potable.
- Add 2 liters of water to a large sauce pan then add 2 TBSP salt and bring to a boil over high heat (this ratio is eye opening and repeatable for any scale…..by weight, water = 100%, salt =1%, pasta =10%)
- Add 8 oz pasta of your choice and cook to the lower end of the package directions so it’s slightly shy of al dente. (per previous point. 2 Liters water = 2000 grams, 2 TBSP salt = 20 grams, and 8 oz pasta =200 grams….metric system so much better)
- Place a dry medium-sized saute pan over medium heat. Grind enough peppercorns to cover most of the pan and toast for 2-3 minutes. When the pepper is aromatic and pan feels hot, take a ladel-full of the pasta water and add it to the pan to arrest the cooking process. It will sizzle, it’s okay.
- Add 2 TBSP butter and 2 TBSP olive oil and shake / stir the pan so it becomes a sauce. If the burner is too hot, remove and let it rest.
- By now your pasta is probably close to done, but taste for the level of al dente you want. It will cook for another 2 minutes so don’t worry if it’s still a bit firm.
- Strain pasta and reserve a little extra cooking water. Or use tongs or a spider to transfer pasta to the hot saute pan.
- Shake and toss vigorously for 1 minute, adjusting heat as needed.
- Add 2-3 TBSP finely grated cheese and continue to shake and stir constantly for 2-3 minutes, adding a few spoonfuls of water if the sauce is getting too thick. You are looking for a creamy but not clumpy texture. Some like more cheese, but you want it to be a part of the sauce, not a garnish.
- Remove from heat and rest for 1 minute then immediately plate.
Damn I got exhausted even just reading that, but the process, while intense, is worth the effort. Enjoy.