This is a simple but very popular peasant dish from southern Italy; think of it as an old school version of Mac & Cheese. In Rome, Cacio de Pepe can be found at both high-end restaurants and dive bars, and only takes a few minutes to prepare. Traditionally Cacio de Pepe is made with egg tagliolini or bucatini pasta, but unless half the fine folks in your neighborhood speak fluent Italian, good luck finding that at your corner A&P. Likewise, when you can find it, use Grana Padano cheese, but in a bind you can substitute Parmesan. Regarding the Pecorino cheese, it may be called Parmigiano Reggiano in the store but if you can’t find it, use Asiago cheese. If really in bind, use more Parmesan…or if really in a bind, use that processed shredded Italian cheese mix they sell in the dairy section. The problem with using that is shredded cheese is coated in corn starch to keep the shreds from binding and that will over-thicken your dish as well as mask the cheese taste and aroma.
- 6 oz. spaghetti pasta – egg tagliolini or bucatini preferred
- 3 TBL butter – cubed, divided
- 1 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
- ¾ cup finely grated Parmesan – Grana Padano preferred
- ⅓ cup finely grated Pecorino – or Asiago
- Kosher salt ~ 1.5 tsp but really salt pasta to taste.
- For flare, add freshly fried bacon bits or cooked cubed chicken
- Mise en Place – measure and prepare ingredients prior to starting. For this dish, the most important thing is making sure your store has everything you need.
- Cook pasta:
- Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5-qt. pot.
- Season with salt after water starts to boil.
- Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender, in other words until al dente.
- Drain, but reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Do not rinse the pasta, you want the sticky pasta starches to remain.
- While pasta cooks, melt 2 TBL butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook until butter toasts, ~1 min, stirring slowly. Toasting butter will give your dish a nutty component but make sure your skillet is not too hot or the butter will scorch.
- Add half the reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and remaining butter.
- Reduce heat to low and add Parmesan (or Grana Padano), stirring and tossing with tongs until melted.
- Remove pan from heat; add Asiago (or Pecorino), stirring and tossing until cheese melts, sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is al dente. If the pasta seems dry, add more pasta water. If you are adding flare, do so now.
- Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.