My husband’s very favorite pasta sauce is also one of the world’s simplest. We both fell in love with this Roman specialty, a creamy twirl of fresh pasta, hot with crushed black pepper, during our time in residence at the American Academy in Rome, after a friend introduced us to the charms of the old Jewish Ghetto. There, on the Piazza delle Cinque Scuole, behind an unmarked door at number 30, is one of the smallest trattorias in the city, Sora Margherita.
You need to become a “member” of Sora Margherita because of local licensing, but this essentially means filling in a form. We were introduced in this loud and crowded little watering hole to the simple marvel that is pasta cacio e pepe. The cooks at Sora Margherita serve it over a delectable egg tonnarelli (a variation on long, flat fettucine), but any long pasta will do. The quality of the pasta is as important as the freshness of the few ingredients.
Epicurious.com calls the dish “a simple standard by which cooks are measured, yet no two chefs agree on how to do it right.” They provide this recipe from Bon Appetit on their website.
This simple recipe can be made by anyone with access to a good cheese merchant. But locals insist that the “cacio” in the name refers not generically to “cheese” in Roman dialect, but specifically, to a cheese called caciocavallo. When this mild but special cheese is grated into the dish with either Pecorino or Grana Padano, it creates, with a few spoonfuls of the cooking water, a creamy emulsion that makes the sauce truly special.
Make sure to grind enough coarse black pepper over each serving plate to make it picante!
6 oz. pasta (such as egg tagliolini, bucatini, or spaghetti)
3 T unsalted butter, cubed, divided
1 t freshly cracked black pepper
3/4 c finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan
1/3 c finely grated Pecorino
- Bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5 quart pot. Season with salt.
- Add fresh pasta and cook, stirring occasionally—about 2 minutes before tender.
- Drain, reserving ¾ cup pasta cooking water.
- Separately, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat.
- Add pepper and cook, swirling pan, until toasted for about 1 minute.
- Add ½ cup reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer.
- Add cooked pasta and remaining butter.
- Reduce heat to low and add Grana Padano, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted.
- Remove pan from heat; add Pecorino, stirring and tossing until cheese melts, sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is al dente. (Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.) Transfer pasta to warm bowls and serve.
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