To make cacio e pepe, all you need is pasta, black pepper, and cheese. That's it. But don't be fooled into thinking that it doesn't require skill to assemble correctly. As I know firsthand from some unsuccessfuly attempts at recreating the classic Roman dish, things can go awry quickly—the cheese can clump, the sauce can get too runny or too thick, or you could be left with a pile of spaghetti mush instead of the tangy, luscious, glossy-sauced tangle of noodles.
It's tricky. So tricky, in fact, that at Antica Pesa, the Brooklyn outpost of a restaurant opened in Trastereve, Rome, the cacio e pepe is the last pasta dish that chefs are entrusted with, after a four-month-long training period. It makes sense. The dish is a Roman trademark, and Antica Pesa does it famously well. Their original Rome location, which has been run by the Panella family since 1922, is a favorite of celebrities, including Quentin Tarantino, who particularly likes the cacio e pepe.
Get the recipe: Cacio e Pepe
The Brooklyn Antica Pesa is owned by the fourth generation of the Panella family—brothers Francesco, Simone, and Lorenzo—and operated by executive chef Emmanuele Baldassani. When I met with Badlassani and Lorenzo Panella to learn more about the secrets of making really good cacio e pepe, they explained that because the ingredients are so simple, you have to take extra care to source them and treat them correctly. "Otherwise, just cook a tomato sauce," Panella said. Baldassani walked me through the steps of making the cacio e pepe, which they do a la minute for diners who order the dish, and left me with some pointers.
Get Real Cheese, Not the Pre-Grated Stuff
At Antica Pesa in Rome, the cacio e pepe only uses Fulvi Pecorino cheese, but their American audience found it a little too sharp and salty for their palate, Panella told me. To mellow out the flavor profile, they added some 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano. If you prefer your cheeses on the mellower end, you might want to swap in more Parmigiano. But if you like things to have more of a bite, lean harder on the Pecorino. Whatever you do, this is an opportunity to invest in some nice cheese. "With ten ingredients you can hide a mistake," Panella said. "With three, you can't."
Grate the Cheese Finely
Cacio e pepe's sauce comes together thanks to an emulsion of the pasta water and the cheese. For that to work, you want to make sure the cheese is grated very finely. If you have a microplane, use it. If not, use the smalled holes of your grater to grate the cheese. Or, if you're in a hurry, you can even put the whole block of cheese, minus the rind, into the food processor and pulse it until it resembles the nubby powder you see in grocery store shakers.
Watch: How to Make Classic Cacio e Pepe
Use the Right Noodle
There's no such thing as the noodle police, and no one is going to smack the penne out of your hands. But for cacio e pepe, the ideal vehicle is a long thing noodle like spaghetti, bucatini, or even fetuccine—something that allows the sauce to cling to it. Antica Pesa uses is Mancini spaghetti, but whatever you can find at the supermarket is fine. If you're prioritizing your resources, put them toward the cheese first and use whatever long noodle you want.
Watch the Water Temperature
One of the main ways that people accidentally mess up their cacio e pepe, chef Badlassani said, is by using pasta water that's too hot. To make the pasta, after having cooked the noodles to al dente in salty water, Baldassi puts them in a mixing bowl. A little water piggybacking on the noodles is perfect here, so don't worry about draining them too much. Then he gets to work adding cheese and tossing the noodles until a sauce forms, stopping to ladle in small amounts of the pasta water as he goes to coax the cheese into a sauce. If the pasta water is too hot, the cheese will break apart and get clumpy. You want water that's warm, not boiling hot. You can take some out of the pasta pot in a measuring cup and let it cool slightly before mixing it in to make sure it isn't too hot.
Don't Be Shy With the Pepper
Because the only flavorings here are pepper and cheese, you're going to want to use more black pepper than you might anticipate. Badlassani has a small bowl of freshly ground pepper to mete it out, like salt, until the pasta hits that slightly spicy, slightly sharp balance from the cheese. Keep tasting it and adding pepper until it tastes good to you. Then twist it onto a plate using tongs. Bravissimo! Cacio e pepe fit for the gods!