What is cacio e pepe and how did it take over the world?

·13 min read
VENICE, CA - JULY 22: Cacio e pepe from Felix Trattoria on Thursday, July 22, 2021 in Venice, CA.(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)
The cacio e pepe from Felix Trattoria in Venice. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

In 2010, chef Evan Funke spent 23 days in Rome eating cacio e pepe.

“I saturated myself in order to understand this dish because I was so intrigued by it and flabbergasted by its simplicity,” he said.

Cacio e pepe is traditionally made with just four ingredients: Pecorino Romano cheese, black pepper, pasta and pasta water. It’s named for two of them. Translated from Italian, cacio e pepe means cheese and black pepper.

The allure of a dish made with so few ingredients is indeed rooted in its simplicity, in its intensity of flavors and textures. When made just right, the cheese melts into the reserved pasta water and clings to the pasta, creating a creamy sauce. The black pepper is abundant and sharp, with an unforgettable, addictive bite that hits like a shot of pure dopamine.

In Rome, Funke ate everything from the worst iteration to the most “life-changing dogmatic versions,” made with tonnarelli, spaghetti, spaghettini, rigatoni and every pasta in between. He encountered creamy cacio e pepe and dry cacio e pepe. At times, an abundance of pepper made him want to choke. Some restaurants ground their own pepper; others used dust so fine it looked like it came out of the red McCormick box in your mom’s pantry.

Cacio e pepe from Felix Trattoria in Venice.
Cacio e pepe from Felix Trattoria in Venice. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Before he left on his cacio e pepe quest, Funke tried to put a tonnarelli cacio e pepe on the menu at Rustic Canyon, where he became chef in 2008.

“I’m not saying it didn’t exist, but through my research and scouring the interweb, as it was right then, I could not find any Los Angeles restaurant serving cacio e pepe," he said. “Nobody would touch it.”

Funke instructed his servers to push it, but diners wouldn’t bite.

“Like a good dealer, I created a gateway drug,” he said. “I started sending it to people for free as compliments of the kitchen.”

Eventually, it caught on in the Santa Monica restaurant, and people started ordering the dish without a prompt. When Funke opened Bucato in Culver City in 2013, he served cacio e pepe, and he brought it to his Venice restaurant Felix in 2017.

“I tell people today that this is a dish that I have singularly built my career on,” he said. “I think we’ve served, I don’t know, 50,000, 60,000, 100,000 orders. We sell around 50 plates every single night in the last four years, with 360 services a year.”

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Today you can find the words "cacio e pepe" just about everywhere. At I Sodi in New York City, there’s cacio e pepe lasagna. Rose’s Luxury in Washington, D.C., serves cacio e pepe monkey bread. You can find pre-made cacio e pepe ravioli and cacio e pepe sauce in a jar at Trader Joe’s, and chances are you’ll find an iteration of the dish on the menu at that new restaurant down the street.

How did a simple Roman dish become one of America's most prevalent flavor profiles, a social media phenomenon and an indelible part of our culinary lexicon? In Los Angeles, Funke deserves much of the credit, but the local craze has multiple reference points, all of which inspired a gradual awakening of palates and consciousness.

In the 2010 Rome episode of “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain sits at a gingham-clad table somewhere in the city, wearing a dark suit, shirt and sunglasses, waiting for a bowl of cacio e pepe. The episode was shot in black-and-white. His hands twitch excitedly as the server places a bowl of pasta before him.

“Jesus, I’m going to be all over this thing like a horny ... Rottweiler on a Shih Tzu,” he says. “This could be the greatest thing in the history of the world.”

Bourdain’s black-and-white romp through Rome and his profanity-laden endorsement of the dish was the reference point for Nick Schreiber, co-owner of Belle’s Bagels in Highland Park.

Cacio e pepe bagel from Belle's Bagels.
Cacio e pepe bagel from Belle's Bagels. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Schreiber’s bagel menu reads classic: traditional, plain, salt, poppy seed, sesame, onion and everything. But he also makes a cacio e pepe bagel covered in melted jack cheese, black pepper and copious amounts of Pecorino Romano.

“I was just kind of going through my head thinking of all the comfort-food items that could be turned into bagel flavors,” he said. “It’s not so much about making the bagel taste like the pasta dish as much as it is adapting those flavors to something that is culturally significant to me. I think we’re paying homage.”

At the Uncle Paulie’s Deli sandwich shops in downtown L.A. and Beverly, you can have your cacio e pepe in the form of a breakfast sandwich. Co-owner Paul James said he wanted something gooey and thought melted Parmesan and cracked pepper would be perfect for breakfast with an egg.

Cacio e pepe breakfast sandwich from Uncle Paulie's Deli in Downtown L.A.
Cacio e pepe breakfast sandwich from Uncle Paulie's Deli in Downtown L.A. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

The Uncle Paulie’s Cacio e Pepe is served on a buttered and toasted poppy seed kaiser roll filled with two soft scrambled eggs. Melted Parmesan cheese provides ample goo, and, of course, there’s fresh cracked black pepper.

“It was definitely on brand at the time when we opened in June 2017,” James said. "Felix had just opened, Jon and Vinny’s had their bucatini [version]. It was definitely a thing.”

In late April 2017, just two weeks after Felix opened, Daniele Uditi introduced diners to cacio e pepe pizza at Pizzana in Brentwood. Uditi grew up eating his grandmother’s cacio e pepe in Frosinone, a province about an hour’s drive south of Rome. As an adult, he found cacio e pepe pizza in Rome, but the texture never quite hit the mark of his grandmother’s creamy pasta.

“I created the cacio e pepe crema,” he said. “Before me, nobody was [using] cacio e pepe crema on the pizza.’

Uditi makes his crema with cow’s milk ricotta, grated Parmigiano Reggiano and heavy whipping cream. He pipes it onto his pizza and showers it with freshly cracked black pepper. After Jonathan Gold called the pizza a “small miracle” in a review, Uditi says, people flew in from all over the country to try it.

That kind of buzz inevitably inspired others. The cacio e pepe pizza has been duplicated by a handful of restaurants around town, each piping its own stripes of cheese crema and covering its pies in black pepper.

Who thought this up?

In researching the origins of the dish, I came across a narrative that has been widely circulated online: Shepherds from the pastoral communities of Lazio, Abruzzo, Tuscany and Umbria created cacio e pepe in the 18th or 19th century, the story goes. They often had salted Pecorino cheese, made from their own sheep, on hand, and they would cook themselves a simple dinner of pasta, cheese and black pepper.

But author and Rome-based food tour operator Elizabeth Minchilli points out that pepper was an expensive ingredient, and she doubts it would have been readily available to shepherds at that time.

“Black pepper was never sort of a cheap ingredient, and 30 years ago, you couldn’t find it [cacio e pepe] in a Roman restaurant,” she said. “And pasta being a sort of affordable thing to have is a relatively recent development. Even the idea that shepherds were making pasta up in the fields would have had to be relatively recent after World War II.”

Funke, who has done his own extensive research, believes that the dish is rooted in ancient pastoral communities, but also points out that an expensive ingredient like pepper was likely added much later.

“The narrative that doesn’t get told is [that] the popularity of cacio e pepe actually started in the osterias of Rome in the 1950s or ’60s,” he said.

According to Funke, the restaurants started serving a version of cacio e pepe with an exaggerated amount of black pepper to encourage patrons to drink more wine.

But regardless of the exact origins, Minchilli believes its popularity, at least in Rome, can be traced to the Slow Food movement in Italy in the late ’80s.

“People started thinking locally and seasonally, and people wanted to protect recipes that are not documented in books,” she said. “This [cacio e pepe] happened to be the dish that was in Rome.”

Lines of tradition

Cacio e pepe salad served at Basta Restaurant in Agoura Hills.
Cacio e pepe salad served at Basta Restaurant in Agoura Hills. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Preserving tradition was on the mind of chef Saverio Posarelli when he created his cacio e pepe at Basta restaurant, which opened in Agoura Hills in late 2019.

Posarelli is from Florence; his father is from Tuscany and his mother is from Emilia-Romagna. He grew up eating his mother’s spaghetti burro with Parmigiano, which reminds him of the simplicity of cacio e pepe.

“Until a few years ago we were scared to serve it [cacio e pepe] because people will think it’s too simple,” he said. “But there is an incredible culture behind this. What is the difference between us and the French? The French have great restaurants and we have great grandmothers. We eat at home and our home food is damn good.”

While he’s more than familiar with the cacio e pepe you can find in Rome, Posarelli said he needed to tweak his recipe for a busy kitchen. He makes his cacio e pepe with just cheese, black pepper and house-made chitarra pasta, but he adds a drizzle of olive oil before service to keep his dish from turning into a starchy lump at the table.

“I would see people in the restaurant talking in front of the cacio e pepe,” he said. ‘When I bring it to you, don’t talk, just eat. So I need to keep it as loose as possible because I know between going from the kitchen to the customer, it can change.”

Inspired by the success of his pasta dish, he created a cacio e pepe green salad as an alternative to the Caesar salad customers frequently requested. Using the hot pasta water, cheese and black pepper, he makes a vinaigrette with lemon juice, sherry vinegar, roasted shallots and olive oil, and serves the salad with white anchovy.

Jason Neroni, chef at the Rose Venice, says his cacio e pepe with miso is one of the most popular dishes at his restaurant — so popular that he used the flavor profile to make another bestseller, his version of cacio e pepe pizza.

Cacio e pepe with miso from the Rose Venice.
Cacio e pepe with miso from the Rose Venice. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“When I moved to the Westside, I had to deliver something that was familiar but different, and I like to play with a lot of Japanese flavors,” he said. “Cacio e pepe is ubiquitous, it’s fairly easy to execute and it’s a bit of a crowd-pleaser, like your grown-up version of the spaghetti and butter you ate as a kid.”

Neroni makes a miso butter with yellow miso and creates a sauce with Pecorino, pasta water and Tellicherry peppercorns.

“I know some people don’t believe in using butter, but for me, it’s an emulsification process,” he said.

The pasta has been on the menu since 2015, and he added the pizza about three years ago. Neroni decided to make the cacio e pepe pasta a secret menu item at dinner, worried that if he listed it alongside the eight or nine other pastas he makes, that would be the only one that sold. Still, he says, even as a secret menu item, he ends up making 20-plus a night.

For Ronan owners Daniel and Caitlin Cutler, the addition of a cacio e pepe risotto to the menu was a fortunate byproduct of quarantine. They introduced the dish to the menu of their Melrose Avenue restaurant in summer 2020.

“During COVID, we transitioned the menu into comfort-food things the guests didn’t need to be walked through,” Caitlin said. “People love cacio e pepe and everyone knows what it is.”

Cacio e pepe risotto served at Ronan restaurant.
Cacio e pepe risotto served at Ronan restaurant. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The Cutlers were looking to switch up their stinging nettle risotto with a flavor profile that would be instantly recognizable. And with Parmesan costing a little over $10 a pound, it was a great way to make use of all the leftover Parmesan rinds.

Daniel makes a stock with the Parmesan rinds, skims the fat from the top and uses it to cook down some onions and toast his rice. He cooks the rice in white wine and the stock, then hits the dish with some butter, pepper, salt and more Parmesan cheese. The rice is al dente, the sauce impossibly creamy and aggressively seasoned with black pepper.

(Due to staffing issues, it’s a dish that may or may not be on the menu the next time you visit, so you might want to call ahead.)

Daniel says he was inspired by Massimo Bottura, the chef-owner of the lauded Osteria Francescana, which is located in Modena in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region and twice has been named the best restaurant in the world. Following the 2012 earthquakes in Emilia-Romagna, Bottura created a cacio e pepe risotto as a way to use nearly 1,000 wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano that were damaged.

Jeffrey Merrihue, chef-owner of Heroic Italian, spent months working on the recipe for his cacio e pepe, trying to get it just right. After living and traveling all over Italy, he had tried enough cacio e pepe to know that he didn’t want to move beyond the original ingredients. He played around with the temperature of the sauce, the amount of cheese and water, but it never made it on the menu at his restaurant locations in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and San Francisco.

“Tomato sauce and ragus you can fudge your way around,” he said. “Cacio e pepe is like you’re stark naked and in a bright light, and any mistake is so obvious.”

Cacio e pepe arancini from Heroic Italian.
Cacio e pepe arancini from Heroic Italian. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Rather than serve a cacio e pepe that wasn’t true to what he’d tried in Rome, he decided to take the work he’d done on developing the pasta and apply it to arancini.

Merrihue cooks his rice in stock, adds Pecorino cheese and pepper, rolls his rice balls into fresh breadcrumbs, then dunks them in the fryer. The arancini are crisp and cheesy, with a punch of black pepper. The dish has been a bestseller since Merrihue put it on the menu in 2019, shortly after the Santa Monica location opened.

“Things catch fire faster because of Instagram, but I think that Felix in Venice gave it quite a boost, and Pizzana has it on pizza,” he said. “To be fair, I think: Who knows? We probably wouldn’t put it in the arancini if I didn’t see it show up in the hot places.”

Restaurants mentioned in this story:

Felix, 1023 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (424) 387-8622, felixla.com

Belle's Bagels, 5022 York Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 739-6336, bellesbagels.com

Uncle Paulie's Deli, multiple locations, unclepauliesdeli.com

Pizzana, multiple locations, pizzana.com

Basta, 28863 Agoura Road, Agoura Hills, (818) 865-2019, bastaagoura.com

The Rose Venice, 220 Rose Ave., Venice, therosevenice.la

Ronan, 7315 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 917-5100, ronanla.com

Heroic Italian, multiple locations, heroicitalian.com

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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