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This three-ingredient authentic Roman pasta dish is as easy as it is delicious. With just Spaghetti, Pecorino Romano cheese, and freshly grated black pepper, you’ll be transported to the cobbled streets of Rome with your first bite.
What is Cacio e Pepe?
Cacio e Pepe means “cheese and black pepper” in Italian. Also known as Cacio e Pepe Pasta, it is a delicious traditional dish from Lazio cuisine.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe features a simple yet flavorful combination of ingredients. Long pasta usually Tonnarelli, Linguine, or Spaghetti, Pecorino Romano cheese, and freshly ground black pepper.
The secret to making a delicious Cacio e Pepe pasta dish is to envelop the pasta in a creamy cheese sauce.
Cacio e Pepe History
Cacio e Pepe Italian, one of the most famous dishes of Roman cuisine, dates back to Ancient Rome.
Back then, shepherds would enjoy a simple yet satisfying meal of pasta paired with Pecorino Romano cheese and a sprinkle of black pepper.
This humble dish was born out of necessity and has managed to withstand the test of time.
It is today a classic Roman pasta dish and of Italian cuisine, cherished by all.
Discovering Cacio e Pepe Pasta in Rome
While in Rome exploring the local food specialties, we signed up for a pasta-making class.
Learning how to make traditional Roman pasta dishes like Cacio e Pepe was high on our list especially as we fell more in love with it every time we had it.
In the pasta-making class we took, we started by making fresh pasta. When the pasta was ready, we rolled it out to make long pasta, specifically thin tagliolini size.
However, as we learned in the pasta-making class any long pasta will do. In this authentic Cacio e Pepe recipe, we make it easier by using easily available Spaghetti.
While Cacio e Pepe is easy to make at home, there are a few tricks and tips we share in this recipe to make it easier.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe Recipe – How To Make Cacio e Pepe Like A Roman
To make authentic Cacio e Pepe, you only need three simple ingredients. The key is to use high-quality ingredients and the proper techniques.
Grind whole black peppercorns for the freshest, most flavorful pepper flavors. And of course, use real Pecorino Romano – not pre-grated cheese.
- Black pepper (whole)
- Spaghetti (you can also use Linguine or Tonnarelli)
Authentic Cacio e Pepe Recipe Tips
To obtain a perfect Cacio e Pepe recipe here are a few simple techniques Romans have perfected over centuries. Just by following them, you can ensure a perfect outcome every time.
- Boil the pepper with the cooking water – this allows you to obtain a very tasty and peppery sauce.
- Cream the ingredients at a low temperature – this often overlooked step is essential to prevent the liquid portion of the cheese from separating from the solid part, resulting in an undesirably grainy sauce.
- Use Freshly Grated Pecorino Romano – Pecorino Romano is a hard, salty Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. Grating the cheese fresh just before adding it to the pasta allows its full flavor to shine through. Pre-grated cheese loses aroma and flavor over time.
- Cook Black Pepper – Another traditional Cacio e Pepe recipe secret is to cook the black pepper. And, specifically, the whole grains and not the powdered form. You don’t want to skip this step as it is an integral part of the flavors of the Cacio e Pepe sauce. Start by crushing the grains using a knife and then heat them up in a pan. You don’t need to add anything except a ladle of the pasta cooking water, which creates a flavorful broth. This is where the pasta will finish cooking, and you can add more hot pasta water gradually to achieve a risotto-like consistency.
- Toss Quickly – Work quickly while the pasta is hot to ensure the cheese melts evenly. Add the cheese to the cooked spaghetti, then toss to coat, adding reserved pasta water as needed to create a creamy sauce.
- Use Al Dente Pasta – Cook pasta 3-4 minutes less than the package instructions for an al dente, or still firm, texture. The pasta will continue to soften a bit in the sauce, so slightly undercooking helps ensure it does not get mushy. Al dente pasta also holds up better to vigorous tossing with the cheese and pepper.
What Type of Pasta Is Best for Cacio E Pepe?
To make a foolproof Cacio e Pepe, the type of pasta you choose is key.
For this authentic Cacio e Pepe recipe, we are using Spaghetti which is one of the traditional kinds of pasta for this recipe.
Other alternative long pasta that you can also use are Tonnarelli or Spaghetti alla Chitarra.
Avoid pasta shapes with lots of grooves or ridges like Farfalle or Penne, as the cheese and pepper sauce won’t coat them as well.
How To Best Cook The Pasta
When making Cacio e Pepe, using fresh pasta will yield the best results. Fresh pasta has a rough, porous texture that helps the sauce cling to each strand.
As the pasta cooks, the starchy water creates an emulsion with the cheese and pepper, coating the pasta in a creamy sauce.
With dry pasta, this effect is harder to achieve since the surface is slick.
If fresh pasta isn’t available, use high-quality Italian dry pasta like Spaghetti, Linguine, or Tonnarelli.
How Do I Make the Perfect Creamy Texture in Cacio e Pepe?
To achieve a creamy texture in your Cacio e Pepe recipe, here are a few tips:
- The key to a creamy sauce is adding the reserved pasta water gradually while tossing the pasta. Start with just a splash of starchy pasta water. Toss well, adding another splash if needed. You want the sauce to become creamy but not watery. Keep tossing until the sauce coats each strand. The water contains starch from the pasta which helps create an emulsion with the Pecorino Romano and black pepper. Adding the pasta water slowly allows you to control how creamy and thick the Cacio e Pepe sauce becomes. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly smooth at first, the starch and grated Pecorino cheese will continue to emulsify as you toss.
- Once creamy, remove from heat and toss for 30 more seconds. The residual heat will continue to melt the cheese and help the creaminess develop. Check for seasoning and add more black freshly ground pepper if needed.
How To Grate The Pecorino Romano Cheese
Pecorino Romano DOP is a hard, salty Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk.
For the best results, buy a wedge of Pecorino Romano and grate it yourself using a microplane zester or the small holes of a box grater.
Pre-grated cheese won’t melt as well when tossed with the hot pasta.
Cacio e Pepe Substitutes
Is it Necessary to use Pecorino Romano Cheese in the Recipe, or Can I use Other Cheeses?
To make an authentic Cacio e Pepe recipe, you need only a few ingredients, and we do not recommend making any substitutions. You simply need Pecorino Romano cheese DOP, pasta water, and black pepper. Heavy cream, butter, olive oil, or Parmesan won’t give you the same delicious results.
However, if you can’t find Pecorino Romano, other hard Italian cheeses can work in a pinch. Pecorino Sardo, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Grana Padano are all good substitutes with similar salty, savory flavors. Just use the same amount of grated cheese and adjust the pepper to taste.
Can I Make Cacio e Pepe without a lot of Black Pepper, or is it Essential for the Flavor?
Don’t skimp on fresh pepper if you want the best flavors for this authentic recipe. Freshly cracked pepper adds spice and helps in melting. Start with 1/2 tsp for 2 servings and add more to taste.
Common Mistakes and How To Avoid Them
Avoiding common mistakes is key to making a traditional Cacio e Pepe authentic recipe.
Use these tips and techniques to avoid some of the most common mistakes.
Why Does The Cheese Keep Clumping in Cacio e Pepe?
To avoid any clumping use freshly grated Romano Pecorino cheese for your recipe. Pre-grated cheese will not melt smoothly.
Why Is My Cacio e Pepe Not Creamy?
For a creamy cheesy sauce, make sure you cook the pasta al dente, which means still firm. Over cooking the pasta releases starch which makes the sauce gluey. Once pasta is cooked al dente, drain immediately and set aside some hot pasta water. Add cheese to the pasta and toss vigorously until creamy. Add just a splash of the reserved pasta water as needed and continue to mix until you have a creamy cheese sauce.
How Do You Keep Cacio E Pepe From Getting Stringy?
For an authentic Italian Cacio e Pepe recipe, use traditional high-quality ingredients. The three main ingredients of Romano Pecorino cheese DOP, black peppercorn, and spaghetti are all crucial to the dish. Replacing any of the ingredients can make the Cacio e Pepe stringy and not consistent.
How Do I Prevent the Cheese From Becoming Grainy When Making the Sauce?
When making the sauce, you want to cream the ingredients at a low temperature. This means mixing the ingredients without any heat. This is important to avoid the liquid portion of the cheese to separate from the solid part and becoming grainy.
Cacio e Pepe Wine Pairing
When it comes to pairing a wine with a traditional Cacio e Pepe recipe, you have a few great options.
Pecorino Romano DOP, the cheese used in the dish, is quite salty and pungent. You’ll want a wine that can stand up to these bold flavors without being overpowered.
While in Rome, we enjoyed Cacio e Pepe with white Frascati wine from the Lazio region, of which Rome is the capital.
Other excellent white wines are Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc. Their crisp acidity cuts through the richness of the cheese and complements the black pepper.
For red wines, a medium-bodied Sangiovese or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo works nicely. Their cherry and herb notes mingle well with the Pecorino.
In the end, the wine you choose comes down to your personal taste.
But following the general rule of pairing wines with similar intensity and flavor profiles as the food will lead you to a harmonious match for your Cacio e Pepe.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST TIP: For Italian wines that come directly from independent wine producers and are organic, we recommend Italian wines from Organic Wine Exchange. Find excellent white wines and medium-bodied red wines to pair with your Cacio e Pepe recipe.
Variations and Regional Adaptations of Cacio e Pepe in Italy
The traditional Italian Cacio e Pepe recipe does not involve replacing any of the ingredients as they are all crucial to the dish.
However, you will find some regional differences. For instance, while we were in Siena, Tuscany, I had Cacio e Pepe made with Tuscan pici pasta.
Sicilians swap the Pecorino cheese for aged provolone or Ricotta Salata. Neapolitans add parsley, basil, and parmesan to the mix.
Some Romans add diced guanciale (cured pork jowl) or pancetta for a meatier dish. In Abruzzo, hot red pepper flakes provide some heat.
Umbrians stir in fresh or sun-dried tomatoes. And, Calabrians sprinkle in toasted breadcrumbs for extra crunch.
No matter the season or region, Cacio e Pepe remains a comforting bowl of al dente Spaghetti coated in a creamy cheese sauce and cracked black pepper.
At its heart, it’s a celebration of high-quality ingredients and simplicity. The possibilities for variation are as endless as the Italian imagination.
AUTHENTIC FOOD QUEST RECIPES: If you want to try other simple and authentic Italian pasta dishes, see the traditional recipes below.
Cacio e Pepe Step by Step Instructions
Cook Spaghetti al Dente
Start by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, carefully add pasta and immediately stir to prevent it from sticking. Cook the pasta until it is halfway done, which typically takes around 4 to 5 minutes.
Grind Peppercorn and Grate Pecorino Cheese
As the pasta is boiling either pound the peppercorns with a meat mallet or use a grinder. If you grind the pepper, be sure to do it at a slower pace to ensure that the pepper pieces are larger and more consistent. Grate the Pecorino cheese and set aside
Mix Vigorously Until Creamy
Once the spaghetti is cooked al dente turn off the heat and remove the pan from the stove. Let the temperature drop for about 30 seconds while continuing to stir. Mix in the Pecorino cheese thoroughly, allowing it to melt into the spaghetti. If needed, add a pinch of warm spaghetti pasta cooking water. Toss vigorously until the cheese has melted and coated the pasta.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe Recipe
- Boil 4 quarts (3.7 liters) of salted water in a large pot. Once boiling, add spaghetti and stir immediately to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook the pasta halfway through, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- In the meantime, pound the peppercorns with a meat mallet, or use a grinder. If using a grinder, turn it rather slowly to have even larger pieces of black pepper.
- Grate the Pecorino Romano DOP cheese and set aside.
- In a pan, toast the black pepper for about 30 seconds. Then, add 1 ladle of cooking water and let it boil for 2 minutes.
- Drain the pasta, reserving some of the starchy pasta water.
- Add the partially cooked spaghetti directly to the pan with the black pepper and pour in just enough of the cooking water to cook them again. Continue to add a little cooking water until the spaghetti becomes creamy and perfectly al dente.
- Once the spaghetti is al dente and very creamy, with a nice velvety base, turn off the heat and remove the pan from the stove. Let the temperature drop for about 30 seconds while continuing to stir.
- Add the Pecorino cheese and stir it well. The cheese will melt onto the spaghetti. If it’s too thick, add another splash of the reserved pasta water and toss vigorously until the cheese has melted and coated the pasta.
- Finally, serve with a generous sprinkling of black pepper.
- Your Cacio e Pepe is ready to be savored and paired with a glass of Italian wine.
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Rosemary is the editor-in-chief and strategist at Authentic Food Quest.
Traveling slow since 2015 with her partner, Claire, she has explored the cuisine in 45 countries and more than 240+ culinary cities.
Her writing about local food specialties has been featured in Lonely Planet, Business Insider, Honest Cooking, Food Insider, and Huffington Post.
As a food and travel writer, Rosemary has co-authored three books, including one in collaboration with Costa Brava Tourism.
Rosemary is an avid runner when she’s not eating and exploring new destinations. She has run ten marathons and counting.
Before Authentic Food Quest, Rosemary held senior-level strategy positions in advertising.
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