Cacio e pepe is a Roman pasta dish that literally translates to cheese and pepper. It’s traditionally made with a long noodle such as spaghetti, tagliolini or bucatini. The pasta is cooked and then twirled into a silky sauce made with nothing more than butter, Pecorino Romano, lots of freshly cracked black pepper, kosher salt and a little bit of starchy pasta water. For the sharpest pepper flavor, put down the pre-ground spice and instead, hand-grind whole peppercorns in a mortar and pestle. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, use a pepper grinder adjusted to the coarsest grind setting.
The popularity of cacio e pepe was born in the 1950s and '60s in small osterias in Italy. The innkeepers would serve a very dry version of the dish with abundant black pepper and abundant salty Pecorino cheese in order to entice the patrons to drink more wine. It’s only later that the creamy version was invented by Italian chefs served in restaurants and became popularized across the globe.
This recipe was created for TODAY Food by Evan Funke, a James Beard-nominated pasta chef who has owned restaurants such as Felix, Mother Wolf and his brand new namesake, Funke.
Swap Option: Traditionally, this dish is made with Pecorino Romano but feel free to use equal parts of Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Parmesan), or only Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Parmesan).
Technique Tip: When salting water for pasta, season the water with kosher salt until it tastes like a soup, not like the ocean.
In a large heavy bottom pot on high heat, bring water to a rapid boil. Season generously with kosher salt.2.
Add the pasta to the water and cook according to package instructions.3.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet on medium low heat, add the black pepper and toast to release the essential oils, about 30 seconds.4.
Once the black pepper is aromatic, add the butter or olive oil and swirl to combine, melting the butter slowly, being careful not allow it to brown. Set aside.5.
When the pasta is almost finished cooking, ladle 4 ounces of pasta water into into the skillet;. Immediately drain the pasta through a colander, reserving an additional 2 to 3 ounces of the water.6.
Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, return the skillet to medium-high heat and agitate the spaghetti aggressively with a pair of tongs or a large fork, in order to release the starch from the pasta to make it creamy.7.
While stirring and tossing, sprinkle in about half of the Pecorino Romano and continue to combine. If the pasta is tight or dry, add a splash of the reserved pasta water.8.
Garnish with the remaining Pecorino Romano and additional black pepper to taste. Serve immediately.