The Cacio E Pepe Pasta Story

By Fatema Lakdawala January 14, 2019
Cheese & Pepper is all it takes! Image Source: Photographer J. Kenji López

Cacio e Pepe \cah-cho-eh-pehpeh\ is a pasta dish that originated in Rome and literally means “cheese and pepper”.

The Romans are renowned for their powerful ancient empire, architectural wonders, gelato and pasta! Amongst the many pasta recipes in Rome, carbonara and amatriciana have found more popularity around the world, but a few know that cacio e pepe is where it all began. If this is the first time you’ve ever heard about cacio e pepe, you’re not alone, this breakthrough dish has recently gained prominence in Mumbai and we’re here to tell you why it needs to be on your plate right away.

Cacio e pepe sounds like a simple dish because it only involves three ingredients – pasta, pecorino cheese and black pepper, but many agree that it can easily turn complex if not done right. Made with basic spaghetti like tonnarelli or bucatini, this classic dish includes no butter or cream at all. So how can you make pasta sauce without those two integral ingredients, you’d ask? My answer to that is, science!

Yes, we often overlook the fact that cooking is a heady mix of art and science, but luckily people from the Roman Empire didn’t. Back in the day when Roman shepherds took their sheep to graze from spring to summer, they’d camp out with them in the Apennine mountains. In order to travel light through those months, dried homemade pasta is all the shepherds would carry as food, and eventually they would make cheese out of the milk they’d collect – hello, pecorino! Now for the recipe, the shepherds would boil the pasta and (*drumrolls*) add the cheese to a portion of pasta water to acquire the signature sauce. The starchy pasta water when cooled down, helped turn the pecorino cheese into a creamy concoction. This creamy blend was then added to the pasta along with some more pecorino and generous sprinkles of pepper, and cacio e pepe was born. 

Present day Apennine Mountains - the legend continues!

Present day Apennine Mountains – the legend continues! Image Source

Today, this humble recipe has gained star status by itself, but has been key to three important and famous pasta dishes. Add guanciale (or bacon) to cacio e pepe and get alla gricia; add tomatoes to this and get an amatriciana; add eggs to an alla gricia and get carbonara! Cacio e pepe is basically real life “chemical x”, that gave us powerpuff pastas.

Chefs today have evolved the recipe and often add olive oil, different types of cheese, cream and butter, but that’s not a real cacio e pepe, that’s an impasta! The simplicity of this dish is what makes it delicious. Stick to the recipe, because only the right cheese and good pepper (plus practice and patience), will do wonders and give you a creamy sauce that covers each strand of spaghetti with flavoursome goodness.

Delizioso!

Delizioso! Image Source

If you’ve got the travel (and food) bug, you can go to Rome and eat like the Romans do, but if that’s a long shot, you can find similar versions of cacio e pepe at CinCin (Chitarra Cacio E Pepe) and Toast & Tonic (Spaghetti Cacio E Pepe) in the city. You can also try recreating this epic Roman dish at home, we really love this recipe. Share with us your first cacio e pepe experience below, and until then pasta la vista, baby!