Cacio e Pepe is technically such a simple pasta that the recipe is basically in the name – “cacio e pepe” means cheese and pepper in Italian. Indeed, cheese and pepper are nearly the only ingredients, but somehow they add up to so much more. When it’s made right, it is silky and complex and super satisfying. Like elegant mac and cheese for grown-ups.
Like many super-simple Italian dishes, however, it’s also pretty simple to mess up. The most common problem is having the cheese clump up in a sticky mess – you can avoid this adding enough hot pasta water to the pan sauce. (Pasta water is one of those magic ingredients, the starches from the pasta changing the quality of the water so that it binds the cheese and pepper and pasta together into a silky sauce). And also like other super-simple Italian dishes, the secret is also in fresh, quality ingredients. When you’re making pasta with just cheese and pepper, it’s best to use the best cheese and pepper you can. Although I have to admit, I’ve made this with just supermarket parmesan, without pecorino at all, and it was still super delicious to me. I would just advise against pre-grated parmesan – even if it’s not a fancy brand, buy a chunk of it and grate it yourself. Preferably with the finest micro-plane like this one.
Cacio e Pepe (adapted from Bon Appetit)
- Kosher salt
- 1 lb pasta (such as bucatini or spaghetti)
- 6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed, divided
- 2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
- 1-1/2 cups finely grated Grana Padano or Parmesan
- 2/3 cup finely grated Pecorino
- Bring 6 quarts water to a boil. Season with salt; add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. Drain, reserving a cup of the pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, melt 4 Tbsp. butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add pepper and cook, swirling pan, until toasted, about 1 minute.
- Add 1/2 cup reserved pasta water to skillet and bring to a simmer. Add pasta and remaining butter. Reduce heat to low and add Grana Padano/Parmesan, stirring and tossing with tongs until melted. Remove pan from heat; add Pecorino, stirring and tossing until cheese melts, sauce coats the pasta, and pasta is al dente. (Add more pasta water if sauce seems dry.) Transfer pasta to bowls and serve.
The nice thing about Cacio e Pepe is that it’s basically a pantry meal – the kind of thing you can whip up with things you probably have on hand. That makes it a great weeknight meal and a nice easier-than-it-looks kind of meal for company, so you can spend time visiting instead of sweating it out in the kitchen while your friends hang out. But they’ll be impressed, promise. Because who doesn't love grown-up mac and cheese?!
(all photos, jamie grill photography)