I miss Rome and send her, and all of Italy, lots of love and a big heartfelt hug with virtual kisses on the cheek. My trip to Rome last year brings up warm and happy memories. I’m nostalgic for the magic and hope to return someday when the virus is a thing of the past. Ah, Rome’s famous attractions: the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, the Vatican, Trevi Fountain, the Jewish Quarter, the Spanish Steps; they all evoke antiquity, violence and stunning beauty. We could spend years in the eternal city and never discover all of her treasures. To my mind, Roman food rates as a national treasure, and one dish comes immediately to mind, Cacio e pepe. So simple, so satisfying.
Travel to Rome may be just a dream right now, but we can still grasp a bit of Rome in our own kitchens to gustare; to savor, taste and enjoy. I suggest the classic cacio e pepe, which includes only three ingredients: spaghetti, pecorino (sheep) cheese and black pepper. Cacio e pepe shows up in every Roman restaurant, almost as reliably as bread and wine. It would be silly to leave the eternal city without eating it just once.
Slow Food in Italy
I belong to the Slow Food movement and love to learn about Snail of Approval restaurants when I travel. To earn the “Snail,” a restaurant needs to follow the Slow Food tenant: food should be good, clean and fair. In America, this means locally sourced, sustainably grown and scrupulous working conditions. In Italy, the same rules apply but with an Italian flair. Many classic Roman dishes such as Rigatoni alla Amatriciana, Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Spaghetti with Cacio e Pepe, have a long history and the authentic quality must be maintained. In other words, to earn a Snail in Italy, a restaurant needs to capture the integrity of the classic dishes; the ingredients and the preparation need to be carefully maintained, just the way our bisnonna (great-grandmother) used to make it.
The Osterie & Locande D’Italia is the Slow Food guide to traditional places to eat and stay in Italy. I was delighted to find, Historia Groppolo D’Oro , a Snail winner, just around the corner from Campo di Fiori, Rome’s renowned outdoor farmer’s market. They source from Slow Food small farmers, and serve a mix of classic and modern adaptations. Here I am in front of the restaurant with co-owner Simone. He helped Scott and I with our order and regaled us with the story of the restaurant.
After devouring my generous helping of Cacio e Pepe, I wondered how they achieved this luscious creamy sauce without milk, butter or oil. I asked Simone, but he grinned and said it was all in the technique. So when I returned home, I watched numerous videos, read recipes and researched. Many of the recipes I found used a fat like butter or oil to help create the sauce, but I was determined to learn the authentic method. After many fails (which still tasted great, by the way), I learned a pretty fool-proof method from another Slow Food restaurant: Armando al Pantheon. Master chef Claudo uses this method and you can watch the master at work here.
Otherwise, here it is in recipe form. Enjoy!
Let’s Do This
Cacio e Pepe
- 3 tsp. whole black pepper corns, toasted and coarsely ground (plus a bit more for garnish)
- 90 grams Pecorino cheese (plus a bit more for garnish)
- 200 grams spaghetti, tonnarelli or any long, thin pasta
- 5 cups water, salted
- Heat a dry saucepan and add the whole peppercorns. Shake the pan and toast until they are fragrant and almost translucent, about 2 minutes. Spread them out on a board to cool. Once they have cooled, roughly crush in a mortar with a pestle. Set aside.
- Bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Add a large pinch of salt. (In this case, we are using less water than the amount recommended on the package. Why? Because as the pasta cooks, it releases starch into the cooking water. We want a higher than normal concentration of starch in the cooking water because we will use this to make our sauce. Don't worry, the pasta will cook just fine in this much water.)
- Add the pasta noodles to the water and cook for 10 minutes.
- As soon as the pasta is done cooking for 10 minutes, begin this step.In a medium saucepan, off the heat, add the grated Pecorino. Add a ladleful of pasta cooking water to the cheese, a little at a time, while stirring vigorously to melt the cheese. It's important to add the cooking water just a bit at a time while stirring constantly. The heat of the water will melt the cheese. Once the cheese is melted, stir in the crushed black pepper. Leaving a bit for the garnish at the end.
- Using a large fork or slotted spoon, scoop out the pasta noodles and add them directly to the saucepan with cheese and pepper (so not drain). Stir to coat the pasta. (Note that we have not turned on the heat. The hot pasta water will heat the dish. When I have turned on the heat, it causes the cheese to stick to the pan.)
- Serve immediately on a platter and top with more crushed black pepper and a healthy pinch of grated pecorino.