The simplest Italian pasta dishes can be a bit deceptive. One might think “oh, there are only three or four ingredients here, how interesting can this pasta be?”  The answer – it all depends on the ingredients, and the technique! The simplicity of the dish is belied by the satisfying creamy, cheesy, results.  This Roman cacio e pepe recipe is a four-ingredient winner of a pasta dish.

Cacio e Pepe

Every time I’ve been lucky enough to travel in Italy – and also every time I’ve had the pleasure of eating at a very good Italian restaurant, I am reminded that keeping it simple can result in some of the best dining experiences ever.  Like many of us, I tend to add another ingredient, and another, in search of sophistication and interest.  But a pared down pasta cooked with love and attention, and some excellent high quality ingredients, is often better than anything more complicated.  

4-Ingredient Pasta Recipe

Cacio e Pepe translates to two words: “Cheese and pepper”.  Again, it sounds almost too simple or rudimentary, but to taste this dish properly made is to understand why simple Italian food is some of the best in the world.  You don’t need a lot of ingredients or fancy footwork to get one of the best pasta dishes in Italian cuisine.  But (again!) pay attention to the quality of the ingredients, which will make all the difference.

Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e Pepe Ingredients

Hard grating cheese: The most classic kind of cheese used in this dish is Pecorino Romano, though Parmesan is a very popular option as well.  Another hard, aged, grating cheese that can be used is Grana Padano.  The cheeses have varying amounts of saltiness, so sure to taste before adding additional salt.   You probably don’t need to add additional salt to this recipe.  However, you definitely should salt the cooking water, here and always.  

My favorite cheese choice turned out to be a combo of cheeses.  I used a blend of Parmesan and Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano, roughly 2/3 cup of each, for a total of two cups.  And if that’s not cheesy enough for you, you can always pass some on the side for sprinkling onto individual portions.  

Please either grate your own cheeses, or buy them from a shop that grates their cheese on site, and sells a lot of cheese!  That will ensure you are getting the freshest, most vibrant flavor.  Make sure your cheeses are finely grated; this will allow them to melt faster once combined with the hot pasta, olive oil, and water.  More coarsely grated cheese will have a tendency to clump, and not dissolve into a smooth silky sauce.

Parmesan Cheese

Long skinny pasta: Use a good pasta brand, perhaps one from Italy.  Think about spaghetti (super classic), thin spaghetti, fettuccine, linguine or bucatini.  Make sure to cook it just until al dente, as it will cook a bit more once it is blended with the sauce ingredients in the hot pan.

Cacio e Pepe

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: This is a good place to use a nice olive oil, since it is barely heated, and will allow the full aroma and flavor of the oil to shine.  Pick an extra virgin olive oil you really like!

Fresh Coarsely Ground Black Pepper: This ingredient is clearly one of the stars, since it’s named right in the title of the recipe!  Freshly ground black pepper is kind of a must here – the pre-ground stuff won’t have the same pop of flavor.  If you don’t have a pepper mill, this is an excellent reason to buy one.  Or, you can find small disposable pepper grinders in the supermarket, which produce the same results (but aren’t nearly as pretty).  Make sure when you grind the pepper you use a coarse setting, rather than a fine one.

Cacio e Pepe

Pasta Water in the Sauce

In many Italian pasta dishes, the pasta cooking water is used as a part of the sauce.  This is helpful for a couple of reasons.  The water used to boil pasta will contain starch that the dried pasta has released.  This starch helps in emulsifying, or thickening and binding, the sauce. In the case of cacio e pepe it also creates a creaminess to the sauce.  The starch also helps the sauce stick to the pasta itself. This cooking technique is used in many types of pasta recipes.

How to Make Cacio e Pepe

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat.  Cook the pasta according to package directions until it is almost al dente, but still a bit firm in the center (it will continue to cook a bit more in the sauce).  Drain and reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking water.  Return the pasta to the pot. Add the oil.

Cacio e Pepe

Then add the grated cheese or cheeses and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper.  

Cacio e Pepe

Add about half of the cooking water and toss to combine very well, until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the pasta.  Add more cooking water or oil as needed to coat the pasta nicely and create a sauce.  

Cacio e Pepe

Serve immediately!  Eat immediately!

This fast and easy recipe, which translates to “cheese and pepper” is a perfect example of the best of simple Italian cooking, and a quick weeknight dinner made from pantry ingredients.

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Cacio e Pepe

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Cacio e Pepe

This fast and easy recipe, which translates to "cheese and pepper" is a perfect example of the best of simple Italian cooking, and a quick weeknight dinner made from pantry ingredients.
Yield: 6 People
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Diet: Vegetarian

Ingredients

  • Kosher salt
  • ½ pound long skinny pasta , such as spaghetti, thin spaghetti, fettucine, linguine or bucatini
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil , plus more as needed
  • 2 cups (8 ounces) finely grated Grana Padano , Pecorino Romano, or Parmesan, or a combination (see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh coarsely ground black pepper , plus more to taste

Directions

  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Cook the pasta according to package directions until it is almost al dente, but still a bit firm in the center (it will continue to cook a bit more in the sauce). Drain and reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking water.
  • Return the pasta to the pot, and add the oil, grated cheese, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Add about half of the cooking water and toss to combine very well, until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the pasta. Add more cooking water or oil as needed to coat the pasta nicely and create a sauce. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Information

Calories: 351kcal | Carbohydrates: 30g | Protein: 17g | Fat: 18g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 9g | Cholesterol: 23mg | Sodium: 537mg | Potassium: 119mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 262IU | Calcium: 404mg | Iron: 1mg

The nutrition values are provided as an estimate. It is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare professional.

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