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This summer, when my family and I went to Rome, I did what any respectable modern traveler would do—I searched the #cacioepepe hashtag on Instagram and took screenshots of every noteworthy plate. Straight off the plane, we headed to the restaurant geotagged in the last cacio e pepe post—shared by a friend and fellow food writer I trust. I didn’t care that it was 90 degrees in the shade; it had been 20 years since I was last in Rome, and I wanted a perfect plate of cheese-coated noodles. But what I received was gloopy, not glorious.
Later that week, my eight-year-old daughter and I prepared cacio e pepe at the home of an Italian chef in a make-your-own-pasta class. Everything was luxurious, simple—in balance; I started digging for exactly what had been off in my previous plate.
Cacio e pepe, which in Italian literally means cheese and pepper, is a four-ingredient wonder, the result of combining best-quality pecorino Romano cheese and a few spoonfuls of pasta cooking water to create a dreamy sauce—no butter or cream required.
The recipe is thought to date back to ancient Rome. Like so many brilliant peasant dishes, it’s most likely an invention of industrious shepherds, who needed to eat while their herds grazed their way through the Apennine Mountains all spring and summer; dried pasta, aged pecorino, and black pepper were easy to carry and slow to spoil, making them the ultimate nourishing, portable meal.
“This was called ransumanza. The shepherds would bring with them a dried homemade pasta called tonnarelli, and as they made the trip over the mountains, they would make cheese out of the milk they were collecting, cacio or pecorino,” explains Lidia Bastianich, the first lady of Italian cooking.
What’s crucial here is the ratios of cheese and pepper to pasta—and the pasta of choice. The original cacio e pepe pasta (and still the pasta I found most often accompanying cacio e pepe on our Roman holiday this year), tonnarelli, is a longer and thicker spaghetti look-a-like made with eggs. In America, cacio e pepe is widely adored as a technique (or a sauce?) for spaghetti, angel hair, and linguine as well. (Today, several hundred YouTubers are poised and ready to show you how to make their self-proclaimed world’s best cacio e pepe, with seemingly no slack in viewer interest.)
With very little to improve upon, cacio e pepe has withstood evolution, with the exception of occasional (and widely disputed) additions of butter, oil, or cream. Cacio e pepe has seen the rise of successful spin-offs, namely in the form of pizza or risotto. After the 2012 earthquakes that devastated the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, chef Massimo Bottura wanted to utilize the nearly 1,000 wheels of Parmigiano-Reggiano that were damaged in the disaster. He devised an ingenious technique for risotto. First, he simmers the cheese in water, then refrigerates the broth to separate it into three distinct layers: protein solids on the bottom, a thick broth in the middle, and a Parmigiano-Reggiano cream on top. He slowly stirs the broth into the risotto, just like one would chicken stock, and adds the cream at the end, giving the risotto a luxurious texture (and little need for additional salt).
We’re still fans of this brilliant technique (though, if the thought of an eight-hour chill time and separating fat layers sounds beyond you, fear not: you can totally use chicken broth and stir in freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the end). Yes, we do realize classic cacio e pepe calls for pecorino, not Parmigiano, but we say don’t let petty nuances stop you from enjoying this all-weather comfort food. Here’s how to pull it off.
Combine a generous 8 cups of water with 2 full pounds of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano in a large saucepan. (If you don’t feel like hand-grating your cheese, it’s fine to use the store-bought, pre-grated kind—just make sure it’s real Parmigiano-Reggiano from the deli section, not the shelf-stable stuff in the bright green can.) Bring it to a simmer over medium-low heat. When the cheese is melted and stringy, cool completely. Repeat, heating again, and then cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours and up to overnight. The next day, examine the broth and look for three distinct layers. Skim the cream layer off the top and reserve. Strain the remaining broth, discarding the solids (the bits in the bottom layer) and reserving the liquid.
Next, build your risotto—classic style. Before you begin, heat your Parmigiano in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat; set aside and keep warm. Cook the shallots and garlic in butter in a shallow saucepan until soft, about 3 minutes. Die-hards might claim the addition of aromatics a sacrilege, but trust us, don’t skip this step.
Add the rice and stir to coat and toast a bit, about 2 minutes. This allows the rice to absorb the fat before the broth, and slowly develop its signature texture over time.
Next add in your Parmigiano broth, which acts just like a chicken broth here, ½ cup at a time, stirring and cooking until all the liquid is absorbed before adding more; your risotto should be tight, but the rice should start to turn clear and soften.
Continue cooking until the rice is tender and creamy, about 20 minutes, give or take. You’re looking for a creamy and slightly loose risotto at this point—it will thicken as it sets, and with the addition of the Parmigiano cream.
Next, stir in your reserved Parmigiano cream. (Remember, that is the cream layer off the top of your refrigerated broth—if you’re skipping the Parmigiano broth and using straight chicken broth, add about 2 cups of grated Parmigiano here.) Add in the cracked pepper and give it a stir. Spoon your risotto into bowls and garnish with more cracked pepper and fresh parsley leaves. Serve warm.