One pot pasta
A dish that illustrates perfectly the principles of Italian pasta, simplicity and technique
An evening in Testaccio
Last February, I went for a few days in Rome. I wanted to visit some pizzerias and conclude my pizza survey that I had started previously in Naples. That evening, I checked the options and decided for a pizzeria in the Testaccio neighbourhood. I reached the place but I founded it full, with also a waiting queue. I didn’t even try to get a seat, but I had in any case to find something to eat. I erased from my mind the pizza option and thought of a trattoria nearby, which I knew from a previous visit. I walked for a few minutes and entered “Da Bucatino”. I looked around and spotted free only one small table. Unfortunately, the waiter informed me that the table was booked with the guests arriving in half an hour. I told him that I don’t need more than that, he waived positively and I ordered even before sitting. I asked for Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe.
Cacio e Pepe
Cacio-e-pepe is a typical Roman pasta dish. In reality though, it’s something much more than just a pasta dish. First of all, it’s a great example (similarly with aglio-e-olio) of a very tasty pasta recipe that has (as the name implies) just two additional ingredients, cheese and pepper.
Even more, it’s a unique case of a condiment made without any source of pure fat, like olive oil or butter. The sauce is made from the cheese itself, with the important contribution of a secret ingredient in Italian cuisine, the starchy pasta water. Even though it looks simple, cacio-e-pepe has the fame of a particularly difficult dish to make, the reason being the cheese melting properties. If you try to do it the first time without knowing some background information, the chances are pretty high to fail to create a sauce with the desired, creamy consistency. You can easily end up with cheese clumps and pan sticking, which can not only compromise eating pleasure, but bring you also serious troubles cleaning the pan. However, this shouldn’t be discouraging, you need simply to select the right cheese and to keep it away from hot water.
The cheese used in cacio-e-pepe, as well as in most Roman pasta dishes, is local Pecorino Romano. There are only controversial opinions on whether relatively fresh or more aged versions of it work better. In any case, it should be finely ground and mixed with a bit of warm but not hot pasta water to form a paste, before added to the pan with the pasta.
If it’s hard to find it, you could equally well get any hard, sharp and salty, ship’s milk cheese. For instance, in Greece, we have many local Kefalotyti and Graviera cheeses, that resemble and can substitute pecorino romano easily.
Concerning the pasta, the Romans like rather thick and long shapes to carry the silky cheese and starchy sauce. Tonnarelli, a squared-cut, similar but thicker than spaghetti alla chitarra, is the most typical. Other similar shapes like bigoli or pici could work also fine. You could find many recipes simply with spaghetti. However, I prefer far more the much thicker and mouth-filling bucatini.
One pot pasta
I mentioned earlier the starchy pasta water as an ingredient (even though not indicated) in many Italian pasta recipes. In cacio-e-pepe particularly, it plays a crucial role. It’s the liquid surface and seeding element onto which the cheese will melt as to form the sauce and coat the pasta.
Because of that, cooks have employed already different ways to enhance its starch content, like cooking the pasta for just a few minutes in a normal pot full with water as usual and then transfer it to a pan with the minimum amount of water needed to finish cooking. I found that for cacio-e-pepe fits very well an unconventional method for cooking pasta, that is the ‘one-pot-pasta’ technique. For an overview of the different pasta cooking techniques, you can watch this very informative video from Luciano Monosilio, a known Roman pasta chef.
During the one-pot-pasta method, the whole dish preparation (pasta and sauce) takes place in one pot, which contains only the necessary amount of water that is needed to cook fully the pasta. Therefore, the whole amount of starch that is released from the pasta during cooking stays in the pot and contributes decisively to the formation of the final and desired sauce consistency.
Bucatini Cacio e Pepe *
(The amounts listed here are indicative and should work as a starting guide in order to prepare one dish portion)
150g dried bucatini
70g pecorino romano or equivalent ship’s milk cheese
10-15 peppercorns (black or mix)
600-700g water (the exact amount depends on the quality and type of pasta. It will probably need adjustment, either by adding some more during cooking or by removing some from the pan, if it stays too much while pasta is already done)
- Toast shortly the peppercorns in a wide pan. Remove, grind and put them back in the same pan (keep some to sprinkle on the top of the plate at the end)
- Add the water in the same pan with a bit of salt and bring to boil.
- Add the pasta and let it cook, while stirring from time-to-time.
- Grate finely the cheese into a bowl.
- Important! While pasta cooks, remove just an espresso-portion of the cooking water, let it cool down for a couple of minutes and add it to the bowl with the cheese. With the aid of a spatula mix the cheese to form a paste.
- Important! When pasta al dente and most of the water has been absorbed, remove from fire, wait a minute to cool down and add to it the cheese paste.
- Mix constantly for a couple of minutes to melt the cheese, form the sauce and coat nicely the pasta.
- Serve and sprinkle with the remaining of the ground pepper and more cheese if desired.
* In this recipe, I used a Graviera cheese from Vytina-Peloponnese