Learn how to make perfect Cacio e Pepe, the classic Pecorino Romano and black pepper pasta from Rome once declared by the late Anthony Bourdain, “the greatest thing in the history of the world.”
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One of the most spectacular dishes I’ve ever eaten in Rome is also one of the easiest to reproduce at home. How often does that happen? I have been obsessed with Cacio e Pepe ever since I saw Anthony Bourdain passionately slurping from a bowl of the pasta many years ago in the Rome episode of No Reservations. He was so enamored with the classic Roman pasta dish that he even declared “[Cacio e Pepe] could be the greatest thing in the history of the world.”
A perfect plate of Cacio e Pepe at a restaurant in Rome.
When I first visited Rome, not long after watching that episode, Cacio e Pepe was the first pasta dish I ate in the city. Let me just say: I “got it” at first bite. Cacio e Pepe is such a simple dish on the face of it—a simple combination of pasta, cheese, pepper, and olive oil—yet it’s so incredibly aromatic, luscious, and rich. It’s creamy, warm, and ever-so-spicy. Cacio e Pepe is mac and cheese for grownups, the best hangover food, and the thing I’d probably request for my last meal on earth.
Although digging into Cacio e Pepe at home may not have the exact same charm as enjoying it in a busy Roman restaurant, I can tell you there are few dishes more satisfying to serve—and dig into—than a perfect bowl of Cacio e Pepe.
Making it starts by simply cooking pasta and warming up crushed peppercorns in olive oil. The magic happens as you start incorporating Pecorino Romano cheese into the pasta. When you do things right, the cheese melts and emulsifies into the simplest, yet most delicious sauce ever.
While Cacio e Pepe is the very definition of a quick and easy dish to make, you need to be familiar with some key steps to produce the best, most perfect version of the dish possible.
Cacio e Pepe is one of my favorite dishes of all time. I’ve been making it pretty much every week for years, so I’m happy to share all my best tips to help you enjoy this classic Italian pasta at home.
Watch this fun video to see me make Cacio e Pepe and find out what are the key ingredients and techniques you need to learn to make the classic Roman pasta!
Cacio e Pepe literally means “cheese and pepper” in Italian. The name of the Roman pasta dish is as simple as the dish itself: it describes the two main ingredients you need to make the recipe.
A bit of olive oil, some crushed black pepper, a generous amount of Pecorino Romano cheese, and some pasta cooking water. That’s it!
Learn more about how these ingredients come together like magic to create the silkiest, cheesiest sauce ever, below.
Cacio e Pepe is a classic pasta dish from Rome, Italy. Cacio e Pepe is said to be one of the four iconic pastas of Rome, along with carbonara, amatriciana, and alla Gricia.
The two ingredients that make Cacio e Pepe pasta so creamy are:
While pasta cooks, it releases starch into the cooking water. This starchy water is key to melting the cheese, emulsifying the sauce, and binding the black pepper to the pasta.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe does not use butter or cream. Neither of these ingredients is required to create the rich, creamy, silky Cacio e Pepe sauce. What you need to achieve perfect Cacio e Pepe isn’t more fat but the right technique! (And I’m here to help you with that!)
The traditional pasta used for Cacio e Pepe is spaghetti alla chitarra (also called tonnarelli). It’s a thick, long pasta with a square shape. This type of pasta can be a bit harder to find in regular grocery stores, but it’s readily available in Italian stores and online.
Left: Tonnarelli (Spaghetti alla Chitarra); Right: Spaghetti
When shopping for the best pasta to make Cacio e Pepe, look for these two quality indicators:
1. “Tafilata al Bronzo” – Bronze-Cut (or Bronze-Die) Pasta: This type of pasta is extruded through bronze dies, which are perforated metal plates that cut and shape the pasta. These bronze molds produce a finished noodle with a rough, porous texture, which attracts and absorbs pasta sauces. This texture is perfect for Cacio e Pepe: the pasta’s creamy sauce perfectly sticks to strands of bronze-cut pasta, making the dish even more delicious.
Most grocery stores sell bronze-cut pasta. Look past big multinational brands and find packaging with Italian writing on it. Most bronze-cut pasta brands are sold in intricately designed paper bags instead of boxes.
Some big brands, such as Barilla, have released bronze-cut lines of pasta. These are often labeled “artisanal.” Again, look for the words “bronze-cut” anywhere on the packaging to make sure you’re getting the right thing.
2. “Essiccata Lentamente a Bassa Temperatura” – Slow-Dried at a Low Temperature: Industrially made pasta is made in extremely large quantities and needs to dry quickly so it can be packaged, shipped, and sold as fast as possible. For pasta to dry quickly, it needs to be exposed to higher temperatures, which evaporates moisture faster. This prevents the pasta from properly developing its starch proteins, which, in turn, produces pasta with a poorer texture.
Slow-dried pasta is, well, slow-dried, and this is done at a lower temperature. This allows the proteins to properly develop, which creates a deliciously chewy, toothsome pasta. The slow-drying process also produces pasta with a rougher, chalky-looking texture that allows sauce to better cling to the surface of the pasta and absorb the flavors surrounding it too.
Slow-dried pasta is readily available in most grocery stores. You can look for the words “slow-dried” anywhere on the packaging, but the most obvious tell-tale sign is the texture of the pasta: if it’s shiny and smooth, it’s quick-dried. If it’s rough, matte, and chalky-looking, it’s most likely slow-dried and bronze-cut.
Slow-dried pasta is a bit more expensive than industrial pasta because of the lengthier drying process. You could, for example, pay $1 to $2 more for a 12 oz bag of slow-dried pasta. While I can’t say the extra investment is always required, I absolutely urge you to splurge on bronze-cut, slow-dried pasta to make Cacio e Pepe. A recipe that uses so few ingredients is only as good as its ingredients are!
Pasta starch is key to creating a silky smooth Cacio e Pepe sauce. Indeed, while pasta cooks, it releases starch into the cooking water. This starchy water helps with melting the cheese, emulsifying the sauce, and binding the black pepper to the pasta.
You’ll get some of that starchy goodness from the pasta cooking water, and then you’ll get even more of it released straight into your skillet as the pasta finishes cooking. In my recipe, you only cook the pasta halfway through the classic way, in a large saucepan or a pot, and then you transfer the partly cooked pasta straight from the pot to the skillet with the olive oil and black pepper. You then add some of the pasta cooking water to the skillet, and the pasta finishes cooking in considerably less water. This concentrates the starch in the water and becomes the base of the creamy sauce.
Starchy pasta cooking water produces the creamiest Cacio e Pepe pasta!
This Italian cooking process is known as risottatura—yes, it’s the same technique used to make risotto. Think of how risotto becomes creamy as it cooks, even before you add cheese to the dish. This is because risotto rice has a high starch content, which is released as the rice cooks. The same happens when you finish cooking Cacio e Pepe pasta in a skillet. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Note that you’ll get much better results (i.e., a creamier sauce) if you use slow-dried pasta. My tips about picking the right pasta to make Cacio e Pepe are right here!
Cheese is front and center in this recipe, so to make perfect Cacio e Pepe, you need to use authentic Pecorino Romano cheese. Pecorino cheese is a hard, salty, aged Italian cheese made with sheep’s milk. This cheese was originally made in Lazio, the province where Rome is located. This is most certainly why this is the cheese of choice to make Cacio e Pepe, a quintessential Roman pasta dish.
Pecorino Romano is a protected designation of origin (PDO), which means that the cheese must “be produced, processed, and developed in a specific geographical area, using the recognized know-how of local producers and ingredients from the region concerned” (source). Authentic Pecorino Romano cheese can be recognized by its off-white color and stamped rind. It is readily available in most grocery stores, sold in wedges.
Authentic Cacio e Pepe recipes exclusively use Pecorino Romano cheese. The cheese’s sharp saltiness perfectly seasons the sauce, and its aroma is synonymous with the classic pasta dish. Many chefs and cooks like to use some Parmigiano Reggiano cheese as well. Although this isn’t authentic per se, it’s a very common substitution.
Personally, I most often make Cacio e Pepe exclusively with Pecorino Romano cheese, but sometimes I do swap in a third of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. I like that Parmigiano Reggiano adds some warmth and softens the more edgy flavor of Pecorino Romano cheese. To me, this combination of cheese leads to a dish separate from authentic Cacio e Pepe because the flavor is quite different, but it’s still extremely delicious all the same.
You might not suspect this, but the way the cheese is grated is key to making perfect Cacio e Pepe. Indeed, if the cheese is grated too coarsely, it won’t emulsify into a smooth sauce, and you’ll end up with blobs of coagulated cheese. If you end up with such a result, I’m sad to say there’s just no way to fix it. Sure, the dish won’t be super appealing, but it remains totally edible. Don’t throw it away! Enjoy―and make sure to use the following tips next time you make Cacio e Pepe.
I’ve tested so many grated cheese textures over the years, and I’ve concluded that the best tool to grate Pecorino Romano to make perfect Cacio e Pepe is a Microplane. A Microplane produces wonderfully fluffy clouds of super thinly grated cheese. When you gradually add this finely grated cheese to the pasta, it seamlessly melts into a perfectly smooth sauce.
Some stores sell grated cheeses, and while this is a handy solution for other pasta dishes, I do not recommend using pre-grated cheeses to make Cacio e Pepe. Pre-grated cheeses can be dry and harder to melt. Anti-clumping agents are sometimes added to grated cheeses too, which are guaranteed to affect the texture of your sauce.
Conclusion: Buy a wedge of authentic Pecorino Romano cheese and grate it yourself using a Microplane. By following these two simple tips, you’ll be that much closer to producing perfect bowls of Cacio e Pepe!
Measuring cheese in cups for making Cacio e Pepe is incredibly imprecise, especially if the cheese is grated using a Microplane. Microplane-grated cheese is so fluffy, it’s impossible to accurately measure it by packing it into cups.
To accurately measure the cheese you need for making Cacio e Pepe, make sure to weigh it.
You can prevent cheese from clumping in Cacio e Pepe using these three simple tips:
To make Cacio e Pepe, you want coarsely ground black pepper—not super finely ground, almost powdery black pepper. For the best flavor and texture, start with whole peppercorns and lightly crush them using a mortar and pestle or a rolling pin. Freshly crushed peppercorns will deliver their full aroma to the sauce and create a tastier Cacio e Pepe.
Make sure to crush extra peppercorns for sprinkling over the dish right before serving. The combination of cooked and fresh black pepper allows Cacio e Pepe to fully develop its enticing aromas.
There is no meat in Cacio e Pepe; it’s a vegetarian dish. The recipe is made with only four ingredients: pasta, cheese, black pepper, and olive oil. While you’ll find some recipes that do incorporate fried pancetta or guanciale, the use of cured meat in the dish isn’t authentic.
Easy authentic Italian pasta dishes are perfect for weeknight dinners: simple ingredients create irresistible dishes the whole family will love. Find delicious inspiration in this pasta recipe collection!
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