Cacio e pepe is a simple Roman pasta dish. The title “cacio e pepe” literally means “cheese and pepper.” The pasta is cooked al dente and is tossed with freshly grated Pecorino Romano, coarse ground black pepper, and some of the reserved pasta water, creating a creamy and delicious comfort meal. Topping with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano adds a slightly nutty flavor.
You know when you discover something for the first time and it ends up being this amazing thing and you ask yourself, “how did I never know of this before!?” And if it’s food related, you might make it (or maybe order it) frequently because you can’t seem to get enough and you’ll just eat it and eat it and eat it until you maybe die? Okay, maybe that last part was a little extreme, but you get me, yeah?
Enter the story of me and cacio e pepe. I first discovered this delicious simplicity earlier this year while searching for food inspiration on the internet. I came across Kenji’s post on Serious Eats and instantly fell in love. The similarity between this and the browned butter spaghetti with mizithra I grew up on intrigued me and the fact that black pepper is a main ingredient really hooked me. I knew I was going to be into this before eating it.
I loved the dish more than I expected to and Jason loved it too. So much that we made it again the next night. We didn’t think too much about the fact that we were binge-eating on loads of pasta and cheese. Don’t ever think about that.
It’s since turned into a favorite and has been especially great when we were in need of serious comfort food. It’s stupid easy to make and hits the spot. Cacio e pepe is traditionally made with spaghetti, finely grated Pecorino Romano, ground black pepper. and salt. It’s best to use coarse freshly ground black pepper and for more depth in flavor, toasting whole peppercorns in a dry skillet beforehand is where it’s at. Trust.
The black pepper and Romano complement each other really well in this dish. What also makes this dish shine is the use of the reserved cooking water for the spaghetti. The starch in the water helps the cheese cling to the pasta and a creamy sauce is formed by tossing it all together in a skillet.
Parimigiano Reggiano is not included in the authentic version of cacio e pepe, but I like to use it to add some nuttiness to the dish.
How to Make Cacio e Pepe
First step: gather your ingredients! You’ll need a block of both Pecorino Romano and Parmigiano Reggiano, spaghetti, some butter, whole black peppercorns, and salt.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add in a tablespoon of kosher salt (I add the salt after the boiling point). While waiting for the water to boil, prep the other ingredients.
Use a microplane to finely grate the cheeses and keep them separate. An optional step is to grab a small skillet and toast the peppercorns over medium-high heat for about three minutes (they will become a little fragrant when they’re done) and let them cool slightly. Then grind them up either in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. If you’re not going the toasting root, be sure to at least use coarse freshly ground black pepper. The pre-ground powdery black pepper has no place here, friends.
When it comes to cooking the spaghetti, cook it 1-2 minutes less than the package directions suggest. I cook mine for 9-10 minutes if the package suggests 11-13.
Drain the pasta and reserve 3/4 cup of the pasta water (the starch in the cooking water will help the cheese cling to the pasta). Grab a wide skillet and place it on the stove over medium heat. Melt the butter and add in the freshly ground black pepper. Stir until it becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Then, add in the pasta and quickly toss using a pair of tongs. Continue to toss the pasta and slowly add in some grated Romano and water, alternating and tossing until a creamy sauce has developed and you’ve used up all of the Romano and water. This process should take a good three minutes.
A good tip to remember is to keep your skillet over a moderate heat. Having it too high can make the cheese cling to the bottom of the pan rather than the pasta itself.
Pecorino Romano is pretty salty on its own, but you may need to add some salt to the finished pasta. I add in a pinch while stirring the spaghetti in the skillet. This can also depend on whether you are using salted or unsalted butter. I tend to cook with unsalted most of the time.
Serve pasta immediately with grated Parmigiano Reggiano and more black pepper to taste. Enjoy!
Kitchen Tools Used:
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 8 ounces spaghetti
- 1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano
- ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 1 teaspoon toasted black peppercorns or 1½ - 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper (see notes)
- A pinch of salt
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat.
- Meanwhile, grind up the toasted peppercorns using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. Set aside.
- Once the water is boiling, add in a tablespoon of kosher salt and stir in the pasta.
- Let cook, stirring occasionally, 1-2 minutes less than the package directions suggest. Drain, reserving ¾ cup of the pasta water.
- Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Melt in the butter and add the freshly ground black pepper. Stir it until it becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds.
- Add in the cooked pasta and toss, using tongs. Add in the grated Romano and some of the reserved cooking water, tossing and alternating until a creamy sauce is formed and both ingredients are all used up. Taste and add in a pinch of salt if necessary.
- Serve immediately with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and more black pepper to taste.
If not cooking with whole peppercorns, use 1½ - 2 teaspoons of freshly ground black pepper.
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