My Uncle’s Pasta (aka Cacio e Pepe … whatever!)

Being today is George Washington’s birthday, I’ve decided to come clean. Understand that there is no easy way for me to say this, so, I’m just going to blurt it out. I lied to you. Well-intentioned though I was, I nevertheless gave you false information. And, what’s worse, I did it not once but twice. Now, before you grab torches, gather en masse, and storm Chicago looking for me — by the way, if you do, be sure to take the Dan Ryan (hehehe) — let me explain …

*     *     *

  *     *     *

Back in October, 2010, my first real post was the recipe for Pasta in Bianco and, at the time, I said it was about the easiest pasta dish to make. And it is … sorta. Then, a year later, I shared the recipe for Spaghetti Aglio e Olio which I described as being “by far, the easiest (pasta dish) to prepare.” Well, it is … kinda. The truth is that there is a 3rd dish, an even easier dish to prepare, a dish that for decades I’ve prepared for myself and enjoyed as my own personal creation and that reminded me of Uncle. That is, until a few weeks ago when I found an authentic recipe that is identical to “my” recipe for Uncle’s Pasta. I could ignore it or, worse yet, try to convince everyone that my recipe is the original but, c’mon.  I’ve just confessed to 2 lies, committing a 3rd lie — especially one so obvious — would serve no purpose other than to further grease my path into Hades. So, I’ll take the high road and explain how I came upon this dish and, in an effort to make amends, I’ll throw in a little info on yet another obscure pasta, to boot.

Living in the old two-flat, there were many dinners where the families ate together and very often some form of pasta was served. My Uncle, like most, enjoyed grated cheese atop his pasta but, what set his plate apart from everyone else’s, was his love of black pepper. To my eye, he used more pepper than anyone seated at the table. Well, for this youngster, the aroma of grated Pecorino Romano mingling with the scent of freshly cracked pepper was intoxicating, made even more so because I was considered too young to have access to the pepper shaker. (As an unexpected benefit, however, when the nuns spoke of the Garden of Eden, I understood all too well Eve’s desire for the Forbidden Seasoning Fruit.) Well, I eventually grew up, as most young boys tend to do, and was finally able to add as much pepper to my pasta as I wanted — and I did. But wait, there’s more to this story because, up until now, I could have been talking about any pasta dish. I need to narrow the field a bit.

Once I moved away, I lived with a number of roommates until I could finally afford a place of my own. Back then, having a well-stocked pantry was not exactly high on my priority list. Let’s be honest, if not for “tissue”, coffee, and cat litter, I probably wouldn’t have seen the inside of a grocery for months at a time. Now, I’ve already blogged about my love for, and reliance upon, Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, pasta made with garlic and olive oil, but there were times when I didn’t have any olive oil. What to do? Well, I made my pasta without it, adding a bit more cheese, a couple more sprinkles of pepper, and some pasta water in its place. Moments later, I’d be seated at the dinner table where, with a single whiff, I was 6 years old again watching Uncle shower his pasta with pepper. So, for some 30 years, I’ve made this pasta, not just when out of olive oil but whenever I needed a pasta fix and the nostalgia bug hit me.  Over time, this pasta came to be called Uncle’s Pasta in my mind because its aroma reminded me of his plate during those family dinners of long ago.

*     *     *

I’ll re-visit this picture when WordPress becomes scratch & sniff-enabled.

*     *     *

With that in mind, you can well imagine my surprise when, a few short weeks ago whilst I was looking at pasta cutters, I learned that the people of Rome, and its district of Lazio, make a pasta called Cacio e Pepe, Cheese and Pepper, that is exactly like my Uncle’s Pasta! Now, rather than become bitter, I’ve decided to rise to the occasion and to turn this into a teaching opportunity. You see, the night that I became aware that the Romans had plundered my childhood memories and stolen my pasta recipe,  I was looking at a pasta maker called the chitarra. Italian for “guitar”, a chitarra is shirt box-sized with many wires or cords stretched, lengthwise, from one end to the other. A freshly made pasta sheet is laid on top of the “strings” and a rolling-pin is used to forcefully push the dough sheet through them to create pasta noodles. Although the width between the strings may vary from chitarra to chitarra, when they are set close enough together so that the distance is the same as the width of the pasta sheet, the result is a square-shaped pasta called tonnarelli. Often as thick as spaghetti, tonnarelli, not so coincidentally, are often used to make Cacio e Pepe. Never seen ’em? Guess again.  One very common “fresh” pasta’s cappellini is, in fact, tonnarelli. If you own a pasta machine, chances are it makes 2 types of pasta. The packaging will name the smaller of the 2 as being either cappellini or spaghetti. Um … no. One very popular stand mixer’s pasta cutter is advertised as making angel hair pasta. Again … no! These cutters are incapable of making a round pasta noodle and both cappellini and spaghetti are, in fact, round. If it’s a thin, square-shaped pasta, it’s tonnarelli. Now, if the pasta from your smallest cutter isn’t quite square, that’s probably because the pasta sheet wasn’t the same thickness as the cutter’s width. If you’re so inclined, vary the pasta sheet’s width and you’ll get your square tonnarelli.

My point isn’t to make sure everyone that sits at my dinner table, or that reads this, can identify the pasta set before them. No, not at all. It is to illustrate just how seriously the Italians take their pasta. For many, Emilia–Romagna is the home of Italy’s best pasta makers, with Bologna as its capital. True pasta aficionados from that region will claim that they can tell whether the pasta dough is rolled by hand or machine, with a wooden versus a steel rolling-pin, on a wooden board versus a stainless steel or marble counter top, etc., etc., etc. My father, when he saw Mom preparing to make pasta that day, would remind her to roll it out by hand as he left for work. Mom always assured him she would — and then got out the pasta machine before his car had made it to the end of the block. When dinner was served, could Dad tell the difference? Who knows but, like any loving husband, he knew when to keep quiet.

Wow! Such a long post for so simple a dish to prepare. I won’t be giving this recipe the full treatment because, frankly, it would be a waste of time. All you need is some pasta, freshly made is preferred but boxed spaghetti will do nicely; hot pasta water; some grated cheese, Pecorino Romano if possible; and freshly cracked/ground pepper.  I won’t be giving ingredient amounts because they will all depend upon the number of servings to be prepared and your own taste. You may not be as enamored with pepper as am I, after all.

While your pasta is cooking, warm the serving bowl. This can be done by pouring hot water from a tea kettle or via the tap. Once the pasta is cooked to your liking, reserve a  cup of the boiling pasta water before draining the pasta. No need to drain it fully. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. Work quickly now. Place the cooked pasta into the now-warmed serving bowl and season it very generously with the grated Pecorino Romano cheese. (Parmesan may be substituted.) Mix the pasta, adding more pasta water, a little at a time, so that it combines with the cheese to create a sauce-like dressing for the pasta. If it’s too dry, add more water; too wet, add more cheese. Once the pasta is evenly coated, add some pepper and stir. Remember, the dish is called Cacio e Pepe for a reason.

*     *     *

*     *     *

With your pasta now appropriately dressed, serve it on warmed dinnerware.  Garnish each serving with a generous sprinkling of grated Pecorino Romano and another dusting of pepper. Now, before you sample this testament to simplicity, take a moment to savor the fragrances of freshly grated cheese and newly cracked pepper wafting up from your plate. Nothing more need be said.

*     *     *

Pasta Cacio e Pepe

*     *     *