I’ll never forget the first time that I encountered Cacio e Pepe.
It was the summer of 2010 (a good many years before the fuss-free pasta became the Instagram sensation that it is today) and I was breezing through Rome with friends.
Picture the scene. A starry night dining al fresco at one of the city’s most glamorous restaurants, Antica Pesa, in the company of a chart-topping musician and an ensemble of prolific characters on surrounding tables (including a couturier embroiled in an infamous controversy… ).
In a subtle nod to the restaurant’s humble origins (a grain storehouse and neighbourhood tavern in previous avatars), it was a staple dish from ancient Rome which emerged the real star of the show that night – Cacio e Pepe.
Literally translating to Cheese and Pepper, Cacio e Pepe for centuries was the on-the-go meal for Roman shepherds during the long months they spent herding in the countryside. They carried with them the three key ingredients needed for the recipe: aged pecorino, black pepper and dried pasta.
Each element was pragmatic in its inclusion. The long-lasting nature of pecorino (a sheep’s cheese known as ‘Cacio’ in the Roman dialect) rendered it suitable for long journeys. The calorific and carbohydrate-laden comfort of the pasta fuelled the shepherds through a hard day’s work, while the heat-generating properties of pepper kept them warm during the cold night watches.
I wonder what they would have thought today, to see this deceivingly simple dish so sought after across the world’s trendiest restaurants.
I say deceivingly-simple as while there are just three ingredients involved, the recipe calls for a masterful precision in transforming dry cheese and water into a softly-smooth and creamy sauce. The trick I’m told is in the starchy cooking water from the pasta, which mellows the melted pecorino. Also key, is keeping the sauce just hot enough to prevent it from amassing into a clump of cheese.
Having experienced far too many offensive renditions of my now-favourite dish, I’ve finally honed in on a few top spots to find the finest Cacio e Pepe this side of Rome…
The generously-apportioned plate at Stevie Parle’s Roman restaurant, Palatino, is a good place to start. Here you’ll find glossy strands of the Roman-favourite tonnarelli (a fresh square-cut spaghetti) clad in a pleasantly-light pecorino sauce, speckled with a generous sprinkling of Tellicherry pepper.
There are several other Roman classics to draw you back to this canteen-style restaurant in Clerkenwell too, including devilishly deep-fried specialties (harking back to Rome’s Jewish heritage!).
Celebrating life's simple pleasures… one plate of Cacio e Pepe at a time 🧀🍝 Made it to @PalatinoLondon at last – celebrated chef @StevieParle's take on traditional Roman cuisine in a quiet neighbourhood of Clerkenwell. T'was just what the miserably grey weather called for too! #AboutLastNight #CacioePepe #TopLondonRestaurants #FoodieLife #TheFoodieDiariesLondon
Palatino, 71 Central Street, London EC1
Then there’s Padella, responsible for catapulting Cacio e Pepe to Instagram stardom – despite their somewhat controversial use of pici (a chewy, hand-rolled pasta shape from Tuscany).
The thick texture of the heffalump-ish strands actually work rather well in absorbing the unapologetically rich and peppery sauce… It’s definitely a plate I’d queue back for, time and again!
Because yesterday's visit @BoroughMarket would have been incomplete without a stop @Padella_Pasta! The burrata was surprisingly and quite disappointingly average (too stringy and lacking that soft creaminess), but this Cacio e Pepe was pure heaven on a plate! #FoodieLife #PadellaPasta #TopLondonRestaurants #TheFoodieDiariesLondon
Padella, 6 Southwark St, London SE1 1TQ
And finally for a theatrical touch that the Romans would have been proud of, I’d recommend the Cacio e Pepe at Il Pampero.
Exuding old world glamour and charm, the fine-dining restaurant at The Hari (in Belgravia), prepares this iconic dish table-side – by mixing the delicate ribbons of taglioni in a large wheel of sheep’s cheese! It’s all so fabulously fun. Full review, here.
Il Pampero, The Hari, 20 Chesham Pl, Belgravia, London SW1X 8HQ
Looking to cook up this dish at home? Try Russell Norman’s easy-to-follow recipe, here.
Top tip for readers in Mumbai: if you ask the Roman Head Chef Francesco Francavilla at Vetro (at The Oberoi) nicely, he might just whip you up a prized plate too!
It was just a Cacio e Pepe kinda evening 👌🏻👌🏻👌🏻 A rare & prized treat to have had my favourite Roman dish in Bombay… thank you for my off-menu creation Chef @Francesco_Francavilla_! I expect I'll be back at Vetro @TheOberoiMumbai before long – the call of this pecorino-based pasta is simply too compelling! #CacioePepe #FavouriteDish #InsideOberoi #MonsoonSeason #TheFoodieDiariesBombay