With just 4 ingredients and 30 minutes, you can make classic cacio e pepe by combining Italian cheese and pasta water to create a creamy sauce, tossed into pasta and freshly cracked black pepper.
Anthony Bourdain once said that “if…in Rome for only 48 hours, I would consider it a sin…to not eat cacio e pepe.” I couldn’t agree more.
It’s hard to forget my first bowl of cacio e pepe in Rome. It was hard to comprehend how pasta water and cheese could make such a silky, creamy sauce that coated every little strand of spaghetti. How was there no butter or cream in there? How? The generous amount of black pepper added way more than a touch of heat; it added earthy, piney flavor. I didn’t know black pepper was capable of tasting so good.
For all pasta lovers, whether you make it out to Rome itself or whether you make a little piece of Rome at home, classic cacio e pepe is a bucket list adventure.
Pasta alla Genovese is another Italian Culinary adventure worth taking.
What is Cacio e Pepe?
Cacio e pepe is a classic Italian pasta dish, originating from Rome, that translates to “cheese and pepper” in English. It is a super simple yet flavorful dish made from just spaghetti, black pepper, cheese, and pasta water to create a creamy sauce.
Although some Romans argue that cacio e pepe should only be made with pecorino romano, the version I had was made with a 50/50 blend of pecorino and parmigiano-reggiano. It was sharp and salty from the pecorino but balanced by the nuttiness of parmigiano. I’ll never go back to just pecorino.
The key to cacio e pepe is making a creamy sauce made only from cheese and pasta water. It’s crucial to vigorously mix the cheese and pasta water to create a “cream” before incorporating it into the cooked pasta and pepper mixture. While many recipes call for butter or cream, these versions are not authentic!
A creamy sauce that’s sharp and nutty and complex, mixed with an aromatic kick from the pepper, cacio e pepe is a testament to the simple beauty of Italian cuisine, where a few high-quality ingredients come together to create magic.
Video: How to make Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe Ingredients
- Thick spaghetti – thick spaghetti is thinner than bucatini but thicker than regular spaghetti. It’s the perfect pasta for cacio e pepe! If you can’t find thick spaghetti, you can use one of the others.
- Pecorino Romano cheese – authentic Roman versions of cacio e pepe use pecorino cheese. Buy a fresh block and finely grate it yourself. Pecorino romano is a salty, sharp sheep’s cheese.
- Parmigiano-Reggiano – while using just pecorino is often how you’ll see cacio e pepe made, I like a 50/50 blend of pecorino and parmigiano. Parmigiano is a cow’s cheese that’s nuttier with a touch of sweetness. Buy a block and finely grate it too!
- Freshly cracked black pepper – black pepper is the “pepe” part of cacio e pepe. Crack your own pepper; don’t buy pre-ground.
- Salt – a touch of salt added to the pasta water is classic.
- 4 quarts water – too much water to boil the pasta will dilute the pasta water. Too little water will make it difficult for the pasta to cook. 4 quarts of water is ideal for perfect cacio e pepe.
How to Make This Cacio e Pepe Recipe
Learn how to make classic cacio e pepe the way the Romans intended it! Full instructions in the recipe card; this is an outline!
Prep all ingredients beforehand.
Boil 4 quarts of water, adding salt.
Cook pasta until 1 minute shy of al dente.
Toast black pepper in a large pan for 1-3 minutes over medium heat.
Reserve 1 ½ cups of pasta water.
Add 1 cup of pasta water to the pepper pan.
Mix drained pasta vigorously into the peppery water for 1 minute over medium heat.
In a bowl, vigorously combine both cheeses and ½ cup pasta water for the cheese “cream.”
Add half of the cheese cream to the pasta, tossing until combined over medium heat.
- Add more.
Incorporate the remaining cheese cream.
Vigorously stir until lumps melt into a creamy sauce over medium heat.
Serve immediately, garnished with black pepper and cheese.
Cacio e Pepe Variations
While a traditional cacio e pepe recipe is made with just cheese and black pepper, here are some creative cacio e pepe variations!
- Short pasta: try using penne, rigatoni, or orecchiette.
- Protein additions: Incorporate a protein like grilled or Baked Chicken Breast, shrimp, bacon, pancetta, walnuts or pine nuts.
- Herb infusions: add fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, or basil.
- A touch of truffle: drizzle truffle oil over the finished dish or add a small amount of truffle paste to the cheese cream.
- Lemon zest twist: add fresh lemon zest to the cheese mixture.
Tips and Tricks for Perfect Cacio e Pepe
Although cacio e pepe requires only a few ingredients, it can be a bit tricky to master the art of making perfect cacio e pepe! Here are some tips and tricks to help you ace it:
- Grate your own cheese: don’t buy pre-grated cheese. Grate your own using the fine setting of a cheese grater. Buy the highest-quality cheese you can find!
- Freshly ground pepper: grind your own pepper instead of buying pre-ground. Freshly ground pepper is more flavorful and has more texture.
- Wait to reserve pasta water: don’t reserve the pasta water too early or else it will cool down and won’t be as starchy as we’d like.
- Vigorously toss: vigorously toss the pasta in the peppery water and cheese cream. This helps emulsify the sauce and ensures even coating of the pasta.
- Timing matters: follow the steps precisely for best results!
- Control salt levels: too much or too little salt can interfere with the creaminess of the sauce and cause the sauce to taste “flat” or too salty.
- Serve immediately: cacio e pepe is best enjoyed right after preparation when the sauce is creamy and the pasta is al dente. Once the pasta cools, the sauce will start to coagulate.
What to Serve With This Cacio e Pepe Recipe
- Cacio e pepe is typically served as a “primo piatto” or first course. But it can be served as the main dish or with sides. Here are some serving suggestions!
- Serve antipasti before cacio e pepe, like Citrus Marinated Olives, cured meats, or bruschetta.
- Grill or roast vegetables as a side dish, like Italian Green Beans. Or prep a simple Italian Salad as a bright, fresh side or appetizer.
- Serve cacio e pepe traditionally as a “primo piatto” or first course before a fish or meat dish like Italian Meatballs.
- Finish the meal with a light dessert like Olive Oil Cake, tiramisu, or fresh fruit with Whipped Cream to cleanse the palate.
I highly recommend serving cacio e pepe right away. Besides, they’ll likely be no leftovers! Reheating cacio e pepe can be a bit tricky because once the pasta cools, the sauce thickens and becomes clumpy. If you need to reheat it, place cacio e pepe in a pan over low heat. Add a splash of reserved pasta water or milk to help loosen the sauce as it warms. Gently stir and toss the pasta until warm. Add a bit of freshly grated pecorino to revive the flavors and creaminess.
More Pasta Recipes You’ll Love!
- Creamy Lemon Pasta (Pasta Al Limone)
- Sweet Potato Gnocchi
- Best Shrimp Scampi Pasta
- Creamy Pasta Primavera
- 1 pound thick spaghetti
- 1 cup Pecorino Romano cheese fresh, fine-grated
- 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano fresh, fine-grated
- 1 ½ teaspoons freshly cracked black pepper plus more to garnish
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 4 quarts water
- Prepare all ingredients ahead of time!
- Bring 4 quarts of water (not more) to a boil. Add the salt.
- Add pasta and cook for 1 minute less than the boil time for al dente.
- With 5 minutes left of the pasta cooking time, in a separate large pan, add the black pepper. Toast the pepper in the dry pan for 1-3 minutes over medium heat until fragrant.
- Reserve 1 ½ cups of the pasta water.
- Add 1 cup of pasta water to the pan with the pepper.
- Add drained pasta. Use tongs to vigorously mix pasta into the peppery water for 1 minute over medium heat.
- In a bowl, vigorously mix both cheeses and ½ cup pasta water until it’s as smooth as possible, to create a cheese “cream”.
- Add half of the cheese cream to the pasta. Toss until combined over medium heat.
- Add the rest of the cheese cream to the pasta. Toss until combined over medium heat.
- Keep vigorously tossing and stirring over medium heat until most of the lumps have melted into a creamy sauce.
- Serve right away, garnished with more black pepper and cheese.
- If you can’t find thick spaghetti, you can use bucatini (thicker) or regular spaghetti (thinner).
- You can use all pecorino if preferred. Although some Romans may argue that cacio e pepe should only be made with pecorino romano, the version I had in Rome was made with a 50/50 blend of pecorino and parmigiano-reggiano. It was sharp and salty from the pecorino but balanced by the nuttiness of parmigiano. It was perfect!
- You’ll need to reserve 1 ½ cups pasta water.
- Don’t add more salt to the pasta water. Too much salt can impact the creaminess of the sauce. Remember the cheeses added saltiness too!
- Serve right away. Cacio e pepe is best enjoyed right after it’s prepared when the sauce is creamy and the pasta is al dente. Once the pasta cools, the sauce will start to coagulate.