Cacio e pepe — and a mistake while sharing spaghetti.
The recent years of my life have brought me a greater sense of what it means to eat well. A sense of why people might cook food and enjoy it. A sense of which flavours make sense with others, and why dishes are the way they are.
It’s not always been like that.
Rewind two years and I’m in a restaurant in Milan, on my first trip to the city to see Giulia. We’re with her closest friend and her friend’s partner — in a restaurant, Giulio Pane e Ojo, to which they’ve all been going for years. It’s a Roman place, in a cute little street in Porta Romana.
It was my first time in Milan, yet I’d been to Italy before. Aosta down to Cinque Terre with the family when I was a kid. Florence with some friends from university. And Friuli with another friend and her family.
Yet, this was a different experience altogether. We went around the city, drinking and dancing at night and finding shady spots to sit in during the day, riding a moped between sights and drinking coffee that actually tasted like coffee. It was one of the best times of my life, for sure — although I spent most of my time smiling stupidly at people I couldn’t understand. And although I spent my last day there in hospital.
But anyway — we’re there in Giulio Pane e Ojo. Giulia busily translates the dishes on the menu, explains and describes them to me, receives shrugs and incomprehension in return for her effort, and picks my dinner for me. She decides we go halves on cacio e pepe — spaghetti with pecorino and black pepper, the quintessential Roman dish — and something else I don’t remember. But all this, in Giulia’s eyes, is an education.
How Not to Eat Spaghetti.
We traipse outside for a fag, standing in the street with our glasses of wine in that excellent Milan fashion, and return inside for the food.
We sit down, I’m given the spaghetti, and I pick up my knife and fork.
I’m looking down at the dish, beginning to cut a line down the middle of the bowl for easier sharing.
‘Charlie, NO.’ It’s Giulia. Now, imagining this moment, I hear that the restaurant had fallen silent: a glass clinks awkwardly and a waiter, somewhere, coughs embarrassedly.
I look up to see Giulia’s friend looking at my plate, aghast, with a hand on Giulia’s hand. The friend’s partner raises his eyebrows.
‘What?’, I say.
‘What the FUCK are you doing with that knife?’.
Two years later, her friend brings it up every time I see her. And now I know that you’re not supposed to cut spaghetti.
Cacio e pepe is an easy dish to make. But its incredibly simple combination of ingredients — pecorino and black pepper — give it a flavour that is punchy and powerful.
You might know the Italians call cheese ‘formaggio’ — like the French ‘fromage’. Yet, in the south of the country, the preferred word is ‘cacio’: this apparently comes from the same Latin root, caseus, that gives us the English word cheese.
Anyway, what you need for this dish is pecorino — a hard sheep’s cheese. A variant of this is called pecorino Romano which, stupidly, has nothing to do with Rome at all: it’s made in Sardinia. What you’ll do is grate this cheese, work it into a nice creamy sauce, and mix your spaghetti into it.
A Note on Spaghetti Eaters.
Giulia’s dad, Giuliano — yes, Giuliano and Giulia — has a wonderful habit of laughing at everybody. His favourite targets are foreign tourists in Milan who eat spaghetti in restaurants. When he sees them he laughs until he cries.
There are some people — like my mum, and like my old self — who cut spaghetti. There are others who understand that this is not okay. According to Giuliano, there are three types of the latter.
There are those who lift a forkful of spaghetti about thirty centimetres above their plate and who, with a spoon or knife, attempt to fold the dangling ends back over the top of the fork. These are Giuliano’s favourites: this method never ever works.
Then, there are those who use the spoon. These guys have the right technique: the fork in the right hand, the spoon in the left, they twist (‘arrotolare’) the spaghetti around the fork against the spoon. No problems there.
However, the third option is for experts. Forget the spoon; you have a wide plate for a reason. Twist the spaghetti against the side of the plate. I’d half imagine that Giuliano would come and shake your hand if he saw you doing this properly.
- 150 grams Pecorino
- Loads of pepper (I ain’t giving you quantities, honestly)
- 200–250 grams of decent spaghetti (This is a dish that really demands a quality pasta: if you’re going Tesco value, you’re getting cheesy sauce on soggy, chewy tendrils. Get a spaghetti that retains its bite.)
- Salt and oil.
- Optional: Kale (see below)
- Grate your pecorino, by hand, into a bowl. When I was doing this meal for some friends, I couldn’t be arsed to grate three hundred grams — so I put it in a food processor. Don’t do this: you get tiny cubes of pecorino rather than slender grated strips — and these don’t melt the way you want them to. Grate by hand.
- Grind plenty of black pepper into a hot pan. You’re toasting the pepper — so let it sit there for a moment until it smells wonderful.
- Boil your spaghetti.
- When the spaghetti are five minutes away from ready, scoop a ladle’s full of the pasta water into another bowl.
- Gradually — but quickly, whilst the water is still hot — add half of the grated pecorino into the hot water.
- Whisk thoroughly until it is a smooth cream with no lumps.
- Gradually add half of the remaining pecorino to the cream.
- When the pasta is cooked, drain it, and add it to the pan with the toasted pepper. Turn it over a few times.
- Now, stirring vigorously, pour over the pecorino sauce.
- Add the final bit of grated pecorino, continually stirring.
There’s a nice variation of this with kale. It gives the dish a bit of texture, and the flavour of the leaves goes nicely with the pecorino.
- Cut the leaves off the kale’s stubborn, chewy stalks.
- In a saucepan, bring some water to the boil.
- In a frying pan, heat some oil with some garlic and some dry chilli flakes.
- Boil the leaves for five minutes or so, until soft.
- Fry up the leaves in the garlic for a bit of extra flavour.
- Add the leaves to the pasta in the frying pan, after you add the pecorino.