I've been craving an authentic cacio e pepe recipe ever since I moved back from Italy. So, here's a one-pot, foolproof cacio e pepe recipe that needs exactly three ingredients, and all of twenty minutes. Psst, this recipe is a throwback to my friendship with folks at a small restaurant in my neighborhood - the same place Anthony Bourdain loved. So you know it's time tested and delicious.
The post contains helpful tips and tricks to make sure you're successful in your first attempt. But if you're in a rush, please use the link above to jump to the recipe card at the end!
🍲What is cacio e pepe?
Cacio e pepe literally means "cheese and pepper" in Italian (cacio, in the local dialect, literally refers to pecorino Romano, i.e. the pecorino of Rome). This is a simple Roman pasta (there's a tale that peasants invented this because they had no meat, but here we are). Move over, fettuccine Alfredo, the classic cheesy pasta is in town.
💭 Why you'll love this recipe
- Inspired by Anthony Bourdain's favorite cacio e pepe in Rome: This is a recipe I first learned to make when I lived in Rome, from Anthony Bourdain's favorite restaurant.
- Uses only three ingredients: Traditional and authentic cacio e pepe does not use butter or cream. True to that, this recipe uses just three ingredients.
- Comes together in under 30 minutes: This recipe is as quick as it's delicious, so it's perfect for a quick weeknight meal or your next date night!
📋 Ingredients & Substitutions
You need three ingredients for this authentic Roman pasta: pasta, pecorino, and pepper. However, I know it's hard to get the exact ingredients sometimes, so I've listed a few substitutions. But this cacio e pepe is made with no butter, so read on!
What kinds of pasta can you use?
Traditionally, tonnarelli or bucatini are used. Any thick pasta or spaghetti can work in a pinch too. The key is to get a tubular, long pasta to which the sauce can adhere to. Traditional tonnarelli is a little coarse, making it super delicious when you add cheese.
What kinds of cheese do you need?
This Roman pasta is at the heart of many food experiences in the Lazzo district (where Rome is located). So, the only cheese you'll need is pecorino Romano, the cheese native to that region. Try to get the sharpest pecorino Romano you can get your hands on and grate it fresh. If you can find pecorino, pick that up and build a parmesan bowl instead. Double win! If you can't find pecorino, you can use parmesan (but just note that the flavors will be slightly different since pecorino is sharper)
Do you use cream?
Only if you want my old Italian landlord to haunt you from his grave ... just kidding. But, seriously though - no cream or butter! Take the pasta water out when it's starchiest, i.e. right before you're going to drain it. That's all you need to bind the pepper and cheese into gooey, saucy goodness. Using cream dilutes the sharpness of the cheese and it's also not necessary!
♨️Step by Step Instructions
Use half a gallon of water for every 8 oz (half box) of pasta. Cook the pasta in that large pot of salted water to package instructions. 2 to 3 minutes before the pasta is done, remove a few tablespoons of hot pasta water in case you need to thin the sauce.
How do you keep cacio e pepe from clumping?
As you can see, this recipe does not use any butter or oil and that typically runs the risk of the cheese getting clumpy. The secret to avoiding that? Throw the cheese, pepper and some cold water in a food processor and pulse until it gets to a silky consistency. If you don't have a food processor, just use a fork or a whisk, and mix vigorously to combine until the sauce is smooth and silky. Add a bit of the hot pasta water in case it's clumpy.
Then, once you have that magical cheese sauce, slowly layer it and the pasta like you would a lasagna. One serving of pasta, one spoon of sauce. Rinse repeat. Then toss and coat evenly. Voila! No more clumpy pasta.
👩🏽🍳Tips for authentic, foolproof cacio e pepe
Use high quality cheese and grate it finely, yourself
Get the best cheese you can afford, you won't regret it. And regardless of what cheese you buy, please grate the cheese yourself. Grated cheese often has potato starch or chemicals added to it, which makes it clump up and not melt. And you'll want to use the smallest hole for grating - it'll allow the cheese to melt uniformly into a consistent sauce!
Use the right amount of water and drain at the right time
The key to this recipe is thinning the cheese with the starchy pasta water, so ensuring the right amount of starch to water is important. I'd suggest using a gallon of water per package of pasta (unit conversions are in the recipe card). Then, make sure that you reserve the pasta water just 2-3 minutes before the indicated al dente cooking time on the package (for instance, if package says 10 minutes, reserve the water at the 8 min mark)
If mixing by hand, whisk, whisk, whisk - and the cheese will melt
The process is fairly seamless with a food processor, but if you're mixing by hand, just keep whisking. Add cold water slowly to the grated cheese as you whisk (vs. adding it all at once). I suggest couple of tablespoons at a time. The cheese will appear clumpy at first but don't fret! The magic happens when you thin the sauce with hot water. Delicious, delicious magic at that.
🍷 Storage & serving suggestions
This recipe can easily be scaled down on the recipe card, and where possible, I suggest making it fresh. However, if you made extra, you can just store in the fridge, portioned out. Then, when you're ready to eat, I'd add a splash of water to the portion you're going to eat, and you can microwave the pasta for about 1 minute, stirring at least once in between.
You can serve the cacio e pepe as a side to any meaty dishes if you have a carnivore in the family, or serve this as a main "primi" with a side salad (like my Brussels sprouts Caesar salad or my kale salad with pecorino and pepitas). It pairs quite neatly with a ton of stuff, but try to sneak in a glass of wine if you can - because nothing pairs better!
Personal Note: I didn't know when I lived in Rome that this was Anthony Bourdain’s favorite bowl of cacio e pepe. In fact, he loved the place so much that he wanted to keep it a secret. So, I will too. If you're heading up to Rome and really want to know, shoot me a note or leave a comment.
The reason for this is also personal. I noticed that small mom & pop restaurants would get flooded with positive reviews. They'd grow an admirable following, but crumble under the pressure of serving people as the reviews piled on. That said, I’m quite glad to report that this restaurant is still going strong, and the cacio e pepe is just as delectable.
Don't forget to check out some of my other pasta recipes:
Authentic Cacio e Pepe
- 8 oz bucatini pasta, see substitutions in post
- 2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground and coarse
- ¼ cup water, reserved from cooking pasta
- 1 cup pecorino romano cheese, freshly grated and divided, 3 tbsp for garnish
- Bring half a gallon of water to boil (roughly 1.85 liters, i.e. 7-8 cups of water) and add pasta in - cook the pasta to direction (typically about 8 to 10 minutes for al dente texture)
- As pasta cooks, grate cheese using the smallest hole on your grater
- Add the cheese and pepper to a food processor along with a tbsp of cold water and pulse until forms a "lumpy" mixture (or use a fork)
- If you don't have a food processor, add about 2 tbsp of cold water at a time to the cheese and whisk using a fork or whisk until cheese becomes saucy
- With 2-3 mins remaining (so ~5 minutes after putting pasta in), remove 2-3 tablespoons of pasta water.
- Drain the pasta and add cheese paste - make sure to coat evenly (one trick here is to add a portion of the pasta, and then a tbsp of the paste, mix, and then repeat - check post for detailed visuals)
- Before adding the final layer of pasta, mix the reserved pasta water with the cheese paste and use this to coat the pasta
- Serve hot with a grind of coarse black pepper and a sprinkle of pecorino
- Use the right amount of water - the key for making the sauce perfect is getting the optimal starch content in the pasta water. So, you need to measure your water!
- Use a long, thick and hollow pasta if possible - long pasta helps coat the cheese sauce evenly and keeps it delicious!
- One optional step is to toast the pepper before you add it to the cheese - this can help bring out the flavors even more
- Once you add the cheese, if the pasta feels like it's clumpy, you can add some of the water you reserved to make sure that the pasta is coated evenly