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The Spice Chronicles: Black Pepper
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The Spice Chronicles: Black Pepper

Contributor Nicole Gulotta shares her personal take on the popular Roman pasta dish, cacio e pepe.

Felix is not the kind of restaurant where you can easily get a reservation, but I refresh the webpage at just the right moment and snag a coveted 5:30 p.m. slot. We arrive on Abbot Kinney in Venice a few minutes before the doors open, and there is already a cluster of hungry diners hoping to be seated. After ordering a cocktail at the bar, we give our name to the host and walk to our table. The dining room is sophisticated but comfortable, and my chair has a view straight to the climate-controlled, glass room where flour and water turn to pasta.

I study the menu and have read reviews beforehand, and although there’s always room to change one’s mind in the moment, I know what I want: the airy rosemary focaccia (noted for its stunningly simple beauty) and cacio e pepe, called the best pasta in 2017 by Bon Appetit. Each bite of tonnarelli delivers a burst of black pepper and vibrant cheese. The noodles are silky, and the sauce glossy.

Not knowing when we’d be able to return, I set out to recreate the meal in my own kitchen for a relaxing Sunday lunch. With an Italian translation of simply cheese and pepper, this recipe has a refreshingly short list of ingredients. But for all its simplicity, there are a few rules: pecorino romano, not parmesan. Pecorino is bolder, sharper, and more robust than its milder counterpart. Also, freshly cracked black pepper is essential. You need all of it, so get grinding. And don’t forget the pasta water. It helps emulsify the butter, pepper and cheese, making for a luxurious sauce coating every noodle.

RECIPE

Cacio e Pepe

Serves 4-6

Ingredients

  • Salt
  • 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for garnish
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • 1 ½ cups finely grated pecorino romano
  • Excellent olive oil

Directions

Bring a large pot of water to boil and season generously with salt. While you wait for the water to boil, add black pepper to a small saucepan and toast over medium heat, just until fragrant (2 to 3 minutes). Add butter and a pinch of salt; swirl to melt, then remove from heat.

Boil pasta until al dente, between 7 and 8 minutes. Drain, reserving some pasta water, then pour spaghetti back into the pot. Add melted butter and pepper sauce, most of the cheese, ¼ teaspoon salt, and a splash of cooking water. Stir vigorously with tongs, adding more cooking water as needed so the sauce remains luscious and creamy. Add a portion to each bowl and finish with a dusting of remaining cheese, a few more cracks of black pepper, and a drizzle of oil.

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