Cacio e Pepe: A Spicy, Creamy, Simple, Cheap and Satisfying Roman Meal

Cacio e Pepe

I think the title of this post says it all about my feelings (and others) about this famous Roman dish of pasta, traditionally spaghetti, with pecorino cheese and a good amount of freshly ground pepper.  The name says is all – cacio, meaning cheese, and pepe meaning pepper.  We’re not breaking any new ground here because I’m sure there’s about 50 other food blogs that have made this dish.  I’m just here hoping that if anyone does make it, they try to make it the freshest and best way they can. 

I’m going to get my food snob on here – please do not make this dish soley with parmigiano reggiano and that crappy, old shaker filled with pepper that you may only bust out when laying out your fine china on one or two holidays a year.  The pepper most likely has zero flavor anymore – if you do, please name the dish whatever you want.  I personally think “Pasta with Parmigiano Reggiano and Crappy Old, Non-Spicy Pepper from the Depths of My Cupboard” works great!  If you go to the store and spend $4 you can get some black peppercorns.  Just put them into a pepper grinder or, if you don’t have one, throw the peppercorns in a plastic baggie and grab a meat mallet or a hammer and get out your aggressions.  Keep hammering until you’ve produced some nice, ground pepper.  Make a lot if you’d prefer to not have to go through this exercise again and freeze the extras to prevent the pepper from going bad (ie: flavorless).

The reason I’m so passionate about this is because you can not recreate the amazing flavor of this old, traditional dish if you do not have good pepper.  When freshly ground, pepper is very spicy and full of flavor.  It is not supposed to just produce a nice contrast of color to a boring meal – although the beauty of it is it does that too!  Research taught me that in ancient Rome pepper was extremely popular and was used for medicinal reasons by the ancient Greeks.  It was revered as a very valuable spice.  As for the cheese, I’ll go a bit easier on you if you don’t use the Pecorino cheese, but I’ll give you a light tap on the bum so you’ll remember to try it with that cheese next time.  Pecorino would only be used in this dish in Rome because, well, that’s the regional cheese in that area.  If you look close at the label, it’s really called Pecorino Romano, right?  Parmigiano and pecorino are two very different tasting cheeses.  In fact, there are many varieties of pecorino in Italy ranging from soft to hard versions of the cheese.  For this discussion, we are generally talking solely about Pecorino Romano – the hard cheese that is able to be grated. If you do a comparison, I’d imagine you’d notice that pecorino is much sharper in taste where parmigiano is more nutty and mellow in flavor.  Both are pretty nice and salty, which is why you should not have to salt this dish.  Some people feel very strongly about choosing one of these cheeses over the other.  Because of this, we have chosen to use a mixture of the cheeses for this version of cacio e pepe.  This way you get a blend of the cheese.  But in Rome, you will most likely find the dish made only with pecorino. 

Cacio e Pepe

When made correctly, you will not believe how unbelievably creamy and spicy this dish is.  I felt like we were back in Rome (of course only if I closed my eyes VERY hard and did not open them to reveal a very closet-like, dirty Brooklyn apartment).  This dish is so quick and easy, I’m sure Rachel Ray couldn’t even make it because she’d only fill 1/8 of a show.  Give it a try – you won’t be disappointed.

Also, months ago we wrote a post on a great NYC restaurant with the same name as this dish.  If you’re ever in New York, I’d advise you to give this awesome restaurant a try… and order their signature dish made in a hollowed out wheel of pecorino!

CACIO E PEPE (Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Fresh Ground Pepper) – serves 2 as a main, 3 to 4 as a starter)


  • 3/4 pound of spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons freshly ground pepper (depending on how spicy you want it!)
  • a bit of the pasta cooking liquid (about 1/4 to 1/2 of a ladel-full)
  • 1/2 cup of freshly ground pecorino romano
  • 1/2 cup freshly ground parmigiano reggiano

What to do:

  1. Boil your spaghetti until perfectly al dente (about 7 minutes)
  2. In a separate pan, on low-medium heat, add your butter, oil and 1/2 of your pepper and allow the butter to melt, swirly the pan around to help it move a bit.
  3. When spaghetti is done, add a bit of the cooking liquid to your melted butter/pepper/olive oil sauce and swirl the pot again.  Turn heat down to low. Add your spaghetti and toss once. 
  4. Turn the heat OFF. Add your cheeses and the rest of the pepper and toss the spaghetti again in the pan.
  5. Plate and top with a sprinkle more of pepper and cheese.  Voila!  DONE.

62 thoughts on “Cacio e Pepe: A Spicy, Creamy, Simple, Cheap and Satisfying Roman Meal

  1. that was kinda sorta my dinner last night but not really
    i threw in anchovies, no butter and added parsley and chives
    and i used the last of my beautiful pasta dough for fettucine

    next time i’ll go classic all the way
    beautiful photo

  2. Nice post Amy, and great photos! I love this pasta dish…. you’re right, it brings you right back to Rome doesn’t it? Simple and sooooooo good.

  3. Love simplepasta like this. And I am a pepper snob too. I cringe to use the stuff sitting out in a shaker for Lord only knows how long. Give me my peppercorns.

  4. Hi Amy, I’ve never seen a better looking bowl of spaghetti! I wholeheartedly agree with you about the fresh ground pepper AND the Pecorino Romano. I too prefer pecorino to parmigiano and by chance because parmigiano is made from cow’s milk, my wife can’t eat it. Pecorino, however, is made from sheep’s milk as you know, and is perfectly fine for her to enjoy. We’ve found some fantastic sheep and goat milk cheese’s thanks to her intolerance for all cow’s milk products!

  5. Using two different cheeses for this pasta dish would certainly be a winner. Here in the UK , if I’m not mistaken, Pecorina isn’t so expensive as Parmigiano. I watched a very interesting interview on television the other day about a lady here in the UK, who has written a book about pepper.

  6. Your pasta is so darn pretty!!! I always have both cheeses in my fridge…. it makes me feel cultured. Great post! I love the part about the mallet – I think Alfredo is worried that I use it so often. I have to confess that I never thought to use it on peppercorns. I can’t wait!

    xoxox Amy

    p.s. Do you mind if I add your site to my blogroll?

  7. Yum…yum….YUM! Simple pasta is my husband’s favorite thing to eat. Sorry if this is a dumb question, but in Rome would this be a main dish, or would it be paired with something else (a protein?) for a complete meal? Or, is this a pasta course that would be followed by something else?

    Never been to Rome, just curious.

    😉 Leah

  8. Not sure how you feel about Batali’s places, but this is my favourite dish there. Almost moronically simple, and yet it’s incredibly elegant. If you feel like going rogue, it’s delicious with a little Meyer Lemon zest tossed in.

  9. hi, guys. thanks for stopping by. A few things:

    1. thanks for the comment on the photo. it’s amazing what taking 1 minute to do the ‘twirl’ with some tongs can do. i was SO friggin’ hungry at that moment, it was difficult not to just plop it in the bowl.

    2. Margaret: It’s the same here – Pecorino is SO much cheaper than Parmigiano reggiano. I think it’s b/c of how it’s made… I should’ve done some research on that!

    3. Amy B: Just don’t use that mallet on Alfredo! And, yes, we’d be honored to be on your blogroll… thanks so, so much!
    4. Leah: Great question. In Rome, every menu allows you to order 4 courses: antipasti (kind of an app or a salad), primi (first course – often pasta), secondi (main dish – often meat or fish) and contorni (dessert). So, to answer your question, many Romans may order this as a first course, then order a main as a second. Many tourists feel it’s difficult to eat their main meal during the day, so they would prob. order their pasta as their only dish, maybe paired w/ an antipasti. Most Italians, like other Europeans, eat their main meal during lunch.

    5.Marc: see this is why Mario Batali is not only great at what he does (i do love him… he was all that really was good on the food network before they got rid of his ass too!), but is a smart business man. he’s charging about $15 to $20 for a plate of easy, simple pasta. But he does it traditionally and he does it RIGHT. he’s a god to us! i just wish we had more of a chance to afford or get into babbo – and we live close like you!

    6. heather; YEEEEESSSS! YOU’RE BAAACK! omg.


  10. Hi Amy, I thought I will pay you a visit back 😉 Love the way how you are opinionated about Italian food, I am also always fighting to get people on the right way! I could put my name under this post, for example. Now, if we only could get the notion of “cream” out of peoples heads when we talk about “creamy” (what a difference a -y makes!), especially when we talk about Italian food, especially about south-Italian food….. If I see one more so-called “carbonara” recipe out there, I will scream! (actually, I already do!) There is so much “teaching” to do, lol. Keep on writing, I will!

  11. Your picture is so good looking. Yes, it is amazing what a simple twist of pasta can do to look soooooo enticing. I will be making this dish this weekend. Now what wine goes with this?

  12. hande/peter: thanks for your comments. there is, of course, no cream in this dish, only butter, cheese and pepper, but the butter and melted pecorino do give it “creamy” mouth-feel.

    Dawn: we don’t profess much knowledge of wine, but going with the terroir, and based on what we drank in Rome I would say a nice, chilled Frascati would be great, perhaps even one (if you can find it) with a slight effervescence – “frizzante” in Italian. Failing that, we had a lovely bottle of Collini Albani when in Viterbo (a lovely town an hour north of Rome in Lazio) that I would love to drink alongside this dish.

  13. I love simple pastas like this. I don’t generally consider myself a carb addict, but there is something about spaghetti lightly flavored with a nice quality strong cheese that makes me so happy. Don’t worry. I only use freshly ground black pepper in my kitchen.

    And thanks for the restaurant rec. I will have to check this place out the next time I’m in that neighborhood.

  14. Hey guys, great post! Simple things are the best! High quality ingredients, patience and pasta… and there you have it!!! Don’t you ever invite me to your table… I could have 2 pasta dishes without any problem 😀

  15. Love this pasta dish, our Roman chef always makes it!! hear, hear on quality of ingredients, so important especially for simple dishes like this!! Great photos, looks perfect!!

  16. Lovely photographs! This is one of my favorite pasta dishes and one I rely on a lot on those crazy, hectic weeknights. My Nonna used to make this for us all the time when we were kids. Kind of like the Roman version of mac & cheese! Sometimes, she’d crack an egg in it too. Mmmm!

  17. hey again guys… again, as always, love these comments. Peter, you’re so damn right… it makes us miss Rome ‘something fierce’ too! this is how i feel closest to the places we’ve visited – thru food. but, it’s kind of depressing to be sitting on your couch in brooklyn eating it over in the square in roma. sigh!

  18. to me that looks wonderful. perfect clasic dish made with quality ingredients like it should be done. familiar and delicious. i couldn’t agree more, i always shudder with horror when i see shakey cheese or pepper!!

  19. This is one of favorites dishes. I eat it in Rome all the time. You are so right about only using fresh ingredients.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog. I am going to check out some of your older posts. I am loving the layout, the photos, the recipes and your writing.

  20. Speaking of Mario, he claims Parmigianno is the “undisputed king of cheese”—but I say “Pecorino Romano all the way!” The tang is perfect, for this dish in particular. I used to eat this a few times a week when I was a poor grad student. Who says students don’t eat well????

  21. Oh, we’re all about black pepper! That’s from living through our mother’s black pepper regime about 10 years ago. Black pepper is the COOLEST! Ha.

    Hmm, I admit I don’t really know the difference in taste between Parmiggiano-Reggiano and Pecorino. Should do a side-by-side tasting.

    But hey, you guys didn’t make the pasta yourself?! 😉

  22. I totally agree about the spices. I love cheeses and go to the Hill in St. Louis often to get fresh cheeses. I love to make this pasta dish – thanks for sharing. It looks amazing.

  23. I’m making this tonight. It’s my chicken soup for the Italian soul. It cures whatever ails you. It’s the best food on earth.

    I agree about the pepper, but I’m a pecorino romano purist. It has to be pecorino romano! Come on! My Roman Gay Mafia is gonna come after you and slap you with gloves!

    Don’t you HATE when places make it with CREAM? It drives me bananas. A place here in Montpellier makes it like alfredo, and at the end cracks a raw egg on top. It’s disgusting.

  24. Niggles for the sake of authenticity:
    Traditionally speaking, mixing parmigiano and pecorino is an oddity born of contemporary cuisine. Cacio e pepe refers specifically to pecorino romano. The word itself, cacio, is unheard of in the North, for instance in Parma, where parmigiano comes from. Additionally, food originating from the center and south typically uses olive oil, not butter. Cow related products are home to the plains of Emilia Romagna, and up north into the mountains.

    Thus cacio e pepe needs to be romano, pepper, olive oil. As you say, one using parmigiano should call it “spaghetti al parmigiano e pecorino.”

    Last niggle, the “contorno” is not the dessert course (dessert is the “dolce”). The contorno usually consists of vegetables, salads, or cheeses; and it follows the secondo (meat) as a palate cleanser.

    1. we love niggles (never heard of that… lol) but only for the sake of authenticity! that’s what this blog tries to be all about. thank you so much for your input and comment!

  25. Your photos are so lovely and I love reading Italy posts especially, since my father is Roman and I have spent a good deal of my life there. In any case……more niggles…??
    Contorni are side dishes; spinach, potatoes, etc. Literally, “around” the main course. Salad (and cheese) is eaten afterwards and wouldn’t fall under the same category. Totally agree about the pecorino only. Also because it stands up to the pepper flavor-wise.

  26. I have just spent the last five months studying abroad in Rome. I was sitting in my cubicle dreaming about my favorite dish Cacio e Pepe and thought I need to learn how to make this dish. I started to read “We are never full”, and I was completely agreeing with being a “snoodie foodie” about this dish, because it is perfect the way it is supposed to be cooked. As I was reading it mentioned the restaurant in the city that cooks this dish in a wheel of Pecorino….. IMMEDIATELY, I flashed back to a couple of years ago when I was brought to this restaurant and in awe saw them making this pasta. I obviously had to try this dish! I remember loving the pasta and thinking I can’t imagine how this would taste made in Italy. This post just brightened up my day (as I get a little manic when trips are over as well). Cacio e Pepe is an incredible dish, thank you for reminding me I can find this dish in the city!!

  27. beautiful blog – thanks.

    but i have to ‘get my on my food snob’ here as well…since the traditional roman cheese used in ‘cacio’ is, in fact, Cacio Di Roma, which gives the dish it’s name. Percorino Romano is commonly substituted, but is not authentic. Here’s about the Cacio:* Cacio Di Roma is a semi-firm textured cheese from Lazio. It is made with pasteurized ewe’s milk that is heated and then inoculated with lamb’s rennet.
    It’s a creamy textured cheese with a mild, balanced flavor finishing with a touch of fruit. It’s the essence of the classic Italian table cheese found universally in Central and Southern Italy. In is referred to as Caciotta for its small round form. Not only is it enjoyed as a table cheese either before or after a meal, it is also used in everyday cooking as it melts very well. Some typical uses are as a filling for ravioli, in salads, on pizza or for simple things like grilled cheese sandwiches.
    * source: Mario

  28. Buono – ma non autentico! This recipe is not the authentic Roman version. Cacio e pepe is a Roman staple. Whether in Roma or not, do as the Romans do: omit the butter, oil and parmigiano. Also, use an ‘all egg’, semolina spaghetti or similar pasta. My Italian mamma agrees. Why adulterate what the Italians have already perfected? Ascoltare e imparare!

  29. @Jenny / Ida Anna – thanks for your comments. Not only is this an old post that does need updating according to your prescriptions, but real cacio di roma is virtually impossible to get even in New York where we’ve only found it once or twice. I do have to disagree with you (Ida) about leaving out the butter. While your mother might not like it, research suggests it is commonly used in the preparation of this dish. Jenny, thanks for the explanation – we are fully aware of what cacio di roma is, and it is very similarly to other sheeps’ milk cheeses (pecorini), except in this case it is usually slightly smaller and less sharp, but in our view, it still makes an excellent substitute.

  30. Dont have to go to Babbo for this dish. Walk a couple of blocks to Sullivan Street and have it at Lupa (Batalis’ “Roman Bisto”)

    1. @Donna: thanks for your question. Cheese, especially hard, gratable cheese, can clump and get gross if heated too high. This causes the fat in the cheese to separate from the solids. This might be happening if you’re not turning the burner off before adding the cheese. Hope this helps!

  31. Actually, all you need to do to keep the cheese from clumping is:

    1. Make sure it is grated very fine (almost powdery) – but don’t use the pre-grated stuff unless you get it very fresh from a reputable small market to grates it fresh daily and sells it quickly.

    2. Use less water to boil the pasta, so that you get a higher starch content in the water. When the pasta is nearly done, take a spoonful or two of the pasta cooking water and mix it in with the grated cheese – this will coat the dairy proteins in the cheese with starch and prevent them from clumping. You actually don’t need any more butter or oil if you don’t want to (though butter will emulsify a bit better, but oil is more Roman).

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