Spaghetti with pecorino romano and pepper

So simple, Thoreau would have liked it. With only four ingredients, Spaghetti with pecorino romano and pepper is a lively, rustic Roman favorite quick enough for even the busiest weeknight dinner.

Blue Kitchen
Spaghetti with pecorino romano and pepper can be served with a simple salad as your main course, or serve it in smaller portions as a side dish.
Cooking the Roman Way by David Downie (William Morrow Cookbooks, 2002)

Henry David Thoreau liked things simple. So much so that he spent two years in a 10'×15' cabin near Walden Pond, contemplating life. His most famous takeaway from his adventure? “Simplify, simplify.”

That’s often my approach in the kitchen. I gravitate to recipes with a handful of well chosen ingredients prepared in a fairly straightforward way. Not out of laziness (well, not completely out of laziness), but more in keeping with my generally minimalist approach to life. Simple is good. Still, when I stumbled across a recipe for Spaghetti a Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper), it seemed almost too simple, even for me.

It has just four ingredients, and two of those are salt and pepper. But pepper isn’t merely a seasoning here, it’s a co-star. And that makes all the difference. I found this beautifully simple dish in Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome. (This is the second Roman cookbook Marion has given me now – I’m seeing a trip to Rome in our future.) It features more than 100 recipes, from antipasti to dolce, gathered from “scores of chefs, bakers, butchers, delicatessen men, homemakers, friends, relatives and colleagues.”

As someone who spends way too much time in museums, I have trouble separating the word Roman from the modifier “ancient.” Author David Downie skillfully captures the mix of history and the now that is Rome today, aided by beautiful photography by his photographer wife Alison Harris.

Even as I cooked the four-ingredient pasta dish that is apparently served at homes and trattorias all over Rome, I was skeptical that it could hold our interest for an entire meal. I needn’t have worried – yes, it was simple, but it was also simply delicious. Uncomplicated, rustic comfort food balanced with a lively, peppery kick.

In America, we tend to think of pasta dishes as the main event of the meal. In Italy, they’re often considered primi piatti (first plates), something to be served before the secondi, the second or main course. When I made spaghetti with pecorino romano and pepper for us, I served it with a simple salad, as a lively, satisfying vegetarian dinner. You could also use smaller portions as a side dish that just might outshine your entrée.

Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper
Adapted from Cooking the Roman Way
Serves 2 as a main course

8 ounces dry spaghetti (see Kitchen Notes)
3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano, divided (see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus extra (see Kitchen Notes)

Start a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, cook spaghetti to al dente according to package directions, stirring frequently to keep it from clumping together. Reserve about a half cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta quickly, returning it still dripping to the cooking pot.

Sprinkle half the Pecorino Romano and all of the ground black pepper over the pasta, along with 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water (see Kitchen Notes). Toss with wooden spoons to coat pasta evenly with cheese and pepper.

Divide between two pasta bowls. Grind additional black pepper over the plates to give it a nice freckled look. Sprinkle remaining Pecorino Romano over the plates. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Yes, spaghetti. There are lots of pasta shapes out there, and spaghetti often gets relegated to the kids’ table. It’s perfect for this dish, slender enough to not overpower the cheese and pepper the way a broader pasta might and sturdy enough to stand up to the vigorous tossing at the end. It also has a nice mouth feel here.

Buy good cheese. When a dish has only four ingredients, an inferior one can’t hide. Look for good quality Italian Pecorino Romano, preferably aged. You can also substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano, again Italian and good quality. Don’t come anywhere near this dish with pre-grated cheese. Seriously.

Don’t skimp on the pepper. If you or any of your diners don’t like pepper, don’t make this dish. Pepper drives it, giving it a more fiery kick than we generally expect from plain old black pepper and keeping the dish interesting until you’re fighting over the last few noodles in the pot. So use lots. I normally like to grind my pepper on the coarse side; for this dish, grind it a little finer (but not as fine as the store-ground stuff, which you also shouldn’t be using).

The reserved water is vital. Again, when cooking this, I was skeptical. There was no oil to coat the pasta; once the cheese melted, I expected it to clump together into a ball. Having the pasta still dripping when I returned it to the pot and adding some reserved pasta water as I tossed it kept everything nice and loose. Two tablespoons did it for me – add extra a little at a time, if needed.

Hungry for more Rome? Check out Pasta and Chickpeas, another deliciously rustic Roman pasta dish from that other Roman cookbook.

Terry Boyd blogs at Blue Kitchen.

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