08.08.09: dinner (Cacio e pepe, Sicilian-style)

Cacio e pepe, Sicilian-style

Cacio e pepe, Sicilian-style

There are few things that delight me more than the unexpected dinner party among close friends (though planned dinner parties come close), so when L told me while shopping that her husband wouldn’t be finished his round of golf until 8:30, I knew a dinner invitation was in order.  It’s become a tradition of sorts–when she finds herself on her own for dinner, whether during the week or on the weekend, we usually urge her to come over to our place as we tend to make too much food anyway.  For this meal, we made more than enough to feed six; fortunately for us, that meant we’d have leftovers for at least three days.

The menu that night was simple:  breaded veal cutlets as an appetizer, and cacio e pepe along with sauteed leeks and fennel for the main course, all inspired (at least in part) by an article I read a few months ago in the Times that extolled the delights of Roman trattorias and the simple pastas that are part of the experience.  Never one to pass up a chance to combine pasta and cheese together, I set off to Romeo’s to get what I needed. The traditional dish calls for pecorino romano, but all Romeo had was pecorino siciliano–but it was riddled with whole black peppercorns.  Perfetto.  Having bought a half-pound of that, two boxes of pasta (because we were hungry), along with some veal cutlets, fennel and leeks, it was time to start cooking.

Veal breading station

Veal breading station

Michael was in charge of the veal, and he saw it as a way to atone for some less-than-stellar (in his mind, anyway) veal cutlets we’ve had in the past.  In the interest of trying something new, I suggested using some rosemary along with panko breadcrumbs instead of regular old Italian-style ones, with the thought that they would pair more effectively with the veal.  Using panko also mitigates guilt in using store-bought crumbs at all, given how difficult it is to make them on your own.  Don’t believe me?  Look for the episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown attempts to make them in his kitchen.  Bottom line:  if he suggests buying them from the store, you know that it’s not worth the time and aggravation to do it yourself.  If you’re hoping to save some money, also make a point of buying in bulk–I bought a big bag at Whole Foods for much less than buying a box at a normal grocery store.

This ended up being the perfect way to have a little meat in an otherwise grain, cheese and veggie-heavy meal, and when sprinkled with a little lemon juice, these cutlets seem to sing in our mouths.

The pasta, fortunately, could not be more simple to do–this is a great dish to get your kids in the kitchen, and it’s also a wonderful dish to entertain with thanks to its short ingredient list and even shorter instructions.  Follow me after the jump to find my take on this classic, as well as see Michael’s finished cutlets:

Breaded Veal Cutlets

Breaded Veal Cutlets

I think he more than made up for any imagined veal failures–don’t you think?

I had never heard of this dish until reading about it in the Times, but when I read Danielle Pergament’s description of the dish in her piece, I was sold:

The best trattoria in Rome — if there is one — might be Felice a Testaccio…Felice is a Roman institution. Tucked on an obscure block in the nontouristy neighborhood of Testaccio, Felice has been run by three generations of the same family since 1936, and neither the décor, the patrons nor the recipes have changed much since.

I was here for one reason: the tonnarelli cacio e pepe. Cacio e pepe is a uniquely Roman dish: a bowl of pasta, usually spaghetti, topped with freshly shaved pecorino Romano cheese, cracked black pepper, emulsified with pasta water and olive oil. At Felice, spaghetti is replaced by homemade tonnarelli, long, square-shaped spaghetti. I’d been dreaming about it since I booked my plane ticket. My husband and I sat at a corner table. It arrived just as I remembered, a fragrant, steaming bowl of pasta covered by a small mountain of sharp white powder. The waiter set it in front of me and tossed the whole creation together until the cheese completely melted into the pasta — warm, pungent, with a vaguely spicy bite from the black pepper cutting the gooey cheese perfectly.

Happily, you don’t have to fly to Rome in order to give this dish a try.  Here’s our take on it:

Cacio e Pepe, Sicilian Style

Serves 2-3 as the main course, 4-5 as a starter

  • 1 lb spaghetti, cooked to packaged directons with salt (though less than perhaps you normally would due to the salty cheese)
  • 1/4 lb pecorino siciliano or pecorino romano, grated (get a cheese with peppercorns in it if you can)
  • 1-2 tablespoons pepper, freshly cracked
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1-2 ladles of the cooking water from the pasta

In a bowl, combine the pepper and the oil; set aside.  Right before the pasta is finished cooking, reserve a few ladles of the hot, starchy water to help emulsify the cheese and oil, and add a little to the pepper and oil mixture (not all of it–little by little as needed).  In the pasta pot add the cheese, oil and pepper and toss to coat–if you need to add more water to thin the cheese out a little, add it here.  When cheese, pepper and oil have all been evenly distributed serve on plates or bowls and eat.  Come simplice, si?

Buon apetitio!

Cacio E Pepe on Foodista

  1. This pasta is one of my most favorite meals of all time, I love it. Your recipe looks delicious!

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