Cacio e pepe is a social media sensation. Everywhere you look, there are live-action pasta lifts or perfectly backlit shots of creamy, bespeckled, oh-so-twirlable mounds of this classic pasta dish. But this newfound foodie fodder is actually rooted in ancient Italian cuisine—that means, no, it wasn’t always scooped tableside out of giant cheese rind bowls.
To chronicle the definitive history of cacio e pepe, we recruited none other than Lidia Bastianich, the O.G. of Italian cooking and renowned chef, restaurateur, award-winning public television host, and bestselling cookbook author, to take us back to its roots. Here, she reveals the authentic way to make cacio e pepe, and weighs in on some of the modern, not-so-traditional iterations she’s seen pop up along the way.
In Roman times, Italian sheep would spend the months of spring and summer grazing their way through the rolling hills of the Apennine Mountains (sounds like the life!), and their devoted shepherds would camp out alongside them. “This was called ‘ransumanza.’ The shepherds would bring with them a dried homemade pasta called tonnarelli, and as they made the trip over the mountains, they would make cheese out of the milk they were collecting, cacio or pecorino,” explains Bastianich.
For each meal, they’d boil pasta, then make that signature sauce by grating fresh cacio into some of the pasta cooking water. “It was an easy and substantial meal,” she says. Talk about clean eating—you can’t get any purer or fresher than that!
These days, many restaurants use spaghetti and deem it authentic, but tonnarelli was the original pasta of choice, says Bastianich. It looks like spaghetti—long and thicker than angel hair, skinnier than linguine—but the dough is made with eggs, so its strands are supplely chewy.
Cacio e pepe looks and tastes elegant, but when it comes to the ingredients and cooking technique, it’s actually extremely basic. The sauce should have three simple ingredients, and that’s it—cheese, pasta water, and plenty of coarse black pepper. “You can use grated cacio or pecorino, which are both medium-aged sheep-milk cheese,” says Bastianich.
Whisk the grated cheese into boiling pasta cooking water until it melts, then toss the drained pasta (cooked al dente, of course) with the sauce. Add more grated cheese and turn after turn of fresh ground black pepper (don’t be shy!). Then, immediately start twirling forkfuls and shove them into your mouth. “It should be served immediately,” says Bastiniach, otherwise you can be left with a dense, coagulated mess.
As with the signature dish of any cuisine, American chefs are constantly trying to one-up the original by putting creative twists on a classic, and cacio e pepe has not escaped this trend. Some restaurants go for presentation, tossing it in a dramatically large bowl made of cheese and serving it hot on the spot. Others slip extra ingredients into the sauce, such as cream, olive oil, and butter—and while a palate most accustomed to Italian-American cuisine might think this makes it taste richer, the taste buds of a true Italian says it does not. “I think this actually dilutes the flavor. If you use a high quality cheese and lots of pepper, you can master the recipe the way it was intended, which was without the use of butter or cream,” says Donatella Arapaia, celebrity chef and partner at Prova Pizzzabar in New York City. You can also find cacio e pepe in risotto and pizza formulations—delicious, but not quite what the humble Italian shepherds had in mind.