We have much to thank Rome for. Acqueducts. Roads. Centuries of Art. Several versions of Democracy. OK; we can also thank them for ancient imperialism and some other not so great things of the last century. But given some mistakes made in my own nation, I am in no position to dwell on the negative. Italy has been a joy for us and a constant source of discovery. And let’s face it, their food is amazing.
Granted Italy got pasta from China, and granted the pomodoro is a Central American fruit. But look at the many inventive ways that Italians have, since 1500, learned to combine these two far-flung edibles, which never would have met if it were not for Italian explorers bringing them back to Italy. Somewhere there should be a piazza and a monument with Columbus holding a tomato greeting Marco Polo holding some spaghetti.
Every time Ginny and I come to Italy, and every time we think we know a modicum of truth about Italian cooking, we always end up on an unexpected culinary voyage of discovery to learn more.
First you learn that Italy’s contribution of pasta and ragu to world cuisine is not entirely Red. There is pesto. On our first trip to Italy in 1977-78, I was a newly minted PhD and Fulbrighter teaching at Genova and Torino. We were living with our one-year-old Emma on the Ligurian coast, and we single-handedly “discovered” pesto. Perhaps that’s a slight exaggeration. We had never seen it on menus in the States, and guidebooks mentioned it only as some weird exotic thing most people would not find to their taste. We couldn’t wait to try it, and did so the day we arrived in Genova, pesto capital of the world. This entirely green pasta sauce is, as is now widely known, made of mortar-and-pestled basil leaves, garlic, pine nuts, parmigiano, and oil. Our first taste of it lifted our palates and spirits. We couldn’t wait to make it ourselves and bring it back home. Imagine our dismay when we returned to the US, hoping to wow the nation with our discovery of pesto, when that very year America suddenly went nuts for pesto, and now and long since, you can get a fairly credible version of the sauce in supermarkets in all fifty states.
Nevertheless, I tend my basil plants annually in my garden in New York, and prepare pesto from scratch, making sure to include as many friends and neighbors in the harvesting and eating of it. Similarly, Ginny has perfected a brilliant northern Italian lasagna, which includes no cheese but is rich, though light and toothsome.
Also, apart from the idea that all sauces need not be red, we learned in our first year in Italy that there is more to pasta than noodles and shells. And, as Hamlet says, there are more kinds of pasta in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your philosophy. There’s Ligurian trofie, thin little spiralings no longer than half a finger; and the now more familiar gnocchi like little pillows of flavor so airy they defy all expectations of its main ingredient potato; and Siena’s pici, like thickish, irregular, hand-rolled spaghetti. And there is Rome’s tonnarelli, or what I am calling square spaghetti.
Our discovery this past few weeks has been tonnarelli cacio e pepe, which is basically “square spaghetti with cheese and black pepper.” Ginny was the first to discover cacio e pepe at our favorite neighborhood restaurant called Pepe Verde in Via Gorizia. The flavor and fragrance of black pepper are not hot as you might expect, she said. And the cheese is not cheesy. Nor is the color of this dish red or green or black; it is the color of the tonnarelli, made from egg and flour. When I tried some strands, upon Ginny’s insistence, I felt only a light peppery sensation on my tongue that quickly gave way to a richness that is smooth not salty, creamy without butter. The sensation of square spaghetti against the teeth is unusually satisfying.
What Italians tell you but no one believes is that different pasta shapes are not there for visual stimulation. Each shape is a texture for the tongue; each shape also bears its sauce differently. Round spaghetti is made without egg and extruded through a die so its surface is smooth; tonnarelli are thin slices of thin flat sheets of pasta made with egg, and its surface is rough. A flat, rough-cut pasta like tonnarelli allows the cacio e pepe molecules to infuse into the pasta, so that your teeth and tongue can liberate the flavor caught on the surface.
The ingredients for cacio e pepe are freshly grated pecorino (but more on this later), ground pepper, and Italy’s magic ingredient: a cup of hot pasta water. The best recipe for this unexpectedly wonderful dish is simply this: Move to Italy. Barring that, we have a couple recipes we like. But all recipes are narratives, and all narratives begin with a trip to the marketplace.
Yesterday, in search of the makings for this dish, we set out to the SPQR Mercato, a covered market at the intersection of Via Cremona and Via Catania just southeast of Piazza Bologna. Like most markets, this one (built in the fascist era) is filled with produce stands, macellerie for meats, fresh bread and dolci shops, and vino. The venders are instantly friendly, know little English but help you with your Italian, and insist on giving you samples. One fruttivendolo popped delicious strawberries from southern Italy into our mouths. We got some oil; we got our pecorino; we got some wine, but no tonnarelli, and only a packaged substitute, called stringozzi, which looks more like thin fettucine on steroids.
We had to look elsewhere for fresh tonnarelli, and, by luck, found Pasta all’uovo in Via Padova, a block or so from the mercato. It’s a small shop with a display case in front and an open door to the tables and machines that are used in turning flour, eggs, and water into innumerable shapes. There were no tonnarelli on display, and we seem to have caught the proprietor, Francesco Franco, a man in his later thirties or so, as he was preparing to close down. What did he know about tonnarelli. “How much do you want?” And he opened a refrigerator in the back room. Our hearts sank a bit because we assumed he was retrieving a supply of frozen product, imported from who knows where or when, made by who knows whom. But he was, in fact, pulling out fresh, pliable sheets of pasta that he had rolled out that morning.
I said, Enough for the two of us, and he tore off so many grams of the sheet, set his pasta machine to some magic number, rolled the sheets through the machine, and out came a swirl of perfectly square spaghetti.
Hoping to get some secrets of cooking, we asked Francesco about how he makes cacio e pepe, and he began in earnest to explain. You take a padella. Our furrowed brows immediately showed him that we were clueless about that word, and cooking words in Italian are another blog posting altogether. But he swirled around, searched his cabinet, and came out with a skillet.
Here is Francesco’s way: You heat up some oil in a skillet, and he held up a bottle of olive oil, and we said, yes, yes, we know olio. You add the pepper to the heated oil. Meanwhile, you have been boiling the tonnarelli for the minute or two it takes to make fresh pasta al dente, but before you drain, you gently ladle out of the pot a cup of the pasta water into the skillet with the heated oil and pepper. Almost immediately, you add the drained tonnarelli into the skillet and toss the ingredients flipping the skillet (or use a fork to fold the pasta into the sauce). Then add the grated pecorino, and toss some more. And fatto; that’s it.
We had been told pretty much the same by my colleague in Rome, Giorgio Mariani, who is an excellent scholar and teacher and the best of friends with an excellent sense of humor to match. But Giorgio gets a far away look when he talks about cacio e pepe. Here is Giorgio’s way: Do Nothing. Or rather, boil the tonnarelli until al dente and drain, reserving some pasta water. Add grated pecorino to the steaming pasta and pasta water a spoonful at a time until the right creamy consistency is achieved, then crack the pepper over the mixture and serve. This traditionalist approach is simple, and hence somewhat impossible without Giorgio standing by, or better, I should think, his mother.
Both of these approaches have a feel of authenticity. But when we searched the web for online recipes, we found people adding butter or cream to the their cacio e pepe. Even master chef Mario Batali adds butter. Granted, the richness of cacio e pepe suggests butter, and the implied heat of the word pepe might urge you to surrender to the presumed cooling agency for butter to cut the heat. But, in fact, the dish has the richness of butter without butter (or oil, says Giorgio) and the flavor of pepper without the heat.
Even so, doubt is such a modern sin. And seeking assurance rather than an alternative recipe, we asked Francesco, there’s no burro? He turned a bit pale, seemed slightly confused, and looked vaguely disappointed not in us for asking but in a world that would imagine such a thing. We spied some pesto in his display, and bought some, which reassured him, I think, in our value system, and we shook hands upon departure.
That night we made cacio e pepe. It was rich and flavorful. We might have overdone the pepe, though not by much, and that’s our excuse for doing this recipe again, and again, even without Francesco’s oil, to get it right.
Coda: the following day we read that one recipe adds something called “cacio di roma,” which means Roman cheese, to the pecorino. No such specialty exists, unless (as another colleague Sara Antonelli says) the recipe means “caciato di roma,” which is a mild soft cheese. And now we have a new excuse to discover more of Rome. Where do you find caciato di roma? To the right at the piazza, and down the street, then ask at the next piazza; you can’t miss it.