Travel bites: Forget pizza and try this classic Roman dish on your next visit to the Eternal City

Travel News from Stuff - 06-11-2023
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Three simple ingredients make up the classic Roman dish of cacio e pepe which translates as “cheese and pepper.” There are two already. But the devil lies in the details.

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You can’t just use any old cheddar or colby; it has to be pecorino romano, the sharp, tangy and salty sheep's milk cheese.

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Unsurprisingly, the third ingredient is the pasta, traditionally spaghetti or tonnarelli, but it’s not uncommon to find other shapes tossed through this saucy minimalist dish.

Cacio e pepe is said to be the masterwork of Italian shepherds from the west-central state of Lazio, who would roam with ingredients which wouldn’t spoil easily on long journeys.

Fast-forward thousands of years and the simple primi started popping up in trendy restaurants around the world – lifestyle guide TimeOut dubbed it “New York’s trendiest dish of 2016”, while late chef Anthony Bourdain said the dish “could be the greatest thing in the history of the world.”

It has been bastardised by the modern palate with left-field accompaniments like black truffle and pancetta getting involved, but nothing beats the original trifecta of ingredients.

The grated pecorino romano and a decent hit of cracked pepper really bring cacio e pepe to life with rich and earthy flavours. The underappreciated secret fourth ingredient is the salted cooking water, which, when splashed into the mix, marries everything together into a silky sauce that clings onto the pasta. The Italians call this process “mantecatura” which gives a full-bodied, creamy consistency.

Rome is the official home of cacio e pepe and you’ll find it on menus throughout the ancient city – between humble osterias and Michelin-starred fine-diners. Stay clear of the tourist traps which charge eye-watering prices for a glass of ice water and head straight for an eatery which specialises in the dish.

Opened in 1936, Felice a Testaccio serves traditional Roman cuisine including cacio e pepe (€14.99 (NZ$26)) which is finished off by the server at the table. Trattoria Da Danilo is another classic trattoria where every inch of floor space is occupied by wooden tables. The specialty pasta here is cabonara, but the cacio e pepe deserves equal praise for its table-side theatrics – it’s twirled in a wheel of cheese to season.

Pasta Imperiale is a no-frills option offering hand-made pasta at student prices. A generous plate of spaghetti cacio e pepe will only set you back €7.50 (NZ$13).

I had a delicious encounter down a narrow alleyway in Trastevere at the suitably titled Osteria Cacio e Pepe. There, the humble dish is served with tonnarelli, a thicker noodle than spaghetti, in a punchy version of the sauce (€13 (NZ$23)). While you’re inching closer to tourist territory here, the al fresco setting in the vine-covered laneway is the perfect setting on a balmy summer evening.

In Auckland’s St Kevin’s Arcade, Pici serves a cracking cacio e pepe ($18) with the restaurant’s namesake pasta, a thick hand-rolled variety like spaghetti, only softer. You’ll want to savour the dregs of the addictive sauce by mopping it up with the housemade rosemary focaccia. In the capital, 1154 Pastaria is the place to sit down for a bowl of cheesy spaghetti – when it appears on the specials list it’s made with butter pepper sauce and parmesan. See:

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