Friday, May 6, 2011

Perfection on a Plate

Rome's history is filled with twosomes. Romulus and Remus. Saints Peter and Paul [the city's patron saints]. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. And...cacio e pepe.

Tagliarini cacio e pepe. Spaghetti cacio e pepe. Linguine cacio e pepe. Some shape of pasta 'cacio e pepe' is guaranteed to appear on the menu in any self-respecting Roman ristorante or trattoria--good luck finding it somewhere else, because it is truly a Roman dish. You can translate the name as pasta with cheese and pepper, but calling it 'pasta with cheese and pepper' is like saying the Sistine Chapel has Bible pictures. Cacio e pepe, my dear amici, is so much more. In Rome, the cheese in question is likely to be "Cacio di Roma," a sheep's-milk cheese reminiscent of its cousin Pecorino Romano but softer and not quite as salty. Perhaps your local trattoria mixes in some Pecorino Romano for good measure. Your local trattoria may have a little butter in the pasta, or it may rely solely on reserved pasta water as the binder for the sauce. It certainly has plenty of fresh spicy black pepper (hence the 'pepe'). For some mysterious reason, it took three trips to Rome for me to discover this scrumptious dish, and I credit a server at the incredibly unpretentious hole-in-the-wall Trattoria Gino e Pietro on the Via del Governo Vecchio for this revelation.

I've tried to replicate pasta cacio e pepe back in the U.S. but without much success. True, I don't have access to Cacio di Roma and have to make do solely with Pecorino Romano. But something else is the problem, and I believe it's the water. The water in Rome is, quite simply, the best water of any city in the world. Always has been: think of the ancient Romans and all their aqueducts bringing water from the mountains down to the city. Romans then and Romans now are justly proud of their water supply (which easily deserves its own blogpost). The water here in Florida, meanwhile, is vile. Ten years living here, and I still can't get used to it. It's an over-chlorinated, over-who-knows-what-else mess. It leaves rings and spots anywhere it can, and even filtered, even in its reserved-pasta-water form, it sure can't do what it is supposed to for pasta cacio e pepe: melt the cheese into an even creamy tapestry. Instead, you end up with odd little specks and too many naked noodles.

Unfulfilled at home, I load my tummy when I go to Rome, as if to stockpile my tastebuds until the next trip. Last year, I was in Rome for seven nights. And I ate cacio e pepe at three different restaurants for three of them. Buon appetito!

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