One of the reasons to adore eating in Rome is that the experience is unapologetic (nothing at all like their people!). Options for wine: red, white. Lunch: nap-inducing stew—in a pizza pocket—with wine, side of rice balled up with melted cheese, breaded and fried. Why yes, your table is halfway into the bathroom. Of course they hand-make their pasta, and top cheese pasta with more cheese, and serve vegetables picked just that morning. Why are you asking questions?, the server’s face says. Just eat.
The Trip Advisor, Yelp, and similar stickers that canvas the glass doors to Sora Margherita always make me laugh because once inside, there doesn’t seem to be any interest in welcoming tourists, their questions, or their unwieldy cameras. The menu at this particularly crispy Roman-Jewish restaurant is in Italian—good sign—the wine verges on undrinkable, your table will get jostled by the many people snaking through the tiny aisles, your food will be plunked not placed on the table, and the amaro will spike your nose hairs.
So when “cacio e pepe ricotta” is scribbled on the hand-written menu, without exclamation points or advertisement that it’s a house specialty, you do as the Romans do: Keep a straight face. Don’t freak out. Just order the pasta.
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If you think for a moment that this idea of dolloping ricotta on an already-cheesy pasta is extraneous, simply unnecessary, think again. Roman food isn’t gratuitous. There’s a reason for it all. Don’t ask questions.
Cacio e pepe is the pasta canon’s tricky sucker because there are many intangibles and learned tactile moments that are required to getting this simple pasta right: Your movements must be quick and correct and the temperature of your few ingredients (cheese, pasta water, pepper, pasta) have to be right, or the pasta might end up dry, the melted cheese clumped, and the cheese or the pepper overpowering the other.
For insurance, some add butter—Mario adds a whole stick—or egg yolks to maintain optimal goo, but some Romans would say nope, don’t go there. Just practice. Or another idea: Whack a puddle of ricotta onto the puddle of pasta. When folded into your noodles, it will look terrible—who cares what the food looks like?—but you can bet that your pasta will be unavoidably creamy and luscious, how the best cacio e pepe pastas are.
At Sora Margherita, you can eat “cacio e pepe ricotta” on any of the house-made pastas they’re offering that day: linguine, agnolotti, and so on. At home, use any pasta you like; we used a fresh five-cheese tortellini to show what gratuity really is. You bet any crowd would be overjoyed with a bowl of it in front of them, but we’d also make it for ourselves on a Tuesday.
You can use any cacio e pepe recipe as the base, but remember: No need for the butter, or the egg, or any other trick. Consider the ricotta your training wheels for making cacio e pepe successfully, only to never make it any other way again.
Cacio e Pepe Con Ricotta
By Ali Slagle
- 1 pound pasta of choice
- 2 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan or a combination
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- Whole-milk ricotta, for serving
Giovanni Rana‘s artisan Italian products, like their refrigerated pastas, filled pastas, and sauces, are made with high-quality, fresh ingredients, and with no preservatives, artificial colors, or flavors added. (Hooray!) Head here to find out where you can get Giovanni Rana products in the U.S., plus more recipes and tips.