We recently returned from a trip to the Mediterranean that ended with a wonderful side trip to Rome. This was my first time to stay in this historically bustling city and I had a mission: to taste as much Roman food as possible (Porchetta! Cacio e Pepe! Gelato…ok, that last one is a national dessert, but hey, when in Rome, it’s Roman). I also hoped to taste and possibly find the best Cacio e Pepe recipe by the end of our trip to try out at home. (If you’re an impatient sort, scroll all the way to the bottom to the links for recipes I’ve curated to date.)
Rome is for lovers… that’s what my pal Kat from Zero the One told me during our recent visit to her adopted hometown. As an American living in Europe, I was keenly interested in hearing her thoughts about La Dolce Vita in Roma. Kat’s an expat who’s been all over the world and is now married and raising a young son in one of the world’s most famous cities. (I’ll talk about visiting Rome with young kids in another post.) Since we were visiting as a family, I raised my brows at her response to my question/comment that Rome can be a difficult place to visit with young ones, especially in August’s summer heat.
“Rome is for lovers???” Kat’s response to my question (I’m taking a bit of poetic license here…): Rome is for lovers who can sit and watch the world go by at any romantic fountain, a city overlook, a shady tree. Who can hop on a Vespa and roam the tight, winding roadways. Yes, those kinds of lovers. But Rome is also for lovers of art and religion. History and humanities. Fashion and textiles. Drink and food.
Ah, food. Glorious food. Food is my all-time favorite way to learn about a specific place and it’s people. I’ll ask anyone I happen to meet or even ask a friendly cab driver about where to grab a great bite to eat and have never been sorry. (If you’ve traveled with me to London, you’ve experienced this sometimes humorous conversation from the backseat of a taxi.) After all, we all need to eat so what better way to combine touristy or business jaunts with food culture than with mealtimes?
Thanks to a bit of last minute research after I realized I was pressed for time, I had a small list of “foodie must dos.” The list was topped off by a single request. Find a restaurant that served typical Roman fare.
So what is a typical Roman dish? Cacio e Pepe for starters. Cheese and Pepper. Long noodles of spaghetti or our new favorite, tagliatelle. The latter just allows more surface area for the wonderful sauce. Thanks to Anthony Bourdain’s travel tips, I had at least narrowed down my Italian visit list, subtopic “food”, to 3 things: pasta, pizza, and gelato. Lots of the latter was guaranteed in the summer heat. Lots of the former was guaranteed by the fact we were traveling with a 5 year old who favored pasta and pizza and recently acquired a serious yen for chunks of parmigiano reggiano. I wasn’t interested in visiting a particular restaurant because when traveling with a child, sometimes flexibility is key to ensuring that you all have a good time. I was interested in the experience, the hunt for a decent restaurant that served typical fare that Romans enjoy, an impromptu conversation with the waiter/hostess/restaurateur/chef, perhaps off the beaten path. This was a trip for us to make lasting memories, not necessarily to check off a specific bucket list (that’s a bonus).
On our second evening in Rome, our child crashed late in the afternoon after a very busy week. It was the first time she’d really had a long nap in days, so we let her sleep and decided to order in. We knew she’d wake up hungry and it would likely be too late to make it to any eateries in our area (Trastevere). Hubby graciously (gratefully!) wandered down to a couple of restaurants near our Trastevere hotel, Grand Hotel Gianicolo. We could have ordered in because our hotel restaurant served pretty good food (we’d had dinner by the pool there that evening before) but I was already craving a taste of cacio e pepe, a Roman dish listed by Mr. Bourdain.
I asked hubby to try first at Antico Arco, whose website looked gorgeous and location was very close by. However, they are a pretty exclusive restaurant and don’t offer take out so he moved on to a neighboring restaurant that did offer take away meals, Pamado SRL. Sadly, he didn’t take photos but I’d hoped we could return before we left. Now I have reason to return to Rome. To try both restaurants. To try other restaurants, like Roma Sparita, the Trastevere venue visited by Mr. Bourdain’s No Reservations show.
Hubby arrived with a nondescript bag of foil takeout containers with 2 orders of cacio e pepe pasta for us, an order of spaghetti bolognese for Bella, and some wonderful mozzarella and tomatoes. The containers were standard foil pans with lids, but the food within was like manna from heaven. Yes, that good. All my husband could keep saying is “why” hadn’t he ever heard of this dish before. After all, his family was Italian and Italian restaurants are all over the place? All I could think to say, between huge mouthfuls of perfectly blended cheese and pepper sauce, is that it’s a Roman dish and when in Rome, eat like a Roman.
Seriously, I’m already planning this in my head, a foodie scavenger hunt for different versions of cacio e pepe and other truly Roman delights. Until then, I’ve decided to scour the foodie pages of the web and find the different versions of this classically simple yet challenging Roman dish. The hunt for the best cacio e pepe recipes has been interesting because every post, every YouTube video, every Food Channel star, has his or her own twist. Some are purists with minimal ingredients while others add their own stamp, like lemon (Martha Stewart’s version). What to do? Try them all. Of course, this means stocking up on one of the more expensive chunks of cheese around here, Pecorino Romano. Thankfully, it’s not a rare cheese so I can find it in most German supermarkets as well as our favorite Italian market. Be warned, this is just the beginning of my latest waist-expanding journey. I may have to add some serious workout posts in between foodie posts.
Since we’ve been home, I’ve tried 2 cacio e pepe recipes, one without butter and the other with butter. According to my husband, both are really good. I’d forgotten to take photos each time because I really needed to pay attention to the stovetop and the clock. No time to set up the camera in the kitchen and as an afterthought, I should have just set up hubby’s new tripod as he was manning the grill and our friend/test subject Jan was manning the cheese grater. The 5 year old was busy slaving away in her own play kitchen. And then I was so thrilled at the end result, I didn’t take photos before the food was gone. GONE.
It’s such a wonderful little dish and super easy to make. You spend more time prepping than eating it, that’s for certain. And it’s best to have company over, for the simple sake of having an extra set of hands to grate cheese or set the table or pour the wine.
Oh, I did take one photo! It’s of the pasta dish I had planned to use when I tried out the 2nd recipe which I found on Chef Kathy’s Food Lover’s Odyssey. I should have done EXACTLY as she recommended to prepare the melted parmesan bowl. Now I’m staring at large pieces of pottery wondering if it’s worth saving and wondering if someone in Japan can send me some gold glue to repair it so it at least looks half-way decent. And our dinner guest has funny memories of his first dinner in our home of exploding pottery in the kitchen, smoke alarms and electric fans and David (hubby) outside beating any missed cheese remnants off the kitchen rug. All the while my dogs were sniffing around the kitchen hoping to find a piece of melted cheese that might have been missed.
Here are the 2 recipes tried out of what I’ve collected thus far.
- Tales of Ambrosia: How to Make Spaghetti Cacio e pepe like a Roman. Recipe for the purists. Pros: no butter, oil, parmesan. Cons: can’t think of one. 1st timer tip: If you’re not a big fan of a lot of pepper, use the recipe’s recommendation sparsely. I asked my husband to add pepper “to taste” forgetting how much he loved pepper.
- Food Lover’s Odyssey: Cacio e Pepe as inspired by Roma Sparita Pros: I loved Kathy’s easy to follow steps. I also appreciated her note on how to make a parmesan bowl. Apparently, taking a short cut on the warming step was the worst idea I had (see image above). The pasta dish was saved though because I hadn’t reached the next step when the presentation dish exploded. Cons: None to note, with regards to the recipe itself. Note: saving enough pasta water is critical for the creamy sauce. Don’t skimp on this step!
- Bon Appetit: Cacio e Pepe. I’ll probably try this one next which pops up at the top of the Google list.
- Martha Stewart: Cacio e Pepe with Lemon. Lemon? Hmm, might be a tasty twist!
- Mario Batali: Bavette Cacio e Pepe. An Italian chef. An Italian classic. Makes sense to me.
I’m still on the search for different recipes, although Kathy’s is one I may return to often. With a weekly after school schedule that’s bordering on insane (riding lessons, dance class), I think that I’ll need to consider this as one of our easy weekly meatless meals, with a side of steamed, grilled or roasted veggies.