Cacio e Pepe Recipe and Rome with Mollie

I recently returned from seven days in Rome. When my friend, Mollie Ahlstrand, chef and owner of Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, invited me to join her to see Rome “her way,” I basically had the tickets booked by the time she was done telling me about the trip. Rome’s incredible history and architecture makes it unlike any other city in the world, but in this rich and beautiful setting, the thing that made our trip so special was that Mollie first learned to cook in Rome. In fact, she trained under the great Gian Franco Vissani (A.K.A. the Italian Chef Superstar in red leather shoes), and, lucky for me, we were able to spend a lovely afternoon with him and his family in Umbria.

Grilling technique in Italy

Other than eating our way through Rome with Mollie, we enjoyed some very special cultural and culinary tours with our new friend Angelo Amorico at Access Italy. Some of these excursions included touring and tasting wonderful olive oil in Sabina, custom tours of the city’s most special sites, and viewing some of Rome’s most hidden and magical art.

Olives in Sabina getting ready to be made into olive oil

Olives in Sabina getting ready to be made into olive oil

This is the olive oil I took home to Santa Barbara.

In front of the oldest known olive tree. It's 2,400 years old.

spicy pasta with olives

Lunch in Sabina -- Pasta, of course.

While with Angelo or Mollie we had some incredible meals at great restaurants that were all family owned and most of the time nowhere near the center of the city. There were no menus, and every dish was prepared to order. We had mind-blowingly good pasta with just three ingredients, outstanding chicken seasoned with only salt and white pepper, and melt-in-your-mouth steak grilled in an open wood-burning oven. Everything we ate was so simple, yet it was prepared with such care and such exquisite technique that these were some of the most memorable meals I have ever had.

Chef at Sora Rosa teaching me how to make her famous chicken.

I came home after a week of visiting great restaurants, meeting wonderful people, tasting Italian cooking at its finest, taking in the culture, and discussing cooking techniques with Mollie. From everything I learned on this trip (and I’m still processing most of it), I feel that my appreciation of pasta has grown to a whole new level.

Cacio e Pepe

Before I went to Italy, I thought that I pretty much knew all there was to know about cooking pasta (I mean, my grandmother was born in Calbria). Pasta was a course at almost every restaurant we visited in Rome, and by the end of my trip, I learned that the best way to prepare this is as simply and as thoughtfully as possible. So on that note, here is my take on the simple pasta dish, Roma style:

Cacio e Pepe (I ate it 4 times on our trip)

Mollie’s Restaurant Tour included:

Leg of Prosciutto at Novecento

Flavio Al Velavevodetto — Via di Monte Testaccio 97/99, 00153 Rome

Felice A Testaccio — Via Mastro Giorgio, 29 0153 Rome

Novecento — Via dei Conciatori 10, Rome, Italy

and of course…

Vissani — S.S. 448 Todi — Baschi Km. 6,600 (Temi)

Dining Room at Vissani 

White Truffles from Alba

Please don't go to Italy in the fall without experiencing white truffles!

Cacio e Pepe Recipe and Rome with Mollie

Serves two (very hungry adults)

½ lb. spaghetti

1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano — best quality

1 ½ cups Parmesan Reggiano

1/16 of a cup of freshly ground black pepper

½ cup pasta water (give or take)

Put a large pot of water on the stove and bring to boil. Once the water is boiling, add two handfuls of kosher salt, then taste the water. Does it taste a bit salty? Good.

Add the spaghetti and stir. Be sure to check the pasta and keep stirring throughout the cooking process. Picture your imaginary Italian grandmother — she does not leave her pasta unattended. When you get to about 8 minutes of cooking, begin to test the pasta for doneness.

While you cook the pasta, grate the cheese and pepper.  When the pasta is done cooking, strain the spaghetti and place in a large bowl, reserving approximately 1 cup of the liquid.  Add the cheese and pepper to the pasta and mix together using tongs.  Add bit of the reserved water to bind the pasta together and give it a bit of moisture. Enjoy!