Most of the recipe for cacio e pepe is in the name: The comfort-food classic is Italian for “cheese and pepper.” Usually, the phrase refers to an easy-to-make pasta that some consider to be an Italian version of macaroni and cheese. But the simple dish has been getting an upgrade lately, as chefs experiment with jettisoning the pasta — or, in some cases, substituting the traditional pecorino Romano. It’s not hard to find successful new combinations. After all, aren’t most foods improved with pepper and cheese?
Eggs are an obvious choice. At Washington’s Farmers & Distillers, your morning can start with cacio e pepe scrambled eggs, which come with a hearty sprinkling of pecorino and a baked tomato. And at Nopa Kitchen + Bar in Gallery Place, executive chef Matt Kuhn gives his deviled eggs the cacio e pepe treatment. He got the idea, he says, because when he makes the pasta version of the dish, “I always put a poached egg on it.”
The key, says Kuhn, is using freshly ground black pepper — “We don’t pre-grind the pepper” — and adding a bit of texture, in his case with a crunchy pork rind balanced on top of the deviled eggs.
Other plays on cacio e pepe keep the pasta but swap out the cheese for something more interesting. David Chang’s Asian-Italian Momofuku Nishi in New York uses fermented chickpea paste, which “produced a slight sweetness, through which the crushed black peppercorns prevailed,” wrote Eater critic Robert Sietsema. “We licked the last of the sauce from the bottom of the bowl.” At Chang’s new Majordomo in Los Angeles, the dish is called macaroni and chickpeas, and it gets an upgrade with shaved truffles.
Roman food, including cacio e pepe, is big right now. The arancini, or fried risotto balls, at the Red Hen are cacio e pepe-inspired, and All-Purpose used to serve suppli (croquettes that are classic Roman street food) made of cacio e pepe pasta formed into squares and fried, then served with pickled garlic and a spinach sauce.
At Brothers and Sisters, chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s version of cacio e pepe is a sort of culinary trompe l’oeil. Order the mushroom cacio e pepe, and you might be expecting a bowl of pasta with mushrooms. Instead, the mushrooms replace the pasta — they’re the stems of beech mushrooms, the size and shape of penne. Inspiration for the dish came from an attempt to accommodate a diner with dietary restrictions. It has since become one of the most popular items on the menu. “It looked authentically like pasta and had the flavors,” said Bruner-Yang. “It was kind of a perfect dish.”
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