Recipe: Linguine ‘Cacio e Pepe’ al’ Limone
The other night I was entertaining and wanted a “light” summery pasta dish to whip up. I had been traveling and did not have a lot of ingredients on hand, and wanted something that would take no longer than the time to boil the water, and cook and toss the pasta with the sauce. My friend suggested making one of my favorites, Pasta “al Limone” in the “Amalfitana” style of the Amalfi Coast– a great dish that usually contains cream, grated pecorino Romano or Parmigiano, lemon leaves, juice, and zest. My mouth was watering at the thought of this slightly tangy, creamy, zesty favorite from this beautiful part of Italy, but alas–I had no heavy cream, or even half-and-half in the house (I typically use skim milk), and do not cook with cream often. Immediately the idea jumped into my head–take one of my favorite Roman pasta dishes, “Cacio e Pepe” which is simply ‘al dente’ pasta tossed with freshly grated pecorino Romano and pasta water, tossed over just enough heat so the cheese won’t stick to the pan, the ingredients tossed rigorously with tongs so the sauce can come together to coat the pasta like a paste or slurry, with each ingredient–grated cheese and pasta water added a bit at a time with continued tossing until it is “just right.” You may not end up using all the water or cheese- a lot will depend on how fresh or dry the cheese is and how your technique for rigorously tossing over low to moderate heat is. The more times you make “Cacio e Pepe,” the more proficient you will become and you will find it a very easy, simple, “go to” pasta dish, to which you can easily add things like sautéed zucchini, asparagus, shrimp, or chicken and create a quick, easy, satisfying meal with few ingredients. Cacio e Pepe is a slightly creamy pasta dish and a favorite of Romans (along with Carbonara and Amatriciana) and contains no cream at all, nor does the “original” Fettuccine Alfredo from Rome (simply Parmigiano and pasta water), other renditions in the city call the dish “Burro e Parmigiano” and add melted butter to pasta and the cheese and toss– this was a favorite growing up- delicious, and better for you than the heavy cream-based Alfredo sauces common in the States.
So, it was settled. Cacio e Pepe, plus the components that make up the “al limone” sauce, minus the heavy cream. I started by melting a tablespoon of butter to add the juice of one lemon, zest of half the lemon, and 4 lemon leaves (one per person). Once this sautéed a few minutes on medium heat, I set it aside as the pasta cooked to what Italians would consider “proper al dente”– this is NOT al dente when served at the table, which should still have a considerable bite– this is about three minutes shy of table-ready-to-eat “al dente” because the pasta will continue to cook when it is tossed with the components that will make up the sauce, and be plated with tongs and presented piping hot to my guests who are ready to begin eating immediately. This is the only way to make and serve pasta, as they do in Italy.
The ingredients follow:
Serves 4 (4 ounces pasta each)
1 pound of pasta (I used De Cecco Linguine)
large pot of well-salted boiling water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (melt in pan on medium heat)
juice of 1 lemon (add to the melted butter)
zest 1/2 lemon (add to butter and lemon juice) (save the other 1/2 lemon for optional zest to garnish the assembled plates)
4 lemon leaves (if you happen to have citrus trees, leaves from any citrus tree will do– be sure to pick ones that are disease and insect free and wash thoroughly- they are meant to subtly flavor the dish, and may be used to garnish the finished plates, but should not be eaten)–add to the sauté mix.
Note: although traditional Cacio e Pepe does not use butter, I felt a touch of butter here was needed to help amalgamate the lemon ingredients and add some heat to extract the flavor from the zest and leaves. Another option is olive oil.
Set aside 1 cup pasta cooking water just before draining the pasta.
1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano (it is preferable to have an electric grater or buy from a quality Italian market or shop cheese that is fresh and grated finely to order for making this dish. Grating it with hand-held at home graters that produce long strands of cheese gratings does not work well for this dish where the cheese needs to come together with the water to create a creamy paste, the shredded strands won’t accomplish this.
1 cup pasta cooking water
20 twists of coarsely ground black pepper (more or less at your discretion)
2 tablespoons freshly chopped Italian parsley (garnish over the top)
Optional zest of the other half lemon (garnish over the top)
Additional cheese to serve (optional)
Serve immediately– this is nice with either a chilled Italian white wine with citrus flavors, (like Pinot Grigio), or perhaps a Sauvignon Blanc, and also works nicely with an earthy red wine, such as a Montepulciano di Abruzzo, or a Super Tuscan from the Bolgheri/Maremma region of the Tuscan Coast. Buon’ Appetito!
Recipe and photos © Fred Bollaci Enterprises, 2015