Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Cacio e Pepe & Carbonara

In Rome I had both pasta dishes, both absolutely incredible. I thought I would create a post titled, "Cacio e Pepe vs. Carbonara," interview my friends discussing their preference, comparing and contrasting the flavors, textures, etc., and come up with a winner. Then I thought it over and realized that anything with pancetta will have an unfair advantage, so I dropped the competition, and decided just to celebrate both sauces!

My friend Beth Schumann (who has lived in Italy) told me that Carbonara was the dish Italians would make after arriving home late after a night of theater and drinks. It was the easy go-to dish, since all the ingredients would likely be in the Italian home pantry: pasta, egg, Parmesan, black pepper and pancetta. Just boil the pasta, saute the pancetta, toss the pasta with the egg, pepper and Parmesan, then add the pancetta. Done. It was a simple, casual, crowd pleaser. Not fine dining. I had several Carbonara dishes in Rome - all were excellent. They were not saucy, like the pastas we make in the US. The pasta was just barely coated with the egg and cheese, creating a kind of sticky glue for the pancetta to hold onto.

In Italian cookbooks there seem to be endless versions beyond the classic egg, cheese, and pancetta combination. Some added sauteed onions, peas, herbs, yolks rather than whole eggs, cream, to name a few. My friend DJ Olsen said about his experience in cooking school, "we were taught to make an emulsification of egg yolk and cream, that the dish should be wet, if not runny, and loaded down with black pepper, smoky bacon and peas." The worst of them all has to be Giada de Laurentiis' version with cream, chicken and walnuts. Or maybe the worst was the one I had at Vitello's (the studio city Eye-talian restaurant Robert Blake's wife had her last meal), pasta and bacon in a curdled puddle of cream and sliced onion.

My friends and I (fans of the classic recipe) decided to make one of the more complex versions, to see how it would compare. We started with sauteing the pancetta, then adding onion, deglazing with white wine, tossing the pasta with whole eggs, Parmesan, and parsley and adding the pancetta mixture. It was one of the best Carbonara I have had!

The wine and onion added a little more depth of flavor, while maintaining the integrity of the dish. We were supposed to follow with a roasted chicken, but finished all the pasta instead.

Then there is the even simpler pasta of Cacio e Pepe (cheese and pepper). My aunt Adri said, "I prefer the peasant wonder that is Cacio e Pepe. It is so simple and quick to make, hot and with the cheese melting and peppery bite, what could be better, except to have the whole pound of spaghetti to one's self? While Carbonara is often described as a 'simple dish,' I guess compared to Cacio e Pepe it is almost complicated."

Cacio e Pepe does not sound very exciting, but after one bite in Rome I was a convert. The first time I made it at home, while I was tossing the pasta with the Pecorino and pepper, I loosened it up with splashes of pasta water, as I have read to do. All of the cheese and pepper stuck to the bowl in a goupy mess, and I had to dress the pasta once it was in the serving bowls. Last week we made it and substituted olive oil for the water, and it was perfect. All of the cheese and pepper stuck to the pasta like it should. And one serving was certainly not enough.

Carbonara recipe:
1 sm white onion, chopped
4 T butter
1/2c white wine
3 slices pancetta, slices approx 1/3 " thick, then diced
3 whole eggs, lightly beaten
2 T parsley, chopped
1/2 c. (or more if you prefer), finely grated Parmesan cheese
Black pepper to taste
1 lb spaghetti

-saute pancetta in butter over med-high heat until cooked but not yet crispy, then add onion and saute a couple mins., deglaze with wine, reduce, (meanwhile cook spaghetti in salted water 1 minute less than box indicates), strain sapghetti, very quickly toss in bowl with pancetta onion mixture, egg, parmesan, pepper and parsley.

For Cacio e Pepe, just toss finished hot pasta with a good drizzle of olive oil (approx 4 T. for one pound pasta), a large handful of grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and a generous amount of black pepper.


Anonymous said...

I agree--it is difficult to choose between the two pastas and I was lucky enough to sample many of the tastings! Yummy! I couldn't tell you which one I like more.

Anonymous said...

Can you post the recipes for the carbonara and cacio e pepe? Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Nice blog. I'll definitely have to try the carbonara recipe, since I haven't had much luck in the past. I've been making cacio e pepe from Amanda Hesser's "Cooking for Mr. Latte"; she actually has a number of good recipes in there.