Food

Why Cacio e Pepe Pasta Is the Off-Menu Secret of DC’s Top Chefs

It's the VIP gift of choice at Rose's Luxury and the Red Hen.
Cacio e pepe at Centrolina. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

What do chefs send restaurant-industry friends who’re dining at their restaurants? You might think it’s something glamorous (Champagne) or adventurous (a whole barbecued pig’s head)—and sometimes it is. But the last two times I’ve dined out with industry folks, what’s landed on the table is a simple bowl of cacio e pepe pasta. The minimalist Roman dish of cheese, cracked pepper, and al dente noodles has become a trendy dish you’ll see often, but at some of DC’s best restaurants it isn’t even on the menu.

At Rose’s Luxury, chef Aaron Silverman’s team is known to gift the off-menu pasta to VIPs, or more frequently, tables that have never experienced a well-made cacio e pepe before. The same is true at the Red Hen, where chef Mike Friedman has served the “secret” dish for nearly six years. (Although by now, regulars know to ask for it.) 

“Any time you gift a pasta it’s like Christmas,” says Friedman. “The reason it’s off-menu is the technique. The simplicity is difficult to achieve on every plate.”

The silky, cheesy sauce laced with pops of spicy pepper requires close attention. Unlike many other restaurant sauces, it has to be made entirely a la minute or it’ll break. It’s the kind of item that’s great as a one-off, but too many orders on a busy night can snag up a kitchen line—a problem Friedman encountered when he opened the Red Hen with cacio e pepe on the menu. Chefs often toast the pepper in a little oil or butter before whisking together a pan sauce of seasoned pasta water, cheese, more pepper, and noodles until creamy—except there’s no cream (that’s cheating).

“The magic is emulsifying the ingredients together so it’s nice and buttery, creamy but without cream in it,” says Centrolina chef/owner Amy Brandwein. She’ll make the dish by request, but only when the kitchen isn’t too busy to get it right. “That’s what cacio e pepe is all about.”

See her recipe below. All ingredients are available at the Centrolina market, or grocery stores like Whole Foods.

Cacio e Pepe 

Serves 4 

Ingredients:

1 lb. Tonnarelli, bucatini, or spaghetti

3/4  cup Pecorino Romano, grated

3/4 cup Cacio di Roma, grated

3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for topping

2 tsp Fresh ground cracked pepper, plus more to taste

Salted cooking water from the pasta

Knob of butter or olive oil

Preparation:

  1. Boil pasta in salted water 8 to 10 minutes or until just al dente.
  2. While pasta is finishing cooking, add 1 cup of pasta water to the pan over medium-low heat. Add cheese and whisk until emulsified.
  3. Add the pasta, stirring well to melt the cheese mixture wraps around the noodles. Drizzle with a little bit of olive oil or a small spoon of fresh butter (the butter isn’t traditional, but will emulsify the sauce beautifully). Add the pepper and toss to distribute. 
  4. Generously top with grated parmesan cheese and more freshly ground black  pepper to taste. 

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Anna Spiegel
Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.