I was racking my brain for the word “Corinthian” and picking images out from the Pantheon’s Rorschach marble when Paulo struck up conversation. With a heavy Italian accent, gravel in his throat, and a bit of thought behind each word, he asked if I knew the origins of the space. “I do, but I’d love for you to tell me anyway.” We sat dwarfed by the geometrically perfect dome for over an hour. With light from the oculus reluctant to dip too far into the rotunda, it mimed its best impression of a full moon on a clear night, illuminating just enough to see but not quite enough that you need not hone your focus. The structure forces concentration and intimacy. Originally intended for prayer, it lends well to dialogue.
Paulo immediately strikes you as refined and wisened. Tall and lanky, he sat with his shirt tucked in tightly and a blue blazer draped over his right shoulder, the collar clutched delicately between two fingers for the length of our discussion. The deep lines patterning his face mapped a route to his eyes which, in contrast to his calm and careful tone, were wide and sprightly. An exchange about the Pantheon’s Pagan origins and its later consecration as a Christian church made way for winding insights into his own studies of original religious texts. He lamented the challenges of translation. His tone wavered between frustration and awe while meditating on how ancient interpretations of words could ripple into the doctrines we know today. Logic-based but not immune to a bit of magic, his studies have coaxed an attention to sameness across religions, not differences.
I asked what it meant for him, as a Roman, to come to monuments like the Pantheon. “It is amazing, and relaxing. I do not live in Rome anymore. Like most Romans, I move from the city because it is too busy with visitors. But I come to Rome often. I come with the spirit of a tourist. I never want to stop exploring. The richness of art and architecture and history is infinite here. To Rome, you must come again and again, explore the past, always with your mind open.”
Stepping into Rome does feel like stepping into history. Modernity is puzzle-pieced thoughtfully betwixt* antiquity, making quite clear: what came before comes first. Intentional evolution may be what makes us human, but there is power in origin. Particularly in Rome. Particularly-particularly when it comes to food. Any flourish on a classic will be met with a scoff by Roman purists. The addition of Parmigiano Reggiano to cacio e pepe? Paulo tells me his father would say, “It’s fine, but it’s not cacio e pepe.”
Extraordinarily simple in both its ingredients and process, cacio e pepe is a balancing act. Sharp and salty Pecorino Romano blankets al dente noodles, acting as a cozy, filling backdrop for loud punches of black pepper. And that’s it. Traditionally boasting only five ingredients—sheep’s cheese, pasta, water, salt, pepper—and big, harmonious flavor, cacio e pepe should be the poster-child for un-Americanized Italian cooking.
The process is an easy one, and it’s all about letting the ingredients do what they were meant to do. Starch thickens, cheese melts, and pepper stays fresh until the last second. I found it a touch too easy for the sauce to get clumpy when adding the cheese to the starchy pasta water. To give the it a bit of fat to cling to, I whisked a small amount of butter into the water first. This resulted in a smooth, velvety sauce every time. So, choose your own adventure. The Roman traditionalists among you should skip the butter, and whisk your grated cheese into the starchy pasta water very slowly over low heat. But know, if you’re in America, the Pecorino Romano is likely made with cow’s milk, so you’re already off to a cardinal sin of a start. You might as well go full-heathen and add the dang butter.
*Seems only fitting to use some archaic language.
Cacio e Pepe (serves 4-5)
Time: 20 minutes
1 pound spaghetti
1c pasta water
1 1/2 cups Pecorino Romano cheese
3 TBS butter
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Boil pasta in a large pot of heavily salted water (about 2 heaping TBS Kosher salt per 4 cups of water) until al dente, about 4-5 minutes. Reserve 1cup pasta water before draining.
2. While pasta is boiling, grate cheese finely.
3. Pour pasta water into a frying pan. Over medium heat, whisk in one tablespoon of butter at a time until melted.
4. Sprinkle in the grated cheese slowly, whisking continuously.
5. Increase heat to medium-high and add pasta to sauce. Stir with a fork until sauce thickens and coats the noodles in a glossy blanket. It should only take a few minutes. If it remains watery, increase heat slightly and keep on stirring. If you tip the pan, you should notice less and less liquid over time.
6. Serve with generous amount of freshly ground black pepper.