Cacio e Pepe

published Mar 13, 2024
Cacio e Pepe Recipe

The cheesy, peppery pasta you know and love can be ready in 30 minutes.


Prep10 minutes

Cook20 minutes

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overhead shot of cacio e pepe on a grey plate, with a fork resting on the edge of the plate.
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

At its core, cacio e pepe is a stripped-down, sophisticated version of mac and cheese (cacio translates to cheese, and pepe translates to pepper). Or, perhaps it’s an example of what mac and cheese should be, but often is not (please don’t toss Italian curse words my way — hear me out!). Cacio e pepe is all about the pasta, Pecorino Romano cheese, and the creamy sauce that binds them together — that’s it. There is no flourish, crunchy topping, baked edge situation, or six-cheese blend to detract from its simplicity. It’s a sharp, cheesy, peppery tangle of carefully coated strands of pasta perfect for slurping.

I’ve got you covered with all the details, tips, and tricks so you can quickly whip this classic Roman pasta up any night of the week. With just three ingredients and 30 minutes, you’ll be transported to Italy without leaving your kitchen. 

Why You Should Trust Me as Your Cacio e Pepe Expert

Strictly speaking, traditional cacio e pepe is a three-ingredient recipe (not including salt) consisting of pasta, black pepper, and Pecorino Romano. While you may have had a more indulgent version at a restaurant, those likely included butter, olive oil, cream, or a combination of the three. Adding those ingredients helps the pasta and cheese emulsify quickly and easily, which is important when churning out dozens of plates per night. But it’s a shortcut. 

Creating a traditional version of the recipe, without those helpers of butter or oil, wasn’t quite as easy as I expected. While researching, I found a variety of methods offering the best way to make the pasta — some with the promise of being foolproof. So, as part of the development process, I tried several different approaches and had some real failures. I tried gradually tossing the grated cheese directly into the pasta, I tried tossing the pasta and cheese in a separate bowl off the heat, and I tried blending the cheese and pasta water to make a thick, creamy sauce before pouring over the pasta. 

They all either completely failed, yielding naked noodles and stringy lumps of cheese, or had minimal success with a combination of creamy sauce and unmelted bits of cheese. You don’t even want to know what happened when I tried to gently rewarm the pasta and melt those stubborn bits. Things quickly went from bad to worse. Finally I found success and, with some attention to nuance, created the luscious, creamy pasta I had been working towards. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

The History of Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e pepe is a traditional Roman pasta. It’s often grouped together with carbonara, amatriciana, and pasta alla gricia as standout classics in Rome. What these pastas all have in common is that they only need a handful of ingredients and come together quickly. Because these pastas have been around a long time, there are countless opinions about the “real” way it should be made.

La Cucina Italiana explains that cacio e pepe is an ancient dish that was born out of need and practicality. Shepherds would pack their bags with ingredients that could stand up to long journeys and offer a hearty meal after a long and active day. Dry pasta, peppercorns, and aged cheese would not perish quickly, but offer enough flavor to make something delicious and satisfying when time and supplies were limited.

Key Ingredients in Cacio e Pepe

  • Black pepper: For the brightest flavor and to best control the size of the pieces, choose whole black peppercorns. Toasting them first brings out their deep, nutty spice. Crushing them will yield better-sized pieces and less dust, but you can grind them in a spice grinder. Be sure not to grind them too finely (just 2 to 3 pulses will be enough). The pasta should be speckled with coarse bits of pepper (and not gray from finely ground dust).
  • Pecorino Romano: While many versions also include Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino is the traditional choice in this recipe. It’s sharp and salty, which is exactly the flavor needed in such a simple dish to contrast the pepper and hold enough flavor when thinned with cooking water. When buying the Pecorino Romano, check the label to ensure it is sheep’s milk cheese from Italy for the right flavor and texture.
  • Pasta: There are many opinions about which pasta shape is traditional for this dish. The top three mentioned are spaghetti, bucatini, and tonnarelli. Tonnarelli is a little thicker than spaghetti and has a squared-off side. It is difficult to find, however, so I opted to test with spaghetti and bucatini instead. As this is not a heavily saucy dish, I find the bucatini’s hollow tube isn’t really a plus, but if you like a thicker bite, it will work fine. I did find bucatini more difficult to toss with the cheese due to the larger size; I ended up with noodles on my stovetop and floor. Through the development of this recipe, spaghetti became my top choice. It’s the perfect size for twirling on a fork and tossing in a skillet and has a better ratio of cheese to pasta in each bite.  
  • Pasta water: It might be funny to see water as a key ingredient, but it is essential to bring everything together. You want the water to be salted, but not so heavily that it is unpalatable because you use a good amount of it while making the pasta. A few big pinches will do, but don’t go as far as making it taste like the ocean. You also want the water to be starchy, as the starch will help the emulsification of the cheese and contribute to the slick, silky texture of the finished pasta. Use a large-enough pot to hold the long noodles, but only fill it halfway for a concentrated, starch heavy cooking liquid.

How to Make Cacio e Pepe

  1. Toast and grind your peppercorns. Toast your peppercorns in a dry skillet (the same one you will finish the pasta in) to bring out their flavor. It only takes a few minutes so be careful not to burn them. Once cooled, coarsely grind or crush them so they are cracked into pieces but not dusty. If using an electric grinder, just a few short pulses will do. Too much fine pepper powder will make your throat burn and turn your pasta gray. 
  2. Grate your cheese. Very finely grated cheese is important because it needs to melt using only the residual heat of the spaghetti and hot cooking water. Pecorino Romano is an aged cheese so it will melt, but not as quickly or smoothly as something younger and creamier. A Microplane grater is the best tool for this job. It will create a very fluffy mound of cheese that will quickly collapse when working into a paste with a fork. 
  3. Simmer the crushed pepper, cooked pasta, and pasta water together. Simmering the pasta with the toasted pepper and some starchy water helps finish cooking the pasta while coating the noodles with slick starch. The heat of the pasta and the starch will help smoothly melt the cheese and keep the pasta from sticking to itself. 
  4. Make a cheese paste. Mashing the finely grated cheese with some hot starchy cooking water helps the cheese melt better into the pasta and create a silky sauce in two ways. The first is that it warms the cheese so there is less of a temperature difference between the pasta and cheese. The second is that it breaks the cheese down a little from the big, fluffy mound into a loose paste so it blends easier into the pasta and is less likely to stick to the sides or bottom of the skillet and overheat.
  5. Gradually toss the cheese paste into the hot pasta. As with any emulsion, you have to gradually combine the elements so they form one creamy sauce and not a separated mess. That means you need to add the cheese in three to four increments to allow the cheese to properly melt and build into a creamy sauce. It is easier to combine if you add small dollops of the cheese paste around top of the spaghetti versus one larger amount in the center, as it’s less likely to clump up this way. 
Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe ; Food Stylist: Brett Regot

If You’re Making Cacio e Pepe, a Few Tips

  • Gradually mash hot water into the cheese: When making the cheese paste, add the hot water gradually, while mashing with a fork. Do not pour in a lot of hot water and let it sit or the cheese will start to separate and get hard and stringy. Use enough water so the cheese is wet, but still holding together as a paste, and make sure to mash out any clumps.
  • Work off the heat: Make sure you turn off the heat under the skillet before adding the cheese. If you have an electric range, you may also want to move the skillet off the burner itself, as it retains heat longer than the burner on a gas range. If the cheese gets too hot, it will seize rather than melt.
  • Have patience: Tossing the pasta, cheese paste, and cooking water takes time. Your arm might get tired. You might wonder if you can do it faster. It will be fine, right? Resist the urge to rush the process. I tried it, and it just doesn’t work the same. As with any emulsion, you can’t force two different things to combine. They need to come together slowly. So, take your time. The whole process takes less than five minutes, even if it feels longer. Just remember that once the cheese becomes a hard, stringy glob, you can’t undo the texture and make it silky again.
  • Use a light touch with pasta water: When adding the cheese, add only enough to keep the pasta from being dry so the cheese and water are not encouraged to separate. Once all the cheese is added and fully melted, you can drizzle in cooking water in 1/4 cup increments until the pasta is nicely coated, glossy, and lightly saucy. While you don’t want dry pasta, too much water will thin the flavor and bloat the spaghetti.  
  • Keep the pasta moving and the cheese off the bottom of the skillet: The cheese won’t just naturally melt on its own. You need to keep the pasta tossing and swirling to blend the hot pasta and cooking water with the cheese. You also want to make sure the cheese doesn’t fall to the bottom of the skillet, where it is hottest, and just sit there. It will overheat and tighten into a big stringy ball if it sits. So just keep tossing and swirling, making sure to get to the sides and bottom of the skillet for even mixing. (And don’t worry if there’s an occasional nub of unmelted cheese in the otherwise creamy sauce — it’ll be imperceptible when eating). 

What to Serve with Cacio e Pepe

Cacio e pepe can be served in a smaller portion as part of a meal or in a larger portion as the main course. If the cacio e pepe is the main dish, a green vegetable like this garlic Broccolini, broccoli rabe, or arugula salad would round out the meal and offer a break from the cheese and pepper punch of the pasta. If serving smaller portions, set out an antipasto platter or a simple protein like roast chicken to enjoy with the pasta. 

Cacio e Pepe Recipe

The cheesy, peppery pasta you know and love can be ready in 30 minutes.

Prep time 10 minutes

Cook time 20 minutes

Serves 4

Nutritional Info


  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    whole black peppercorns (do not use pre-ground or finely ground black pepper)

  • Kosher salt

  • 1 pound

    dry spaghetti or bucatini

  • 4 ounces

    Pecorino Romano cheese


  1. Bring a large pot halfway full of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, place 1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns in a large skillet and cook over medium heat, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and you hear the peppercorns start to crackle or roll around the pan on their own, about 3 minutes. Let cool, then coarsely crush with a mortar and pestle or under a heavy pan on a cutting board, or coarsely grind in a spice grinder. Return to the skillet.

  2. Add 1 pound dry spaghetti and a few pinches kosher salt to the boiling water and cook according to package directions until just al dente, 8 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, finely grate 4 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese on a Microplane or on the very small round holes of a box grater into a medium heatproof bowl (about 2 1/2 cups).

  3. Right before the pasta is ready, transfer 1/2 cup of the cooking water to the skillet. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Using tongs, transfer the pasta to the skillet, letting some water cling to the noodles. Cook, tossing often, until the pasta is well-coated and there is very little cooking water left in the skillet, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the heat.

  4. Scoop about 1/2 cup more cooking water into a measuring cup. Drizzle 1 to 2 tablespoons of this water into the bowl of cheese and start mashing with a fork to evenly moisten it. Continue to drizzle more pasta water in and mash until the cheese becomes a soft paste. You might not need the full 1/2 cup, but make sure the cheese paste isn’t dry, or it will be harder to toss with the spaghetti.

  5. Spoon about one-quarter of the cheese paste on top of the spaghetti and quickly toss together until the cheese melts. Continue gradually adding more dollops of cheese paste and tossing, making sure the cheese is well-blended and melted before adding more. Add drizzles of pasta water as needed when the pasta seems dry to help blend the cheese, but do not add too much at this stage — just enough to moisten the noodles. Use the back of your tongs to break apart any clumps of the cheese paste, and make sure it doesn’t fall to the bottom of the skillet, where it can overheat and seize.

  6. Once all the cheese paste has been tossed in and the noodles are glossy and coated, add pasta water in 1/4-cup increments, tossing between each, until the noodles are lightly sauced and well-coated but not runny. Taste and season with kosher salt as needed. Serve immediately.

Recipe Notes

Cheese: If you are short on Pecorino Romano, you can add in some freshly grated Parmesan. It has a nuttier, slightly sweeter flavor that doesn’t stand up quite as well to the pepper and pasta, but will yield a similar result. Do not use all Parmesan, though, or you really lose the essence of the dish.

Pasta: While spaghetti or bucatini are most common, other long pasta shapes such as linguine can work. Avoid something really fine, like angel hair, because it will be very difficult to toss all those incredibly thin noodles and create a creamy sauce correctly. A super thin pasta is also more likely to break apart when vigorously tossing and stirring.

Make ahead: You can toast and crush the peppercorns several hours ahead.

Storage: This pasta is best eaten hot as soon as it is done. The sauce will continue to thicken as it cools, and reheating will not bring back the saucy consistency, but can make the melted cheese hard and clumpy. While I never say no to eating cold leftover pasta, and you will still have a tasty peppery cheese snack, it will lack the silky, saucy quality of the fresh dish. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container for up to 4 days.