Cacio e Pepe Fridays

I am fond of routines, and food routines are no exception. Plenty examples can be found in traditional Roman cuisine, such as the custom to serve gnocchi on Thursdays.  There’s a Roman saying that goes,“Giovedì gnocchi, Venerdi pesce e Sabato trippa” (gnocchi on Thursdays, fish on Fridays, tripe on Saturdays). Its exact origin is unclear; one of the explanations I have heard is that catholics were not supposed to eat meat on Fridays (thus fish), so on Thursdays they would want to have something filling, such as gnocchi; and tripe on Saturdays because that was the day when the animals were slaughtered.

Jeff and I instituted a tradition of our own, namely, Cacio e Pepe Fridays. Cacio e pepper (cheese and pepper pasta) is one of the staples of Roman cuisine, and the epitome of vegetarian comfort food (perfect for Jeff :-)). The other pastas in the Roman “holy trinity” feature guanciale (cured pork jowl): carbonara (egg yolk, guanciale, pepper, and pecorino) and amatriciana (tomato sauce, guanciale, spicy red peppers, and pecorino). Not being a vegetarian, I am especially partial to amatriciana, and it is one of the dishes I chose to have during our first dinner in Rome at Roscioli:

La Matriciana o Amatriciana

Our tradition involves me driving down to Vace, – an Italian shop in Cleveland Park, incredibly popular on Friday nights, primarily because of their mediocre pizza offerings. I come for their fresh pasta; more specifically, I like using their version of tonnarelli, which is a bit more squared version of spaghetti:

This is a 3-ingredient dish, therefore their quality is pretty important. I think it is critical to have freshly ground pepper from quality peppercorns (I am fond of tellicherries), and freshly shredded cacio (Pecorino Romano – salty, intense, and pleasantly briny). Sometimes I mix it with Cacio di Roma, which is a smoother, younger, creamy textured sheep’s milk cheese, in order to give the dish a more a mild, balanced flavor.

Both cheeses can be found at WholeFoods (make sure you get the “genuine” Sini Fulvi DOP (name-protected) Pecorino Romano, from Italy’s Lazio region.

Getting the perfect texture can be tricky, as first you have to overcome the temptation to overcook the pasta (the cooking time for this particular one is a bit under 1 min!), and then you have to make sure that the cheese clings but not clumps (I love alliteration! 🙂 The nice thing is that this dish is very forgiving, so even if something terrible happens, you are still left with the delicious gooey, salty, and creamy mess, perfect with a white Burgundy (the one below I miraculously bought at WholeFoods for $19.99!!!):


Our Favorite Dishes of the Trip

Best gelato:
-Herb-based offerings from Gelateria del Teatro in Rome (sage & raspberry; wild fennel & caramelized almonds, and lavender & white peach.

-Fig gelato from Fior di Latte in Trastevere, Rome managed to capture the essence of seasonal small figs called “settembrini”.

-Crema della Nonna (custard-flavored gelato) from Natale, Lecce.

Best seafood dish:
-Grano con cozze: grano with mussels in a simple tomato base at L’Arco del Porto, Monopoli, Puglia. Grano is one of those fascinating ancient whole grains:

NB: Grano was one of the very few food items we brought home from Italy.

Best fish dish:
Tuna steak (and I don’t even really like tuna and never order it!) as part of the 10-item appetizer course (antipasti della casa) brought to us at L’Arco del Porto in Monopoli, Puglia. It was seared on the outside (with a slight balsamic glaze), pretty rare on the inside, and was unlike any tuna I have ever had. I was already full, but I still wolfed it down with pink peppercorns and red onions from another appetizer. It was as big as my head.

Best pasta dish: We ate MANY pastas on this trip, so I think it is fair to include several:
-Cacio e pepe with fried zucchini flowers at Antico Arco in Rome (pasta with pecorino romano and freshly ground pepper). Jeff also wanted to make sure I gave a shoutout to Roscioli’s version because of its amazing texture :-):

cacio e pepe at Roscioli

-Orecchiette integrale con broccoli e capocollo at Il Ritrovo degli Amici, Martina Franca (whole-grain pasta with broccoli and grated local cheese). It is impossible to describe the complexity and texture of this dish, so I am not even going to try.
-Fusilli mollica e crusco (if you thought the previous pasta was not basic enough, here is a pasta with breadcrumbs and crushed red Senise peppers, a Lucan specialty). The ultimate embodiment of cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine), this dish does not feature any fresh vegetables, fish or meat. The owner of Le Botteghe quizzed me about the translation of “crusco” before I was allowed to order it (I passed); quite understandable, since it sounds like some very rare and delicious crustacean.
-Ceci e tria at il Frantoio in Puglia: a ribbon-shaped pasta with a sauce of whole and pureed chickpeas.
-Bottarga spaghetti at Antico Arco featuring mullet’s roe from Cetara on the Amalfi coast. It was topped with the most amazing seabass carpaccio (actually, “carpaccio” was their description; the pieces of fish were actually pretty substantial, much to my joy.

What all these pastas have in common: absence of fancy ingredients and complex sauces.

Best appetizer:
-Very lightly marinated zucchini with mint (part of the 14-course appetizer offering at Parco di Castro, Puglia). Zucchini were in season, and during the course of the trip, we had them on pizza (at Forno del Campo dei Fiori in Rome, – it was incidentally the most inspired by the slice, or rather, “by the chunk” pizza we had);

zucchini pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori, Rome

as a carpaccio in a salad, and in a number of pastas.
-Bruschetta at A’Paranza, Atrani, Amalfi coast (crusty country bread, tomatoes and olive oil). Brilliantly simple, it was our favorite rendition of the ubiquitous classic.
-Caponata at Al Vino Al Vino, Rome. This delectable Sicilian dish is made fresh every day by the Sicilian mother of the wine bar’s owner. I am fascinated by the sweet-and-sour combinations, especially by something that is as incredibly balanced as this version.
-Lampascione and other preserved vegetables (verdure sott’olio) at Il Cucco, Cisternino, Puglia.

Best cheese:
-Burrata with semi-dried pugliese tomatoes at Roscioli in Rome
-Different types of ricotta, scamorza, mozzarella, all eaten within 10 seconds of being made (and the smoked and aged stuff – straight in the cheese aging room) at Caseificio Crovace, Puglia:

Best contorno (side dish):
A plate of porcinis with parsley at Cumpa Cosima, Ravello.

Best fruit:
-Moscato grapes from the neighborhood market in Rome on via Montebello.
-A fig from the orchard at b&b Casa Cuccaro, Nocelle

Best dessert:
Miniature cannolo from Cristalli di Zucchero in Rome
Best soup:
Zuppa di fagioli (bean soup with tomatoes and rosemary) at Donna Rosa, Montepertuso, Amalfi coast.
Best pizza:
Di Matteo
I Decumani

(both in Naples…)

Best pastry:
Warm frolla from Sfogliatelle Mary, Naples (more on that later).
Pasticciotto con pignoli from Avio, Lecce, Puglia (Leccese specialty pastry with a custard filling and in this case, pine nuts).

Best sign:

sign in front of a shop in Ravello