Tonnarelli cacio e pepe

We've had a few uncharacteristically cold days in Rome this month, with strong, icy winds, temperatures low enough to leave your hands and face numb, and heating bills high enough to make you cry (anyone else?!) I've found myself wishing that my battered old UGG boots (all the rage in the early 2000s) were office appropriate, and I've even invested in an electric water bottle, (which in hindsight may have been a bit unwise, given, you know, the water and electricity thing). Out-of-style boots and potentially perilous water bottles aside, I also have been turning to cozy, filling dishes to warm up -- cold or room temperature foods need not apply -- with stews and soups, risotto and lasagne, hot chocolate, and sticky toffee pudding being my preferred items these days

Great minds clearly think alike, as my fellow Cucina Conversation bloggers and I have chosen cibo da conforto -- comfort food! -- as the theme for January and our first posts of 2017. My contribution for this month is tonnarelli cacio e pepe, one of the four classic Roman pastas (amatriciana, gricia, and carbonara round out the group). It's a simple dish, consisting of pasta -- spaghetti or tonnarelli, usually -- along with a good dose of freshly cracked black pepper and a whole lot of Pecorino Romano (sheeps-milk) cheese, all held together with a bit of the starchy water the pasta boils in. It's warming, stick-to-your-ribs kind of fair, Italy's version of macaroni cheese, or rather, all-American macaroni and cheese after spending a year studying abroad in Rome

So! You'd think that I'd have shared a recipe by now for such an classic Roman dish, especially one that I love as much as cacio e pepe (for the record: my favorite comes from Flavio ve l'avevo detto in the Testaccio neighborhood). Here's the thing, though: cacio e pepe used to intimidate me a little bit. Oh, it may have seemed like a basic, straightforward dish, but with only 3 main ingredients, there's not much room for error, not to mention the technique involved in creating that iconic, cheese-y sauce seemed tricky. One false move, I thought, and a plate of what should be creamy, silky cacio e pepe could end up as pasta in a thin, watery sort of sauce, or one with cheese that sticks together instead of coating the strands of pasta evenly. Let me put it this way: if the Computer Science 101 course I took in college taught me one thing, it was that its best not to underestimate things that seem simple at first glance (as it turned out, the course wasn't just about fonts, typing, and using the internet as the 101 level had me think!!) Would I get a C in cacio e pepe just like Comp Sci?! 

For a foolproof cacio e pepe, I knew I could rely on Rachel Eats, the blog run by Rachel Roddy. Rachel is an expat living here in Rome who is so well-versed in Roman food, she could teach an Italian nonna a thing or two -- indeed,  she has even published her own cookbook, Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome. Turns out, I needn't have worried. Using her recipe, the sauce came together almost instantly (phew) resulting in "Probably the best cacio e pepe I've ever had," or so said my sister, as she dove into what turned out to be a plate of deliciously tangled tonnarelli, dressed to the nines in a luscious, cheese-y sauce whose richness was interrupted only by the underlying heat of the black pepper. It was cacio e pepe as cacio e pepe should be, and I thought -- not to pat myself too much on the back here or anything -- that if cacio e pepe had been a college course, I'd probably have received an A+ on the final project. Make this and you will too!

A couple of notes: The cheese here must be very finely grated, as it needs to melt in to the sauce -- using a large grate for the cheese will make for a not-so-smooth cacio e pepe. Use a microplaner or the smallest grate on your cheese grater. Don't substitute Parmesan for the Pecorino!! -- it's not the same thing, and cacio e pepe without Pecorino romano is no longer cacio e pepe. You could substitute dried spaghetti (or any long pasta) for the fresh tonnarelli -- aim to use about 100 grams per person. I like the addition of the olive oil -- it gives the sauce a nice silkiness -- but it's not mandatory, so feel free to leave it out. In her recipe, Rachel toasts whole peppercorns in a pan on the stove to release their peppery oils, then crushes them in a mortar and pestle. I didn't have a mortar and pestle handy so I just used freshly ground pepper, but feel free to toast and grind the peppercorns yourself if you wish. Finally, the recipe as written here is for two people (my sister and I) but feel free to up the quantities if you're feeding a bigger group.

With no further ado, here are the other cozy Italian recipes from my Cucina Conversation bloggers!

Rosemarie over at Turin Mamma has prepared frittura dolce (deep-fried semolina squares); 
Daniela of La Dani Gourmet is sharing her recipe for gnocchi di patate al pomodoro (gnocchi in a tomato sauce!);

Lisa aka Italian Kiwi has made one of my very favorites, pasta e fagioli, or a pasta and bean soup;
Carmen at The Heirloom Chronicles has chosen scaccia di mulinciane (savory eggplant pies from Sicily) as her recipe;
Flavia from Flavia's Flavors is sharing polenta with beef short rib ragù;

Last but not least Marialuisa over at Marmellata di Cipolle has made pasta in brodaccia (pasta in a simple broth with tomatoes, celery, and potatoes).

TONNARELLI CACIO E PEPE

Ingredients: 
8 ounces (250 grams) fresh tonnarelli 
1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese (80 grams) plus more for serving 
1 tablespoon good extra virgin olive oil 
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Extra black pepper and Pecorino cheese, for serving

Directions: 
Put a large pot of water on to a boil. While the water boils, grate the cheese. Side note -- if you're using measuring cups instead of a scale, I find it's helpful to grate the cheese on to a paper towel to be able to easily pour it into the 1 cup measure. 
Once the water is boiling, salt it well and then add the pasta. Fresh tonnarelli will take only a few minutes to cook (check the package directions). When the cooking time is nearly up, take a ladle-ful of the pasta cooking water and add it to a large bowl along with the olive oil, then whisk the two together. Set aside another ladle-ful of pasta water, just in case you need it to make the sauce come together later. Drain the pasta. 

 
Add the pasta to the water/oil mixture and toss to combine. Next, add the cheese a little at a time, tossing and beating it together with the water and oil until a sauce starts to form (you can use a fork for this, I used the below pasta fork/tosser).
 
Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper and continue tossing and beating. At this point, check your sauce – if it looks too watery, add some extra cheese, and if it looks too dry, add some reserved pasta water. I found that with the above quantities my sauce was spot on, but always good to check and adjust accordingly. 
 
Divide the pasta between plates, garnish with a grind or two more of black pepper and sprinkling more of Pecorino and serve immediately. Serves 2.


Recipe barely adapted from Rachel Roddy (www.racheleats.wordpress.com).


London

Where we last left off, I'd given you all a recipe for Sticky Toffee Pudding -- not a bad consolation prize, if I don't say so myself -- and jetted off to London, England to see our friend, the lovely, talented, Rachel Willis-Sørensen, perform the role of the Marschallin in the Royal Opera's production of Der Rosenkavalier. It wasn't my first trip to London -- I visited the city for the first time back in 2010 -- and had already seen all the main tourist attractions (Tower of London! Buckingham Palace! the London Eye!) Therefore this trip was more about eating food that wasn't Italian, catching up with friends, and of course taking in my first visit to world renowned Royal Opera House. Below is a summary of my fantastic 5 days in what I think just may be my very, very favorite city outside of Italy.

REUNIONS!!!
I didn't realize until I started organizing this trip how many friends I've have who have been lucky enough to up in London over the years. I was so pleased to be able to meet up with Allie McConnell, a friend and fellow language nerd from high school, one of the three other students in our makeshift Italian course, where we spent our lessons delving enthusiastically in to Italian grammar, watching Italian films, and maximizing our conversation skills. Despite the fact Allie has lived in the UK for 10 or so years now, we always manage to pick up right where we left off (my favorite kind of friendship!) and just when we thought Allie couldn't get any more fun, her equally awesome fiance Phil came in to the picture. We also were reunited with our usually Rome-based friend Fiammetta, who has moved to the UK for an internship -- bravissima!!! -- and who after only a few short months has acquired a British accent so convincing, we wondered if we were actually getting lunch with Kate Middleton. We also got to spend the day with Gloria (my former co-blogger, and without whom Pancakes & Biscotti would never have come in to being) who has been living in England for a little over a year baking full-time as a pastry chef at The Chequers Inn. Gloria, who we met on the first day of classes at the University of Bologna all the way back in 2009, was our very first Italian friend. She became a fixture of our daily routine in Bologna -- lunch at the university mensa, trips to her town of Bertinoro, American-style breakfasts for supper at her house -- and our friendship has endured all these years later, even with all the time differences, distances, and various other life-changes. We hadn't seen each other in nearly two years so this was perhaps the most exciting reunion of all. In order below: Allie, Fiammetta, and Gloria!


FOOD
I'm going to go against the grain here and say it: I loved the food in London. I know British food usually has a bad rep, but I personally was counting down the days before our trip to eat fish and chips, banoffee pie, and English-style breakfast, and overall revel in anything that wasn't pizza or pasta for a few days. I was not disappointed. Here are some of my favorite places we ate -- click on the hyperlinks to get the location/more information if you want to visit them too:

Department of Coffee and Social Affairs, how we love you! This cafe was located right next to the apartment we were staying in, and was lovely -- the coffee was great, and the sweets, especially the toasted banana peanut butter bread, were fantastic (I realize that banana peanut butter bread is not at all British, but it is most certainly something I'd never find in any cafe in Italy, which made it all the more exciting). A special shoutout to Nadia, our favorite barista, who was so friendly and helpful and great about helping us navigate the city!
 
 We had delicious Indian food at a ginormous, three floor restaurant called Dishoom, where Allie and Phil brought us on our first night in London. The wait was about two hours long -- Dishoom doesn't take reservations -- so we had to queue (see, I did learn some British English!) for about two hours before sitting down. Luckily, Dishoom provides the people waiting outside in the cold with chai and green tea. Once we finally sat down, we ordered more dishes than I can count -- and proceeded to finish them all! -- but the standouts were a classic chicken curry, spicy potatoes with a yogurt dipping sauce, and a pineapple crumble with custard for dessert. Thank you Allie and Phil!
 
 Mexican food in Rome tends to be pricey and there's really only one good Mexican restaurant in the city (La Cucaracha, if you're wondering) so we were beyond excited to lunch at La Bodega Negra in Soho.We opted for veggie burritos and chicken tacos, with some chips and guacamole (the chips and guac disappeared so fast I didn't have time to get a photo!)


Indian and Mexican food cravings satisfied, we decided it was time to sample some proper (!!!) English food as well. Allie and I headed to Notting Hill where we had lunch at The Duke of Wellington Pub, ordering steak pie with a side of mash (aka mashed potatoes) and roasted veg. We also sampled a roasted fennel, potato, and red pepper salad with halloumi, which, while not British, was still something we'd never find on an Italian menu and thus fully appreciated -- might try and recreate this one at home. A day or so later my sister, Gloria, and I devoured the best fish and chips I've ever had -- at Poppie's, in the East End! -- where we finished off the meal with Sticky Toffee Pudding served with a scoop of ice cream (get my recipe here!) 
To top off the curry, tortillas, and chips, we were in need of something sweet -- we stumbled across Dark Sugars Cocoa House, in the East End, drawn in by the beautiful displays of chocolate all throughout the store. They had all sorts of truffles and chocolates (free samples were abundant) as well as a selection of homemade hot chocolates -- we opted for the white chocolate caramel and chocolate hazelnut hot chocolate and were not disappointed.
Last food highlight! Rachel, my sister, and I went for tapas at Pix Pintxos in Soho the night before her show (nothing like a tapas buffet to get you prepped for singing at the Royal Opera House!) I didn't take too many photos -- was too excited to dig in -- but the selection of tapas was extensive, the prices very reasonable, and the staff was incredibly friendly. My favorite was the Spanish potato tortilla and the albóndigas were delish as well.

TEA - SOHO'S SECRET TEA ROOM
No trip to London would be complete without having a proper English tea, am I right? We joined Rachel and her daughter Lydia at Soho's Secret Tea Room a blink and you miss it kind of place, as it is hidden away on the top floor of what looks like your average British pub (we weren't 100% sure we were in the right place when we first got there, but I guess it's called Secret for a reason). We ordered peppermint tea and enjoyed a selection of cakes, mini Bakewell tarts, scones with jam and -- best of all --clotted cream, one of the most delicious things to ever grace the planet (why isn't this a thing in Italy and the U.S?!) Lydia, as you can see from the below photos, was also very pleased with her tea and cake. 
 
 

DER ROSENKAVALIER - ROYAL OPERA
Last, but not least -- the reason for our trip -- an evening at the Royal Opera to see Rachel perform the lead role in Der Rosenkavalier, an opera in 3 acts by Richard Strauss (get the summary here!) If you're not an opera fan, let me put it like this -- getting selected to sing at the Royal Opera house is the equivalent of an Oscar nomination, or playing baseball at Yankee stadium, or making it to the Olympics -- it's a big deal. We couldn't have been prouder of Rachel -- spectacular voice aside, it was such a joy to see her in her element on performing on such an important stage. During the intermissions and at the end of the show we got to visit her backstage -- we felt very VIP, see stage passes below! -- and, added bonus, got to see all of the costumes used by the famed Royal Ballet, as Rachel's dressing room was right in the same corridor. It was a completely unforgettable experience - thank you Rachel!
 

 

 
And just like that, our trip to London was over. My sister and I were both quite sad to leave, but we've already been checking the Royal Opera's schedule for the next few months (Rachel is after all singing again in March...) so here's hoping that another trip happens sooner rather than later. In the meantime, I'll leave you with a few other photos to end this post, quintessential telephone booth photo and all.