Only three months into 2016, and we've already reached peak cacio e pepe.
Hot spot Jon & Vinny's recently shared its recipe for the no-frills Roman pasta with us for an L.A.-inspired pasta party, and restaurants across the country are offering their own versions. D.C.'s Rose's Luxury has a hand-cut chitarra cacio e pepe, and Chicago's Bar Marta serves the dish with its own hand-cut noodles. Brooklyn newcomer Lilia serves cacio e pepe fritelle, while in Manhattan David Chang's Nishi runs on ceci e pepe, a special take that uses chickpea instead of cheese, and just-opened Nix makes a vegan version with shiitake.
In a food landscape that devours trends and spits them out just as fast, it's surprising to see a humble, three-ingredient—or four, if you count water—pasta dish making such a splash. But cacio e pepe's moment is about more than just one It dish. It's part of a broader, renewed interest in Roman cuisine.
Roman staples like its signature pizza, gnocchi—traditionally served on Thursdays in the Eternal City—and other bare-bones pasta dishes are emerging in greater numbers: Last year, it was Marta's Roman pizza that wooed New York City, and now Pam Yung of Brooklyn's Semilla just hosted a dinner based on her experience staging for Roman pizza master Gabriele Bonci. Pop-up group Dinner Lab is hosting a Roman Holiday event in April. And lastly, two new books that celebrate the city's cuisine are about to come out: food writer Rachel Roddy's My Kitchen in Rome, and Katie Parla and Kristina Gill's Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. Rome may be an ancient city, but suddenly it feels new again.
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So what exactly sets Roman cuisine apart? At its heart, it's rustic, hearty and simple: Elizabeth Minchilli, author of Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City, tour guide and longtime Roman food expert and writer, describes it as cucina povera, literally "cooking of the poor." It's based on peasant food and making the most of few, simple and cheap ingredients. Nick Anderer, chef/partner of Roman restaurants Marta and Maialino, describes the food as "aggressive." It's "unapologetically salty and peppery, coaxing as much flavor as possible from humble ingredients," he says.
Perhaps best known for its pasta, Rome's famous canon consists of cacio e pepe, carbonara, all'amatriciana and the lesser-known alla gricia (see the recipe). While it's not as well known as its companions, pasta alla gricia is worth your attention: Parla, who features a special recipe in Tasting Rome, describes it as "carbonara minus the egg, or amatriciana without the tomato." Made simply with guanciale and Pecorino Romano, the pasta is as basic as it gets. It's meant to be tossed with the rendered fat of the guanciale, which has a distinct flavor and fat content different from bacon or pancetta. Parla's recipe contains white wine, a variation based on the restaurant where it is served in Rome.
The author thinks this unsung dish is "ripe for becoming popular in the U.S." Anderer even calls it his favorite Roman pasta—it's what he orders when he goes to Rome and what he makes for himself at his restaurants.
Roman food isn't all about pastas though. Vegetables and offal are also crucial—in that same practice of making the most of marginal ingredients. Zucchini blossoms, for example, were thrown away by aristocrats in ancient times, but by adding batter and frying them, they become real sustenance. It's the same with fried artichokes, Minchilli says. "Nowadays you think of an artichoke as some fancy thing, but it's not. It's a thistle. It, like, hurts. It's inedible. But if you trim it correctly, and you fry the hell out of it, it feeds your family, and it's really good."
But why the Roman food renaissance right this very minute in the U.S.? First, chefs and diners are celebrating dishes with minimal but excellent ingredients. As part of a greater shift away from fine dining, "palates are tending toward more rustic cuisine," Anderer says. They're looking for something more casual and "unbuttoned."
There's also an element of nostalgia for the past and the desire to keep it alive. Parla's book highlights "forgotten recipes" and captures the subcultures of Roman food, as well as the heavy hitters, to preserve the cuisine as much as to celebrate it. Whether it's Roman food, artisan bread making or small-batch bitters, the trends of today revolve around an enchanted image of the past; they aim to get back to the basics.
Ironically, modernity makes it easier than ever to get ahold of Italian ingredients, both via imports but also with a growing interest in domestic production, Parla tells us. For example, Philadelphia-based 1732 Meats, which opened a dry-curing facility in 2013, now produces cured meats like pancetta, bresaola and guanciale—for your spaghetti alla gricia, of course.
And lastly, as Minchilli puts it, "People just love Italian food." The West Coast is currently enjoying a revival of East Coast red sauce. Across the country, vegetable-forward California-Italian has become a canon unto itself. And now it's Rome's moment in the sun.
They don't call it the Eternal City for nothing.
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