Well, hello you beautiful eyes whoever you are! As always, I start a post with a self-deprecating apology for being too distracted/anxiety ridden during a global pandemic to update as regularly as I’d like. I promise, there’s a recipe at the end of this existential tunnel of dread.
More often then not, I feel as if I’m drowning in an ocean and use all my might to flail to the top. And in those rare moments when I have an opportunity to breathe, I show up here.
Then I get plunged back down, fighting to stay suspended, in limbo, but at the same time surrender to a certain amount of complacency. We can only fight so much without eroding the little quality of life left in these days. So again, apologies for my inconsistencies.
During this time, as I’ve hinted to in the past, I try to cook with as little as effort as possible. I also may have mentioned, I started a low-carb diet about 18 months ago and lost like 40 pounds. So even during the pandemic I’ve stayed on it- not to put pressure on myself. But because I’ll be damned if I let this psychopath elephant take this accomplishment away.
That being said, I’m not a monster and do a big carb dinner once a week as something to look forward to. Since our social calendars have been wiped, all context of time washed away, Friday nights have meaning- it’s when I can cook to my indulgent appetite’s content!
I had some pici in the cupboard from my curated food box club (which you should join if you want delicious artisanal Italian ingredients sent to you, picked by me, from Florence) and decided to make a pasta bis night.
More background! Interestingly enough, I have been cooking more Roman-style pastas than ever before. Specifically- amatriciana, mostly because it’s so easy and comforting! Then I tried my hand at carbonara. YUM. Then I attempted for the first time: cacio e pepe. Although this one with pici was a little more Tuscan, arguably.
Side track: I think one of the reasons Roman cuisine is so popular in the food world, is because their pasta repertoire is insanely comforting yet easy/simple to make granted you have quality ingredients. This is a simplistic generalization since the whole gamma of Roman cuisine is actually quite complicated to make at home, at times bitter (all the greens, all the artichokes which I LOVE) once you factor in il quinto quarto (offal, in sum)
But hello: pizza bianca, pizza al taglio, the triad of Roman pastas (although Amatriciana comes from Amatrice but still considered apart of the cucina romana), fried rice croquette suppli’ are undoubtedly crowd pleasers especially for American eaters who generally aren’t as adventurous to more granular recipes or view Italian food simplistically as pizza and pasta.
In Florence, the iconic dishes are a little bit harder to generalize for user friendliness. If you think of summing up top dishes: Bistecca alla Fiorentina (served rare, which also makes Americans a bit squirmy), Panzanella (stale bread/tomato/cucumber salad), game meats, Pappa al Pomodoro (again, stale bread) and bean soups all drowning in locally pressed verdant green olive oil. I love the complete Florentine repertoire but it’s not an easy sell compared to the popular (albeit very reductive) summation of Rome’s.
In Florence though if you look deeper, like with any region, you’ll find the gourmet gems like cheese filled crepes (crespelle), gelato, certain styles of pastry, schiacciata (basically a rustic version of pizza bianca/focaccia). Inherently, it’s a cuisine for adventurous palates curious for dishes beyond pizza and pasta. Try to pit carbonara or suppli’ against all’inzimino (usually squid cooked in bitter greens) or lampredotto- guess which city wins.
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Outside Florence and throughout Tuscany, you can find of course more varied pasta options. And strangely enough, one of the most beloved regional pastas pici are from its rival, Siena. Tortelli (potato stuffed ravioli) from Southern Tuscany (but other tortelli/tordelli found from North of Florence to the Lucca area), Pappardelle from Tuscany’s East and while tagliatelle are common in Florence, are definitely an Emilia-Romagna strand. I do love Tuscan pasta.
Apologies (again!) for the detour, but I wanted to give some background before diving into Pici Cacio e Pepe, found in the Tuscan repertoire even if cacio e pepe is thought to be exclusively Roman. Pici (more in this recipe post) is a type of hand-rolled flour and water pasta into long thick strands and is called pici, from the verb “appiciare” meaning “to stick” and in Montalcino (home of Brunello) these noodles are called “pinci” meaning “sticky.”
In terms of how Tuscany got cacio (cheese) e (and) pepe (pepper) for one of pici’s dressings- consider Tuscany also produces pecorino cheese so it was a natural appearance, surely influenced from Rome. This variation with pici (as told to me) originated between Arezzo and Siena simply for good taste’s sake. I wonder if there is a version in Sardinia, since they are the OGs of pecorino production.
A pasta habit I picked up from Bologna is the bis, meaning 2 types of pasta on the same primo plate. So I added cacio e pepe to my current amatriciana kick. Amatriciana is simple, all you need is guanciale, canned cherry tomato, pecorino romano, chili flake if desired and pasta. Heat the guanciale, add chili flake, add tomato, simmer all while cooking pasta in the meantime. Once pasta is ready, toss/jump! I would check out Sophie Minchilli’s IG story highlights for a visual step-by-step. I also wrote this recipe with the addition of spring peas.
For Pici Cacio e Pepe, I consulted one of my favorite chefs in Florence (Damiano Vigna at Club Culinario Toscano) regarding its Tuscan roots/preparation and also cross checked against this recipe sourced/provided from my favorite trattoria in Rome, Da Cesare al Casaletto.
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 400 grams of dried or fresh pici (if dried, ideally sourced from our food club)
- 1-1.5 cup of grated aged pecorino (Toscano or Romano)
- 1-2 teaspoons of freshly ground pepper (depending on preference/taste)
Directions: Cook dried pici until al dente (which is at least 15 minutes since this is a thick pasta. In a big mixing/serving bowl, add grated cheese and fresh pepper. Once pasta is about 75% done where you have some nice starchy water but still need some time to cook, take out a ladle of the pasta water and add to the bowl of cheese to make a sort of cheese paste.
Add a little bit of water at a time until you have a consistency to your liking. More water if you want it more saucy or less water if you want it more noodle sticking. Chef Damiano says to not add too much water and to not mantecare (mix/fold) the pasta/cheese mixture over heat.
Use a strong fork to whip into a paste and the back of a big spoon to smooth out any clumps. Once the pasta is ready/al dente, add to your bowl of cheese paste OR transfer the cheese paste to a slightly warmed pan (not over heat) then add pasta to pan and toss/jump if you have fancy chef skills like that to coat all the pasta/melt the cheese paste into the noodles.
Note on al dente: Curious about how to? Consider a private cooking lesson online with one of Curious Appetite’s network of chef instructors in Florence! Or a cooking class in Florence when the time is right. It’s pretty easy to figure out, but why not take a cooking class?!;)
Wine pairing suggestion: I paired with this mind-blowing bodyful, zippy, ticklish with tannin wild cherry-like rosato from the volcanic soil of Mt. Etna in Sicily, I think it was a perfect pairing since I had a tomato bis contrast of amatriciana. Want more pasta and wine pairing tips- again, we offer an online culinary class for that!
In your cacio pici trust,