The secret to Tratto's simple — but killer — cacio e pepe
The Killer Dish: A regular installment in which our dining critic examines an outstanding local dish — its history, who created it, how it's made and what makes it special.
Since opening in 2016, Tratto, Chris Bianco's trattoria, has helped set the pace for Italian fare in Phoenix. But among the five-star restaurant's Arizona-flecked creations, one of the simplest — a classic pillar of Roman cuisine — has proven to be a popular favorite.
This shouldn't come as a surprise. The cacio e pepe at Tratto is a killer dish.
Cacio e pepe... that’s a pasta dish, right?
Exactly right! One of four iconic dishes, in fact — alongside Amatriciana, carbonara and pasta alla gricia — that are the essence of Roman pasta. Each is a little different, but they share a common soul.
What makes cacio e pepe different?
For starters, it's the only one of the four that isn't made with cured pork fat, which should tell you a little about Roman cuisine right there. But when you hear about the simplicity of traditional Italian pasta, cacio e pepe is a dish that takes that ethos to an extreme.
Aside from the pasta itself, all of the ingredients are basically right there in the name.
What does the name mean?
Cheese and pepper.
If you're a hardcore traditionalist, yeah. Pasta, cheese, pepper and a splash of pasta water. Of course, the version served at Tratto isn't strictly traditional, but we'll get to that.
Does Tratto make its own pasta?
Yup! Not that there's anything wrong with great-quality dry pasta — Pizzeria Bianco serves dry pasta next door — but Tratto fabricates all of its pastas in house.
Cacio e pepe is usually made with something long and thin like spaghetti or tonnarelli, though Tratto mixes it up a bit and changes shape from time to time. At the moment, they're making it with spaghetti alla chitarra.
Chef de cusine Cassie Shortino starts by working egg yolks into a blend of white Sonora wheat 00 flour and Blue Beard durum flour, both from Hayden Flour Mills.
Just the yolks?
Mostly, yes. She'll sometimes add a couple of whole eggs at the end, but the dough is primarily made with yolks to give the pasta a distinctly rich, eggy flavor.
Once the dough is mixed, it rests for a while before it's laminated. That's the process of squeezing the dough between metal rollers to make a thin sheet, folding it over itself, sending it back through, folding it again, etc., which imparts it with a fabulous, firm bite. By the time Shortino is done working the sheets of dough, they almost feel like leather.
How are they cut?
That's where the chitarra comes in. "Chitarra" is the Italian word for guitar, and in an Italian kitchen context, the chitarra is a frame strung with thin, taut wires that looks kind of like a guitar. Shortino dusts each pasta sheet with a little semolina, lays it across the "strings" and presses down with a rolling pin to cut it into individual spaghetti strands.
But why use a chitarra?
Because it's cool? OK, that's not why (well, maybe a little), but pasta shapes aren't arbitrary. Little differences in how they're cut can create different textures in the final dish, and spaghetti alla chitarra has a distinctive bite. When Shortino is done cutting the spaghetti, she gently ties it into portioned bundles and freezes them.
For long-term storage?
Oh no, they'll all be cooked within a few days. But pasta can dry out even when you aren't cooking in a desert climate. Freezing the bundles ensures the moisture content stays constant, so the cooking times also remain constant and are easy to manage in a kitchen that's bumping during the dinner rush.
Where does the cacio e pepe come in?
When an order comes in, and it happens quickly. The whole dish takes about 5 ½ minutes to cook. The frozen spaghetti goes into salted, boiling water, and Shortino starts her sauce off with Tratto's little tweak to the traditional recipe.
Butter. A lot of it, actually.
A traditional cacio e pepe will be made with just pasta water, pepper and cheese, but while some Roman traditionalists get bent out of shape about it, the addition of butter or olive oil is a variant that's gaining in popularity. You'll even find cacio e pepe made with olive oil in some restaurants in Rome these days.
Anyway, Shortino sizzles up a knob of butter with a lot of freshly cracked black pepper to release its spicy fragrance, and she adds a ladleful of the salty, starchy pasta water that reduces while the pasta cooks. When the pasta is done, that gets added to the pan as well, along with a little more pasta water and the cheese.
What kind of cheese?
A blend of Parmigiano-Reggiano, the classic cow's milk cheese you probably know, and Pecorino Romano, the hard, salted sheep's milk cheese Americans refer to as Romano. A giant handful of each is added and Shortino starts shaking the pan like crazy.
To create an emulsion. The creamy sauces in pastas like cacio e pepe and carbonara aren't actually made with cream. Not traditionally, anyway. (Make a carbonara with cream in Italy and you might get decked.)
In the case of cacio e pepe, the starch that has leached into the pasta's cooking water helps emulsify the water and the melting cheese into a cohesive sauce. It just takes some vigorous shaking. You don't need butter or oil to get that creamy texture, but it sure does taste good.
How does it taste, anyway?
Glorious. This is the epitome of Roman comfort food. The silky, rich base of the sauce is straight-up decadent, punctuated by the nutty and pungent notes of some of Italy’s greatest hard cheeses. The heavy dusting of cracked pepper gives this dish some teeth.
Speaking of teeth, the bite on the pasta is something to behold. It isn't shy and it will fight you. A good cacio e pepe is suave and feisty at the same time, which is pretty much Rome, in a nutshell.
Yeah, I want that.
Yeah, you do. It isn't always on Tratto's menu, but just ask. They almost always have the ingredients on hand, and a cult following has turned it into a semi-official, off-menu dish. Small wonder why.
Tratto's cacio e pepe
Where: Town & Country, 4743 N. 20th St., Phoenix.
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Details: 602-296-7761, trattophx.com.
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