So simple, Thoreau would have liked it: Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper

by Terry B on March 30, 2011

With only four ingredients, Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper is a lively, rustic Roman favorite quick enough for even the busiest weeknight dinner. Recipe below.


Henry David Thoreau liked things simple. So much so that he spent two years in a 10×15 cabin near Walden Pond, contemplating life. His most famous takeaway from his adventure? “Simplify, simplify.”

That’s often my approach in the kitchen. I gravitate to recipes with a handful of well chosen ingredients prepared in a fairly straightforward way. Not out of laziness (well, not completely out of laziness), but more in keeping with my generally minimalist approach to life. Simple is good. Still, when I stumbled across a recipe for Spaghetti a Cacio e Pepe (Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper), it seemed almost too simple, even for me.

cooking-the-roman-wayIt has just four ingredients, and two of those are salt and pepper. But pepper isn’t merely a seasoning here, it’s a co-star. And that makes all the difference. I found this beautifully simple dish in Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome. (This is the second Roman cookbook Marion has given me now—I’m seeing a trip to Rome in our future.) It features more than 100 recipes, from antipasti to dolce, gathered from “scores of chefs, bakers, butchers, delicatessen men, homemakers, friends, relatives and colleagues.”

As someone who spends way too much time in museums, I have trouble separating the word Roman from the modifier “ancient.” Author David Downie skillfully captures the mix of history and the now that is Rome today, aided by beautiful photography by his photographer wife Alison Harris.

Even as I cooked the four-ingredient pasta dish that is apparently served at homes and trattorias all over Rome, I was skeptical that it could hold our interest for an entire meal. I needn’t have worried—yes, it was simple, but it was also simply delicious. Uncomplicated, rustic comfort food balanced with a lively, peppery kick.

In America, we tend to think of pasta dishes as the main event of the meal. In Italy, they’re often considered primi piatti (first plates), something to be served before the secondi, the second or main course. When I made Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper for us, I served it with a simple salad, as a lively, satisfying vegetarian dinner. You could also use smaller portions as a side dish that just might outshine your entree.

Spaghetti with Pecorino Romano and Pepper
Adapted from
Cooking the Roman Way
Serves 2 as a main course

8 ounces dry spaghetti (see Kitchen Notes)
3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano, divided (see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus extra (see Kitchen Notes)

Start a large pot of lightly salted water to boil. When it comes to a rolling boil, cook spaghetti to al dente according to package directions, stirring frequently to keep it from clumping together. Reserve about a half cup of the pasta water. Drain the pasta quickly, returning it still dripping to the cooking pot.

Sprinkle half the Pecorino Romano and all of the ground black pepper over the pasta, along with 2 tablespoons of the reserved pasta water (see Kitchen Notes). Toss with wooden spoons to coat pasta evenly with cheese and pepper.

Divide between two pasta bowls. Grind additional black pepper over the plates to give it a nice freckled look. Sprinkle remaining Pecorino Romano over the plates. Serve.

Kitchen Notes

Yes, spaghetti. There are lots of pasta shapes out there, and spaghetti often gets relegated to the kids’ table. It’s perfect for this dish, slender enough to not overpower the cheese and pepper the way a broader pasta might and sturdy enough to stand up to the vigorous tossing at the end. It also has a nice mouth feel here.

Buy good cheese. When a dish has only four ingredients, an inferior one can’t hide. Look for good quality Italian Pecorino Romano, preferably aged. You can also substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano, again Italian and good quality. Don’t come anywhere near this dish with pre-grated cheese. Seriously.

Don’t skimp on the pepper. If you or any of your diners don’t like pepper, don’t make this dish. Pepper drives it, giving it a more fiery kick than we generally expect from plain old black pepper and keeping the dish interesting until you’re fighting over the last few noodles in the pot. So use lots. I normally like to grind my pepper on the coarse side; for this dish, grind it a little finer (but not as fine as the store-ground stuff, which you also shouldn’t be using).

The reserved water is vital. Again, when cooking this, I was skeptical. There was no oil to coat the pasta; once the cheese melted, I expected it to clump together into a ball. Having the pasta still dripping when I returned it to the pot and adding some reserved pasta water as I tossed it kept everything nice and loose. Two tablespoons did it for me—add extra a little at a time, if needed.

Hungry for more Rome? Check out Pasta and Chickpeas, another deliciously rustic Roman pasta dish from that other Roman cookbook.


{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

altadenahiker March 30, 2011 at 4:14 am

Thank you! Absolutely my kind of meal. As for inferior cheese, it can run, but it cannot hide. I always splurge. Manchego is my current love. But Pecorino Romano, oh yes, that too.

Cynthia Fox-Giddens March 30, 2011 at 2:31 pm

A wonderful recipe and pepper is my #1 seasoning. The other thing I like about this dish is the simplicity of it.

Ronnie Ann March 30, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Simple is the way to my heart. And this sounds (and looks) scrumptious. Fun to actually see good ole spaghetti again!

The Rowdy Chowgirl March 30, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I love this. Cacio e Pepe is one of my favorite meals. Simple, but delicious.

Jamie March 30, 2011 at 11:02 pm

We couldn’t get enough of this when we were in Rome. My husband fell in love with this dish while we were over there. I hope you go to Rome someday, it is absolutely wonderful!!

Terry B March 31, 2011 at 3:24 am

When we buy cheese, Altadenahiker, we buy good stuff too. But we try not to keep too much in the house, because once it’s in the house, it’s in us.

Cynthia, pepper is often underrated. But when you use a lot—like here or on a steak, for instance—you begin to appreciate it.

Thanks, Ronnie Ann. For a long time, we eschewed spaghetti for slimmer, more glamorous angel hair. But now I really enjoy its honesty.

Rowdy, the simplicity of this is deceptive. It’s so brainlessly easy to make that you can’t believe it’s going to be much at all. But I was still thinking about this wonderful dish the next morning.

Jamie, I know we’ll love Rome once we get there. For the incredible food, if for nothing else! I hope you make this occasionally for your husband.

John Hobson March 31, 2011 at 1:43 pm

I have made something very similar with my own fresh pasta, cut into fettucini, but I prefer the spaghetti version.

Terry, one piece of advice if you are visiting Rome: When you go to see the Sistine Chapel, take along a small pair of binoculars. The ceiling is over 20 meters above your head, and cannot be seen very well with the naked eye. I will also say that my initial reaction on entering St Peter’s was, “This shows what you can do with a first rate decorator and an unlimited budget.”

melissa March 31, 2011 at 10:39 pm

This has my name all over it…simple (because I AM lazy!) And black pepper. I use very liberally. I used to carry a pepper grinder in my purse because I love fresh ground pepper so much!

The Manly Housewife April 2, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Great recipe and thank you for the kitchen notes. I always have Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand and I’m glad to know I can substitute it.

Terry B April 2, 2011 at 9:55 pm

John—Ha! Great advice on the Sistine Chapel.

Melissa—It’s easy to see you love black pepper. We just bought a bottle of your Fig Vanilla Black Pepper Syrup for a friend!

Thanks, Manly Housewife! One of the fun things about cooking to me is experimenting and substituting. That’s how new recipes and food ideas are born. I love your blog’s name, BTW.

Virtually Homemade April 3, 2011 at 10:25 pm

I just finished reading “Under the Tuscan Sun”. All the meals they prepared in Tuscany were so simple and delicious, like this one. As long as you’re using good ingredients, it does not need to be complicated!

Christina April 3, 2011 at 11:28 pm

I love this preparation of spaghetti. Add grated lemon peel, and I love it even more.

Thoreau, by the way, was a consummate liar. While he was writing about the joys of a simple life alone in the woods, he was walking down to the Emersons’ nearly every night to eat Mrs. Emerson’s cooking. He didn’t live nearly as austerely as he professed.

I doubt Mrs. Emerson ever served him this pasta. I say we keep it for ourselves.

Terry B April 4, 2011 at 3:41 am

I agree, Virtually Homemade. And besides using good ingredients, getting the right balance of them is what makes a simple dish delicious.

Christina—What a wonderful story! Thoreau must have been an insufferable visitor too. When Emerson came to visit him in jail when Thoreau had been jailed for refusing to pay taxes, Emerson reportedly asked him, “Henry, why are you here?” To which Thoreau answered, “Ralph, why aren’t you here?” In college, I thought it was a brilliant retort. Now I think I’d see it as the last straw.

John Hobson April 6, 2011 at 2:50 pm

Thoreau could afford to live the simple life at Walden Pond because he was independently wealthy. His family owned the largest pencil factory in the US.

Italian cooking has always depended on getting fresh ingredients and treating them with respect. When I was living in Umbria (mumble) years ago, I could get to a farmer’s market in at least one of the local towns every day of the week in spring, summer and autumn. Ah, to be in Perugia, now that spring is here.

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: