Italian-Style Macaroni and Cheese, Plus Pantry Staples for Roman Cooking

Discover a new, wide world of Italian flavors with Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill.

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Cacio e Pepe di Leonardo Vignoli

If you think red sauce and mozzarella are the extent of Italian food, brace yourself for a delicious revelation. Tasting Rome by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill is here to broaden your palate. This one-stop guide to Roman food brings you recipes for classic dishes you know and love, plus new ideas and iterations of what Italian food means — like the creamy three-ingredient pasta pictured above. It's a wonderfully simple cacio e pepe; think of it as Italian macaroni and cheese ... taken to the next level.

We checked in with the authors to find out about authentic Roman cooking at home and what a typical meal looks like for locals in Italy. Hear what they have to say below, and get their top tips, tricks and must-have staples for an Italian pantry.

What are the biggest misconceptions that Americans have about Italian food?

Katie Parla: “I think a major misconception is defining Italian food as a single cuisine when in fact there are hundreds of subregional traditions and even neighboring villages may approach a dish differently. It is the variety and tiny regional nuances that keep me constantly fascinated about the foods of Italy.”

Kristina Gill: “I think the biggest misconceptions are based on Italian-American food culture in the United States, depicted as a homogeneous culture of great big happy families all having meals together that Mom and Grandma made. There are very many big happy families having big meals together made by Mom and Grandma, but not every day, and not every meal. Second is the idea that Italy is all pizza and handmade (egg) pasta, when in fact the Italian peninsula offers extremely diverse cuisines. This is an idea in America (and maybe all over) that there is ‘Italian food’, when in fact what we call ‘Italian food’ is made up of regional and local cuisines.”

What are the most-notable distinctions between Roman food and Italian food?

KP: “There isn't really any such thing as Italian food. What defines Roman food is a set of ingredients, techniques and dishes that are unique to the Italian capital and set Rome's food apart from that of Florence, Venice, Milan and beyond. In Rome, the classic ingredients are Pecorino Romano, offal, local artichokes, guanciale and bitter greens, while dishes like cacio e pepe, carbonara and simply grilled lamb are iconic dishes.”

KG: “Roman food, exemplified by the four main pasta dishes (carbonara, gricia, cacio e pepe and amatriciana), uses a lot of pork jowl, pecorino cheese and black pepper. Other most frequently used ingredients include Roman-variety artichokes, Roman zucchini, Roman broccoli (Romanesco) — these ingredients are specific to Rome.”

What does a “typical” dinner in Rome look like? What about lunch?

KP: “Lunch used to be a big production, but that midday ritual of indulging in a long, wine-fueled lunch is long gone (except for holidays and weekends). Now, Romans are more likely to grab a slice of pizza or a sandwich on the fly or visit a tavola calda (cafeteria) for simply prepared pastas, veggies and meats. A typical dinner would feature pasta, protein and a vegetable, but on festive occasions Romans enjoy a long parade of courses, starting with antipasto, then going on to primo (pasta), secondo (meat or fish), contorno (vegetable side dish), dolce (dessert).”

KG: "Typical" has changed as family structures and dynamics have changed. Families are now often two-income families, which means lunch at home during the week is less common … . The weekends, which afford more time for meal preparation, would see a more elaborate lunch which incorporated a heavier and richer first course (pasta with ragu, lasagne), followed by a second course of meat, such as a roast or involtini, or fish. Dinner would be leftovers. Sunday lunch could be eaten with the family, perhaps even extended family, in restaurants at nearby destinations outside of Rome in the Castelli Romani (wine-growing region) or by the seaside. Pizza may be the meal of choice for Sunday evening, when soccer matches are on TV.”

If a home cook wanted to stock his or her pantry for Roman-style cooking, what ingredients are absolutely essential?

KP: You'll need Pecorino Romano, dried pasta (especially spaghetti and rigatoni), guanciale, extra virgin olive oil, salted anchovies, tomatoes, peperoncino (chile), black pepper, dandelion greens and eggs.

KG: Pecorino cheese, black pepper, hog jowl, good-quality olive oil, red chile flakes, fresh eggs, white wine.

Give the signature Roman dish cacio e pepe a try with the recipe below, and order your copy of Tasting Rome here.

Cacio e Pepe di Leonardo Vignoli
(Leonardo Vignoli’s Cacio e Pepe)

Cacio is the local Roman dialect word for Pecorino Romano, a sheep’s-milk cheese made in the region since ancient times. Like carbonara, cacio e pepe is a relative newcomer to the Roman repertoire, first appearing in the mid-20th century. Pasta is tossed with an emulsified sauce of Pecorino Romano and black pepper that is bound by starchy pasta cooking water. Depending on the cook, the results range from dry to juicy. We love Leonardo Vignoli’s saucy version at Cesare al Casaletto. He uses ice in a hot pan to obtain a creamy sauce, but we have adapted his recipe to obtain more consistent results in a home kitchen. Finely grated Pecorino Romano and very hot water are essential to a smooth sauce, while fresh, coarsely ground black pepper gives flavor and texture. The most important component of a flawless cacio e pepe, however, is speed. If the water cools before melting the cheese, the sauce will clump.

Serves 4 to 6
Sea salt
1 pound spaghetti or tonnarelli
2 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat. Salt the water. When the salt has dissolved, add the pasta and cook until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine 1 1/2 cups of the Pecorino Romano, the pepper, and a small ladle of pasta cooking water. Using the back of a large wooden spoon, mix vigorously and quickly to form a paste.

When the pasta is cooked, use a large strainer to remove it from the cooking water and quickly add it to the sauce in the bowl, keeping the cooking water boiling on the stove. Toss vigorously, adjusting with additional hot water a tablespoon or two at a time as necessary to melt the cheese and to obtain a juicy sauce that completely coats the pasta.

Plate and sprinkle each portion with some of the remaining Pecorino Romano and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Reprinted from Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City. Copyright © 2016 by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill. Photographs copyright © 2016 by Kristina Gill. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

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