I blame my Italian heritage for my undying love of carbohydrates. I grew up eating penne, fusilli or tortellini each night at dinner and truth be told, I have no desire to be weaned off pasta. Few dishes can compete with the satisfaction of a comforting bowl of noodles and there are seemingly endless variants to choose from in Italy. You’ve got short pastas and long pastas, pastas filled with tasty ingredients and those that are enjoyed plain, pastas made with flour and water and those made with egg, pastas that are textured and those that are smooth. Italy boasts over 300 varieties and that’s without getting into the sauces. For better or for worse, I am pretty passionate about pasta and on those rare days I don’t eat it, the only suitable alternative is pizza. But I digress.
Of all the pastas shapes, sizes and sauces that exist in Italy, cacio e pepe is my unrivaled favorite dish. This Roman pasta is made up of only three ingredients and is perfect in its simplicity: you’ve got 1) tonnarelli, a long, fresh pasta from the Lazio and Abruzzo regions with slightly square edges, 2) pecorino, a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk, and 3) freshly cracked black pepper which, it turns out, is an extremely versatile condiment. Everything is carefully melded together with healthy dash of starchy pasta water, an essential ingredient for creating a silky smooth sauce, and then it’s ready to eat.
Some restaurants in Rome substitute spaghetti for tonnarelli or add parmigiano into the mix to cut down on the tartness of the sheep’s cheese but I’m a pecorino purist and prefer to enjoy the recipe the way it was intended – in all its salty glory. I’ve eaten my way through hundreds of bowls of cacio e pepe in the Eternal City and consider myself somewhat of an expert. In my rigorous research, I’ve come across many bowls that were passable, some that were terrible (note: butter is not a permitted ingredient) and some that were truly sublime. Cacio e pepe is deceptively simple but it takes skill to achieve the right balance of flavors and textures and only a handful of trattorias excel at this endeavor.
Thus, in no particular order, I present you with my list of where to find the best cacio e pepe in Rome.
1. Trattoria Da Danilo
Da Danilo, an old-school trattoria in Piazza Vittorio, doesn’t win any awards for its brusk service but it surely wins for visual effect: the cacio e pepe is adeptly tossed in a gigantic wheel of pecorino, thoroughly coating the noodles with plenty of cheese (and then some) and dressing them with a perfect amount of black pepper before being doled with much fanfare.
Trattoria Da Danilo
Via Petrarca, 13, 00185 Roma RM
+39 06 7720 0111
2. Pigneto Quarantuno
Pigneto Quarantuno just might be my favorite restaurant in Rome: everything here is excellent, from its antipasti and wine list to creative pasta dishes and main entrees. Sometimes I can’t resist experimenting and ordering one of their tantalizing primi rather than a traditional pasta (I love their mezze maniche pasta with pumpkin, caramelized onion and pecorino), the cacio e pepe at Pigneto Quarantuno might just be the best version in Rome. It’s creamy, salty to the perfect degree, just peppery enough and I love the whole atmosphere of the restaurant. Highly recommended if you find yourself in Pigneto!
Via del Pigneto, 41, 00176 Roma RM
+39 06 7039 9483
3. Felice A Testaccio
Another top “cacio e pepe experience” to be had in Rome is at Felice in Testaccio, a classy bistro with checkered floors and a delightful local feel. A waiter mixes your bowl of cacio e pepe directly at your table, carefully incorporating the ingredients until every noodle is layered in cheesy goodness. This restaurant is well loved (for good reason) so you should book a table well in advance.
Felice A Testaccio
Via Mastro Giorgio, 29, 00153 Roma RM
+39 06 574 6800
4. Osteria da Zi Umberto
Zi Umberto is also one of my absolute favorite restaurants in Rome because it hits all the right buttons: location, price point and style. It’s no frills but that’s what we love in Rome, right? I also saw Jude Law here twice and take all my guests here because it’s such a Roman experience – a little boisterous but not too over-the-top. I absolutely love the cacio e pepe here, which is creamy and slightly less sharp than others, although I’ll admit, I often can’t keep myself from ordering the casarecce with pecorino and cicoria, a bitter herb. This is one of the only trattorias in Rome that adds cicoria, another favorite ingredient, to its pasta which I’m truly grateful for (I need to add some greens into my diet every once in a while.. right?)
Osteria da Zi Umberto
Piazza di S. Giovanni della Malva, 14, 00153 Roma RM
+39 06 581 6646
5. L’Osteria di Monteverde
Though L’Osteria di Monteverde uses spaghetti instead of tonnarelli, meaning the noodles are slightly thinner and less textured, the flavor of the cacio e pepe here is very well balanced and the pasta is perfectly cooked al dente, giving the dish a nice chewiness. This version is slightly drier than others, without abundant residual cheese sauce, but it doesn’t negatively impact the effect of the dish which is still excellent.
L’Osteria di Monteverde
Pietro Cartoni, 163, 00152 Roma RM
+39 06 5327 3887
Although I live around the corner from Lo’Steria, it took me years to try this restaurant and now it’s one of my absolute favorites in Rome. The dishes here use excellent locally-sourced ingredients: the pecorino comes from the Tuscia countryside in northern Lazio, lending it an intriguing and delicate flavor that has a hint of sweetness, creating an exceptionally harmonious plate of pasta with nuances that aren’t present in most others. Lo’Steria also always has intriguing daily specials with seasonal vegetables like fava beans and artichokes.
Via dei Prati della Farnesina, 61, 00135 Roma RM
+39 06 3321 8749
7. Hostaria Romana
Hostaria Romana is a very traditionally eatery in the heart of Rome and one of the few standouts in the middle of all the action, right near Piazza Barberini. This family-owned establishment has been serving Roman classics for over 50 years and has perfected its cacio e pepe, one of the restaurant’s strongest dishes. The atmosphere is rustic and the service is warm and friendly, a major plus.
Via del Boccaccio, 1, 00187 Roma RM
+39 06 474 5284
8. Cesare al Casaletto
There’s not much to say about Cesare al Casaletto that hasn’t already been said by Rome’s food bloggers but this is certainly one of the better restaurants in the city and worth a ride to the end of the tramline to reach. All of the dishes I’ve tried here are top-notch and the cacio e pepe is superlative: perfectly creamy, peppery and ultra cheesy. What you really need to try at Cesare though are the deep fried golden gnocchi on a bed of melted pecorino cheese with a dusting of pepper – you can’t have too much of a good thing, right?
Cesare al Casaletto
Via del Casaletto, 45, 00151 Roma RM
+39 06 536015