I recently returned from seven days in Rome. When my friend, Mollie Ahlstrand, chef and owner of Trattoria Mollie in Montecito, invited me to join her to see Rome “her way,” I basically had the tickets booked by the time she was done telling me about the trip. Rome’s incredible history and architecture makes it unlike any other city in the world, but in this rich and beautiful setting, the thing that made our trip so special was that Mollie first learned to cook in Rome. In fact, she trained under the great Gian Franco Vissani (A.K.A. the Italian Chef Superstar in red leather shoes), and, lucky for me, we were able to spend a lovely afternoon with him and his family in Umbria.
Other than eating our way through Rome with Mollie, we enjoyed some very special cultural and culinary tours with our new friend Angelo Amorico at Access Italy. Some of these excursions included touring and tasting wonderful olive oil in Sabina, custom tours of the city’s most special sites, and viewing some of Rome’s most hidden and magical art.
I came home after a week of visiting great restaurants, meeting wonderful people, tasting Italian cooking at its finest, taking in the culture, and discussing cooking techniques with Mollie. From everything I learned on this trip (and I’m still processing most of it), I feel that my appreciation of pasta has grown to a whole new level.
Cacio e Pepe
Before I went to Italy, I thought that I pretty much knew all there was to know about cooking pasta (I mean, my grandmother was born in Calbria). Pasta was a course at almost every restaurant we visited in Rome, and by the end of my trip, I learned that the best way to prepare this is as simply and as thoughtfully as possible. So on that note, here is my take on the simple pasta dish, Roma style:
Serves two (very hungry adults)
½ lb. spaghetti
1 ½ cups Pecorino Romano — best quality
1 ½ cups Parmesan Reggiano
1/16 of a cup of freshly ground black pepper
½ cup pasta water (give or take)
Put a large pot of water on the stove and bring to boil. Once the water is boiling, add two handfuls of kosher salt, then taste the water. Does it taste a bit salty? Good.
Add the spaghetti and stir. Be sure to check the pasta and keep stirring throughout the cooking process. Picture your imaginary Italian grandmother — she does not leave her pasta unattended. When you get to about 8 minutes of cooking, begin to test the pasta for doneness.
While you cook the pasta, grate the cheese and pepper. When the pasta is done cooking, strain the spaghetti and place in a large bowl, reserving approximately 1 cup of the liquid. Add the cheese and pepper to the pasta and mix together using tongs. Add bit of the reserved water to bind the pasta together and give it a bit of moisture. Enjoy!
Mollie’s Restaurant Tour included:
Flavio Al Velavevodetto — Via di Monte Testaccio 97/99, 00153 Rome
Felice A Testaccio — Via Mastro Giorgio, 29 0153 Rome
Novecento — Via dei Conciatori 10, Rome, Italy
and of course…
Vissani — S.S. 448 Todi — Baschi Km. 6,600 (Temi)