Since moving home from Italy a couple of years ago, I have been on the search for the perfect cacio e pepe in Chicago.
The Roman dish is seemingly simple, yet so hard to get exactly right. Handmade, al dente tonnarelli is tossed with piles of pecorino (a hard, sheep’s milk cheese that tastes like a tangier parmesan), and a generous supply of freshly cracked black pepper. Simple. Except it’s not.
Cacio e pepe in Rome is luxurious and creamy, with a bite at the end. Cacio e pepe in many American restaurants is good, but tastes like pasta with cheese and pepper on it. Nothing mind blowing.
The secret, Italians say, is to mix a bit of the starchy pasta water with the cheese, aiding in achieving the creamy texture. I’ve tried this hundreds of time at home to some success, but it’s still not as good as Flavio al Velavevodetto, or Roscioli, or Da Danilo, or Gallo Brillo, where it takes you to new levels of food bliss and makes my mouth water this instant from 4,800 miles away.
Some American restaurants use butter or olive oil to mix the cheese. I understand. It takes a lot of quick tossing and much more cheese than you initially think to make perfect cacio e pepe, and on a busy night in a restaurant a little help is probably needed. Maybe some Roman restaurants cheat a bit too when serving crowds. We’ll never know.
What I do know, is that after eating cacio e pepe around Chicago, I finally went to Monteverde, Sarah Grueneberg’s restaurant in the West Loop neighborhood, and was satisfied.
Grueneberg wants guests to appreciate the importance of pasta, a mission I can definitely get behind. At Monteverde, a circular bar surrounds a pasta making station, where chefs cut and roll pasta, an overhead mirror showcasing the skill to the rest of the room. In an interview earlier this year, Grueneberg said people focus on sauce, but too often forget the backbone of the dish. While studying in Italy, she came up with the idea of letting guests in on the importance of the pasta itself.
So we’re off to a good start, with hand made bucatini made before our eyes. The waiter, when I lit up with delight that cacio e pepe was on the menu, was well versed in the dish too, talking to me about the amount of cheese that goes into each serving. (By the way, this is not a dish to eat if you’re on a diet).
Afraid to get my hopes up, I delayed the pasta with a wonderful burrata and tomato salad made with the sweetest tomatoes I’ve had all summer; perfectly fried arancini; and a mushroom, artichoke, ricotta, and truffle crostini. The last one is reason enough to visit.
Finally, it was time for the cacio e pepe.
“Mix it around a bit, to make sure the cheese and pepper really coat it,” said our waiter, which gave me even more confidence in the place.
While I prefer tonnarelli to bucatini (it’s easier to twirl!), the rest of the dish was perfection. Creamy and sharp and filling. But not so filling I didn’t get a chocolate orange cannoli with Sicilian pistachios, perfect with Sparrow Coffee espresso.
Prior to Monteverde, Eataly was the best cacio e pepe in Chicago, though it’s thinner than I would like. I can’t wait to eat at Monteverde again, and with so many amazing looking dishes on the menu I might have to pull myself away from pecorino for a night to try things like the arrabbiata, tortelli verde, or gnocchetti sardi.
1020 W Madison St, Chicago, IL
(Only open for dinner, and reservations highly recommended)