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La Cacio e Pepe di Luciano Monosilio
Back to November-December 2021
Here at Milk Street, we’ve received a handful of queries about our recipe for cacio e pepe. Like carbonara and Alfredo, these silky-smooth cheesy sauces often have a problem—the cheese does not melt properly (it gets grainy) or the sauce starts to break (it gets greasy) after just a couple of minutes.
So we dug deep. We investigated the temperature at which cheese melts, the age and provenance of the cheese, and whether some sort of starch is helpful in emulsifying the sauce. Then a conversation with Alex Aïnouz, one of our radio show correspondents, reminded me of a technique invented by Luciano Monosilio, who makes his cacio e pepe sauce in a blender, adding hot pasta water, peppercorns, extra-virgin olive oil, pecorino and Parmigiano. The dish is finished in a skillet with additional hot pasta water. Ecco! Problem solved. (We finally arrived at an even simpler solution—get the recipe at 177milkstreet.com.)
I’ve spent time in Italy over the years, most recently in Bologna, and there is no question that Italians love tradition, from the ubiquitous ragù alla Bolognese and tortellini in brodo to zuppa imperiale. One can argue about where one buys local flour for the pasta, the best time of year to harvest white truffles, or whether one prefers culatello or prosciutto crudo, but there is a simplicity to the cuisine, a devotion to the past. Change is not unwelcome, I thought, it’s simply not part of the vernacular.
Near the end of my stay in Bologna, however, I ended up at Max Poggi’s restaurant, Massimiliano Poggi, which offers an “evocative, poetic and cosmopolitan cuisine” featuring white plates dotted with small pearls of brightly colored vegetable purees, celadon green plates with strips of rare beef, and inside-out tortellini where the filling becomes the sauce and vice-versa. A big bear of a chef, Poggi is every bit Italian, but he is a culinary artist, not a line chef in a trattoria, playing with the past, not reproducing it.
In our small Vermont town, there is controversy about the Sheldon Store. A local artist raised money to refurbish the now-defunct store to make it a community center, offering coffee and muffins, picnic tables and a place to gather on Saturday mornings. The old-timers don’t like it much; most of them were born in their houses and educated at the two-room schoolhouse, now the town offices. It’s a place where the volunteer fire department still holds its Old Home Day carnival to raise money (excellent fried dough and maple milkshakes), and where we have two Lilliputian post offices, one for each side of town.
Italy has D.O.P., a protected designation of origin that also covers how a product is produced—cheese, prosciutto, olive oil, etc. And this is a good thing, given how big food producers have undercut small local producers with cheap lookalikes. But many in the food world argue that recipes, like Bernini sculptures, should also be enshrined, hallowed and unchanged.
Yet change is what makes the world of food go around. Ask Cheryl Day (of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah) about traditional biscuit recipes, and she notes, “There are as many Southern biscuit recipes as there are Southern grandmothers,” including cathead biscuits, angel biscuits, sweet potato biscuits and a thousand more.
Yes, food can be political, cultural, academic and corporate. But most of all, it is about change—changing your own life. Alice Waters decided early on that whatever she did for a living, she wanted to eat lunch at a table with interesting people. That led her on the path to a life of beauty and art, to a celebration of the senses, to an appreciation of time well spent and to a rededication to community through the Edible Schoolyard Project.
The great myth about life is that we have time, and yet we have so little. Let’s spend it setting extra places at the table instead of arguing about who gets an invitation.
After all, it is the holiday season.