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Oct 30, 2012
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On the morning of May 12, 2012, a 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. One local farmer described the horrendous feeling of waking up at 4:04 a.m. to the shaking earth and the roar of 86-pound wheels of cheese crashing to the ground. The quake killed scores of people and injured hundreds more. Thousands of victims were left homeless after their houses were demolished. Adding to the tragedy was the destruction of approximately 320 million dollars of some of the world’s finest cheese.

Emilia-Romagna produces an array of fine food products. The region is famed for its prosciutto ham and superior balsamic vinegar. Barilla pasta, popular the world over, is produced here. But many gastronomes think that in this part of the world cheese reigns supreme, for this is where Parmigiano-Reggiano, the king of cheeses, and its close relative Grana Podano, are made. The loss of some 160 tons of cheese dealt a severe economic blow to the region.

This October, six months after the quake, Italy celebrated “Parmigiano-Reggiano Night” as an expression of solidarity to the citizens of Emilia-Romagna, whose cheese producers are still struggling to recover from the damage. As reported by Larry Olmsted in a Forbes magazine article titled “The Biggest Dinner In Italian History,” the goal was to encourage home cooks and restaurant chefs to prepare and eat the same meal on the same night everywhere in Italy. Word was spread through press and social media outlets, and the theme was promoted by the region’s acclaimed chef, Massimo Boturra, whose Osteria Fancescana is one of Italy’s most renowned restaurants. To help call attention to the revitalization of the Parma region,
Bottura wanted to prepare a characteristic Italian recipe that not only would be cheese-based, but also would be simple enough for people to prepare at home. He settled on cacio e pepe, a traditional dish whose principle ingredients are pasta, Parmesan cheese and black pepper.

Although we live thousands of miles away from the site of the disaster, we decided to join in the celebration here at home in Baltimore. So last week, on October 27th, we sat down to bowls of steaming Cacio e Pepe Linguine. Who knows where this concept might lead--perhaps by next year it could become a global event (akin to the global “Diner en Blanc”), with thousands of people around the world grating cheese, grinding pepper, and raising a glass of wine to salute international solidarity.

Cacio e Pepe Pasta

The only “secret” to success with this recipe is to grind your own pepper in a pepper mill, set to medium coarse. (Cacio e pepe will not work if you make it with finely ground commercial pepper.) Also, since the cheese tends to stick on the bottom of the pan, a non-stick skillet is easiest to use (and to scour clean afterwards).

Serves 4

1 pound linguine or other pasta
1/3 cup olive oil
3 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Podano cheese, plus another half cup or so to pass at the table

Cook the pasta in a generous amount of salted water. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large heavy skillet. Add the pepper and cook it over medium heat for two or three minutes. When the pasta is done, save 1 and ½ cups of the cooking water; then drain the pasta. Stir one cup of the water into the pan with the pepper. When it simmers, add the pasta to the skillet, spread it around, and then sprinkle the cheese over it. Stir vigorously until the cheese is well integrated and the sauce is creamy, adding the rest of the water if necessary. Divide pasta into 4 bowls and serve immediately, passing the rest of the cheese (and additional olive oil if you like) at the table.

* * *

We tried a wide variety of wines with this simple, cheesy pasta dish. Both reds and whites worked, as did bubblies, and domestics as well as imports. Not surprisingly, quite delicate wines seemed overmatched by the food, while aggressive, oak-dominated ones proved too pushy and over-bearing at the table. The wines we liked best all showed a well-defined streak of acidity, and no matter their color, tasted refreshing with this quite rich dish. Whatever you choose, don’t forget to lift a glass in toast to Emilia Romagna, and the delights provided by its delicious cheeses.


Approx. Price


Cambria, Santa Maria Valley (California) Pinot Noir “Julia’s Vineyard” 2010


Of the different Pinots we sampled with our pasta, we liked this one the best. It’s ripe and fruity, but not sappy, with bright acidity that keeps its other elements in balance. Moreover, it feels smooth and silky, and so complements the rich, cheesy quality of Cacio e Pepe very nicely.

Château Cazal Viel, Saint Chinian (France) 2009

(Imported by Miquel et Fils)


Hailing from the Languedoc region of southern France, this primarily Syrah-based Saint Chinian has a subtle peppery edge, making it an ideal partner for this dish. It also tastes surprisingly layered and complex, the quality in the bottle far exceeding the price tag. This is a wine that merits a special effort to find and buy.


Paul Dolan, Potter Valley, Mendocino County (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2011


We did not expect a Sauvignon Blanc to perform so well with this dish, but the combination of rich, almost fleshy fruit, and bright acidity made this one shine brightly. California Sauvignons tend to be weightier on the palate than those coming from most other places in the world. That heft often serves as a detriment, but in this case was a definite advantage.

Gloria Ferrer, Sonoma County (California) “Va de Vi” NV


We loved this slightly off-dry sparkling wine with the pasta. It outperformed a similarly flavored (think golden delicious apples and ripe pears) Prosseco because, much as with the Sauvignon Blanc we’re recommending, it had a bit more weight on the palate, so never seemed too frothy.

Villa Antinori, Toscana (Italy) Rosso IGT 2008

(Imported by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates)


A Tuscan red, with that characteristic note of dusty earth that characterizes the better wines from the region, this “rosso” seemed to become a better match with time spent in glass. The exposure to air softened it, allowing its bright acidity to come to the fore, and making the wine as a whole both more expressive and more satisfying as a partner with this particular dish.