When your cousin marries a man whose family owns a stunning vineyard in Tuscany you drop everything and get yourself there! Prior to this last month I had traveled to several beautiful parts of our globe but I had yet to visit a country from my family’s heritage. I have climbed the steps of the Great Wall of China and peered into the faces of terracotta soldiers, I proudly earned “Junior ranger badges” at dozens of National Parks across the US, I’ve climbed Table Mountain and enjoyed Bunny Chow in Durban, I’ve dipped my toes into Caribbean waters, and I have stood on top of the Eiffel Tower. Now, after spending 10 days in Italy I have a deeper understanding for the connection with food that my mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother each had stemming from the diversity of foods across this impressive country.
After landing in Florence and not sleeping much on the airplane my husband and I rented a tiny car and began our drive to the vineyard. On the way we stopped into a side of the road restaurant in Greve and I ordered Cacio e Pepe. I’d had it once before when I took an Italian cooking class in Boston (at Dave’s Fresh Pasta, a great local grocer) and this recipe I share below comes from things I learned at that class. Anyhoo, upon sitting down at our first Italian dinner I found it fitting to see Cacio e Pepe on the menu. (The picture below is my dish from Italy.) This pasta only includes a few ingredients and yet it can be tricky to get just right. Kenji from SeriousEats provides much wisdom and I was particularly appreciative of his explanation around finely grating the cheese for ease of melting. Also, while many folks make this dish with spaghetti I found an imported Italian cannolicchi which is a hearty spiral shaped pasta that held the sauce within each bite, similar to what I had in Italy.
After our first Italian meal of homemade pasta, meats and cheeses we continued on our trip toward the vineyard. If you are ever in Tuscany you must stop in for a visit at Querceto di Castellina, a family-run vineyard where you can sip delicious wines, take a cooking class, and take a dip in the salt water pool. We stayed in one of their 14th century renovated stone cottages where the most fragrant rosemary bush greeted us each morning as we stepped out the door on our way to our daily espresso.
The winery makes several wines including white and rose but their Chianti Classico was my favorite. I learned that in order to be considered a true Chianti Classico the wine makers must use 80% Sangiovese grapes, they must grow within the region, the bottle must be a specific shape use a natural cork, and finally you are not allowed to water the vines – the water must come from the sky. [Note: a black rooster on a bottle of wine tells you that a winemaker has indeed met these requirements.]
The wedding celebration was held on the upper lawn of the vineyard and all guests were asked to wear white – this created a stunning scene set against the green vine-filled hillside. We drank many bottles of rose and champagne, enjoyed cheeses purposefully plated to be consumed in order, feasted on meats carved by the local butcher, and other breads, panzanella, and snacks cooked by the matriarch of the family (also the one who holds the cooking classes).
After this first part of our vacation we continued on to Cinque Terre, Lucca, and back to Florence, with each bringing its own unique geography and food! More to come soon. But for now, I am off to drink a glass of red wine with this simple yet rich pasta. My version was not to the same level of the dish I had in Tuscany but it sure did bring back fond memories.
- 1 bag of Italian pasta (17 oz)
- 2 Tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup pecorino romano cheese (finely grated)
- 2 Tablespoons butter
Steps and Notes:
- Cook the pasta according to the directions
- Note: when draining the pasta reserve the pasta water for the final steps
- While cooking the pasta, spoon a small ladle of pasta water into a large hot sauce pan. Add the pepper and the butter and mix well until the butter is melted.
- Once the butter is melted, add the cheese to this pan. Be sure it is very hot or else the cheese will be clumpy.
- Mix around and smoosh the cheese clumps with the back of a wooden spoon.
- Toss the pasta into the saucepan keeping the heat on low. Season with more pepper to taste and add a bit more pasta water if necessary to adjust the thickness of the sauce
Thoughts for Next Time:
- I’d like to try making this dish with homemade pasta!
- Add a variation with finely chopped up broccoli