This riff on cacio e pepe with pancetta and arugula packs a flavor wallop. Curly pasta is tossed with Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino-Romano cheeses, butter, crisped pancetta, and wilted greens.
This weeknight pasta fix, a riff on an Italian classic, is all about the ingredients. “Cacio e pepe” literally translates as cheese and pepper, the two predominant ingredients, so by all means splurge for the real deal Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino Romano. And not that preshredded stuff. Ditto for buying already ground black pepper.
Then behold the magic of quality ingredients, brought together with a little care and finesse, to glam up tradition. Any short pasta with curves and curls will work beautifully to capture the light, creamy sauce punctuated with crisp, salty nuggets of pancetta and barely wilted arugula. If baby kale or spinach is more your groove, or if you’d prefer to toss in some artichokes or roasted asparagus, by all means, don’t let us, or tradition, stop you.
And if you love this riff on the Italian classic, get ready to fall in love with its marriage to Jewish noodle kugel.–Jenny Howard
Cacio e Pepe with Pancetta and Arugula
- Kosher salt
- 1 pound creste di gallo pasta (cock’s comb shaped) or other short curly pasta
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/3 pound pancetta cut into 1/3-inch (8-mm) chunks
- 1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano plus more (optional) for serving
- 1 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
- 2 tablespoons (1 oz) unsalted butter at room temperature
- 3 cups packed baby arugula roughly chopped
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook 2 minutes less than the package directions, about 8 minutes. Drain well, reserving 1 1/2 cups pasta cooking water.
- Meanwhile, in a large, straight-sided skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until the pancetta is crisp, about 8 minutes. Stir in the pepper and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute. Pour in 1/2 cup reserved pasta water and combine, using a wooden spoon to scrape up any crisp bits of pancetta that are sticking to the bottom of the skillet.
- Add the drained pasta to the skillet and sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Toss quickly to combine. Drizzle another 1/2 cup reserved pasta water over the pasta and stir well to coat all of the pasta in the cheese sauce. Scatter the pecorino over the pasta and drop in the knob of butter, tossing everything together until butter and cheese melt, creating a light, creamy, cheese sauce. Add the arugula and stir until it wilts, 2 to 3 minutes. If a thinner, lighter consistency for the sauce is desired, incorporate the additional reserved pasta water. Serve with more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, if desired.
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Recipe Testers’ Reviews
This cacio e pepe with pancetta and arugula is an outstanding dish with great method and results. It’s simple and elegant. The recipe provides a great template, the takeaway being how lovely the pepper brings out flavor and of course using the pasta water to get a sauce with the perfect flow and freshness.
Use a curly, interesting pasta with extra texture on the edges. If you can’t find the exact one pictured, use a similar shape like Toscani or even a helical-spiral of Cavatappi. You can save a little time grating on the larger holes rather than the extra-fine Microplane although the cheese will just take a moment longer in the pan to melt.
Get your pasta going (heat the water while you’re prepping your ingredients) and don’t start the pancetta too soon as it will quickly crisp. The pasta holds better than pancetta. But it you find the pancetta ahead of the pasta, just pull the pan off the burner for a few minutes so you don’t over-brown your beautiful pancetta and put it back on the heat when the pasta is drained. Once you bloom the pepper, proceed with the recipe as written and the arugula will wilt perfectly, also making you feel slightly virtuous with such a healthy and delicious upgrade to weeknight pasta.
In-a-hurry method? If you only had some baby spinach instead of arugula, that would swap in perfectly. We made a half recipe for two of us, fully intending to be good and set some aside for leftovers, but the temptation was too great and there was none left!
This cacio e pepe with pancetta and arugula turned out to be a “tale of two pastas. although, the problem that I had with the leftovers may well have been only own doing. The first night this was a solid recipe, one that we enjoyed tremendously. Orecchiette was my pasta of choice since I love the way that the little ears hold sauces. I offered this pasta up two different ways. I had baby arugula washed and spun dry. I also took advantage of spring asparagus, and the mention the author made of the possibility of swapping that out for the arugula. I roasted the asparagus in a hot oven till barely tender, and sliced it on the diagonal into 1 1/2-inch pieces. It was perfect. My husband loved the arugula version, and I opted for the asparagus in my bowl. The pasta was delicious, with the peppery bite from the pancetta and the coarsely ground black pepper. There was enough pepper to make your lips tingle with every bite, which was a pleasant feeling. I made half a recipe for just the 2 of us. There were enough leftovers for a lunch sized portion of pasta for both of us. Overnight the pasta had become quite dry. The little ears had cupped together. I lamented having not saved some of the extra pasta water. The other problem I had was not taking the time to reheat the pasta more slowly. I made the mistake of reheating the pasta in the microwave, which gave a greasy result, with fat accumulating in the bottom of the bowl. If you don’t eat all of the pasta when you make it, save some of the pasta water to use when reheating the leftovers. Heat the pasta up slowly over a low heat with the leftover pasta water, or in a low oven or toaster oven, again with some of the leftover pasta water.
Talk about getting some bang for your buck! I loved that this variation on cacio e pepe took the traditionally very basic recipe down a different road and made it host to a garden of possible additions that do indeed lighten the final dish. I followed the suggestion of arugula, but next time I’m going to try the artichoke hearts or asparagus, too. I did add more of the arugula than suggested, but the glory of the recipe is its flexibility that way. Everything about this recipe is simple…but the the flavorful end result is remarkably complex thanks to the use of both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino. I was concerned about the pepper flavor coming across too assertively, but it was actually just right. I ate this for a solo dinner with a nice glass of red wine while my husband was out of town…and had to resist diving straight into the pot for a second serving. Lucky for him I held back …and now he gets to enjoy the leftovers!
I skipped the separate sauté in the ‘large straight-sided skillet’ and just used the same Dutch oven that had been used for the pasta. I know I gained a few minutes in the overall cooking time to wait for the pasta to finish before proceeding, but it was minimal and worth it to me to make this a one-pot dish. After I had reserved the cooked pasta and the pasta water, I added the olive oil and pancetta into the Dutch oven and proceeded.
I followed the technique of adding cheese, then some water and stirring to coat, but I still had clumps of cheese that didn’t completely melt. I often have this issue with Parmesan, and no amount of increased heat or stirring can fix it once the cheese begins to clump. How could this be avoided? (For the same reasons, pastas with a cheese stir-in like this always leave a heck of a mess in the cooking pot, so my dishwashing husband would also be thrilled for me to understand how to do this better!)
Definitely a keeper recipe, especially for those days when I want something that satisfies my foodie inclinations but when I don’t have the time or wherewithal to get too complicated in the kitchen. A new favorite!
We enjoyed this twist on cacio e pepe as the additions made it a great one-dish meal. I especially like that it came together quickly, which makes it perfect for a weeknight, and the way the arugula cut some of the richness of the cheese and pancetta.
It seemed like an enormous amount of cheese to add to the pan/pasta. I wondered if it would all incorporate, but it did. The pasta water helped smooth it out so it did not end up clumpy. (I added 1/2 cup more of the pasta water so 1 1/2 cups total.) We did not need additional cheese at the table, there was plenty already in the dish.I don’t think it was exactly a creamy sauce (as described in the recipe), but it did coat all the pasta nicely.
Overall, the finished dish was a little on the salty side for our tastes, so I would cut back on some of the cheese or use less salt in the pasta cooking water next time I make it.
What a great way to add some lightness to cacio e pepe. A complete meal in a bowl with the added greens, no salad required. Comes together in under 30 minutes and is a hearty enough dish for chilly almost-spring evenings but light enough that it doesn’t weigh you down. Love that it’s customisable in terms of what greens you add—the possibilities are endless!
I did find the cheese kind of clumped a little and so did the greens but using tongs to mix the cheese through helped a bit there.
A huge hit.
I decided to make this cacio e pepe with pancetta and arugula on a Friday night when we weren’t sure what to cook. I only had rotini and spinach so it was little different than there recipe, but I thought it was a delicious quick dinner.
The only change I would make would be to add 1 cup less cheese and more greens or a mixture of greens and peas. I loved the richness of the sauce, but I think a little less cheese would be a little less heavy. This recipe would also be a great way to use up extra ham from a holiday meal.
Originally published November 15, 2018
If you make this recipe, snap a photo and hashtag it #LeitesCulinaria. We'd love to see your creations on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
We loved how fast this cacio e pepe with pancetta and arugula came together. After a busy day out we had dinner ready in just a short time with pretty much pantry staples. We liked the salty bites of pancetta, the creaminess of the sauce (which was amazing since there’s no cream or milk involved), and the peppery bite of the arugula. One taster found the sauce a bit salty but it was fine for the rest of us. With a crisp white wine and a light salad, this made a very satisfying meal. We can’t wait to try this recipe with asparagus or again with arugula.
I used gemelli. And it only took 15 minutes hands-on time since another family member grated the cheese while I prepared the other ingredients.