Pici cacio e pepe

On our recent trip to Italy, we drove from Florence to Montalcino. On the way, we passed through a town called Buonconvento. We were ready for a little break from driving so decided to stop when I saw a flea market set up near the side of the road. It took a while to find a place to park, as the market was evidently a popular one. The market was a typical collection of tents and mobile vendors selling everything from socks to housewares to delicious pecorino cheese made in Pienza. We wandered around there and then discovered, behind the market, the walled portion of the city of Buonconvento. Here, the annual harvest festival was taking place!

Inside the walled city, it seemed that several different neighborhood groups were preparing for big harvest dinners. For 18 Euros, you could get a ticket for one of these multi-course feasts, served by volunteers at long tables in tented areas. The menus were quite meat and mushroom focused, which made them unappealing to me. But I bet the food was delicious and it was all being freshly prepared. We walked past a room with an open door where several older women were making a pasta I later learned was called pici. I didn’t want to be a bad tourist and take their picture, so here is what I saw: an assembly-line of pici! Pici is a pasta shape that resembles a thick spaghetti noodle. Handmade, they can be slightly twisty. The women here had quantities of pasta dough. It appeared that one was rolling it out into a sheet, then cutting it into strips. The others were then handrolling it on the table into the thick round shapes. Later in the trip, I ate as much pici as I could!

My favorite dish turned out to be pici cacio e pepe. An excellent version of this can be had at Locanda San Antimo, about 12 km outside of Montalcino. I determined I would try to make these noodles and this creamy peppery sauce at home. I thought it would be very difficult, based on the poor version I recently had at a well-known Seattle Italian restaurant. That one had good pasta, but an unfortunate broken and flavorless sauce that seemed to feature a pool of olive oil at the bottom, cheese sprinkled only on the top, and lacked both pepper (key ingredient!) and salt. The kitchen was super-busy so I will not name them here, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they can do better. Although I will order something else if we go there again!

I am pleased to say my pici adventure at home turned out well. The sauce was creamy, like the ones I had in Italy. My pici, while a little too thick, was al dente and yummy. Here is what I did…

For the noodles, I following a combination of internet recipes, mostly this one.

Pici noodles (generously serves 2)
– 2 cups flour (I used about 1/3 cup semolina, the rest all-purpose)
– 1 egg
– 1/4 tsp salt
– water (maybe 1/2 cup?)

Mix flour and salt. Stir in egg until a crumbly mixture forms. Add water gradually until you get a firm, not sticky dough. Use your hands. Knead until smooth. Rub some olive oil on the dough and let rest in a bowl for a half hour.

Flatten the dough onto a cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut into slices. Cut slices into strips. Roll each strip against the cutting board or counter to form a long snake. Aim for a thickness about twice the diameter of spaghetti (mine were thicker, but I will try to get them thinner next time).

Put the finished noodles on a well-floured tray. Toss with more flour if you are not cooking them right away. (I tossed mine with flour, covered them with plastic wrap and refrigerated them until the next day – worked fine.)

Set a large pot of salted water over high heat and then start the sauce.

I followed this Epicuious recipe (link below) exactly with the exception of adding a minced clove of garlic with the pepper and butter in the first step.

Yum, almost as good as I remembered.