The executive chef at Sotto, the rustic, below-ground Italian trattoria on Sixth Street, is not Italian. Not even a little bit. He is, however, extremely skilled in crafting classic Italian dishes that will impress even the most scrutinizing Mediterranean palate. In fact, one of Sotto’s goals as a restaurant is to execute traditional Italian dishes in the most authentic way possible. That way, when native Italians make their way into Sotto’s underground culinary haven, Executive Chef Danny Combs and his team are ready for them.
“Every so often, a bunch of Romans will come in and ask for a carbonara,” Combs says. “I love having the chance to show them what we can do.”
Combs recently returned to Cincinnati after trattoria-hopping across northern Italy. He tries to make it across the pond as often as possible, returning each time with a binder full of photos, recipes and ideas for new menu items. In fact, diners at Sotto should expect to see menu items inspired by his trip in the coming weeks. The dish he chose to share with us, however, is one that many Sotto regulars will immediately recognize: the cacio e pepe.
For those yet to try it, cacio e pepe (which literally translates to “cheese and pepper”) is a traditional Roman pasta dish that involves three main elements: butter, Pecorino cheese and black pepper. Simple, yes, but hardly a dish for amateurs.
Cacio e pepe, like any great dish, begins with great ingredients. Combs recommends finding the best pasta you can, whether it is dried or homemade (brands like Rustichella d’Abruzzo and Benedetto are both great choices and can be found at Dutch’s in Hyde Park, on Amazon or at Jungle Jim’s), and following the package directions obsessively.
“There’s a huge difference in texture and taste from what you might normally buy at the grocery store,” he says.
Combs also encourages home chefs to spend money on their butter; Sotto uses unsalted butter from Hartzler’s Dairy in Wooster, Ohio, which is sold at places like Whole Foods. The cheese is equally important and should be purchased from someone who truly understands Pecorino (and hard cheeses in general). Again, try Dutch’s.
When it comes to preparation, chef Combs offers a few tips to help any at-home chef as they navigate cacio e pepe or other Italian pasta dishes.
Pasta should always be cooked at a rolling boil in a large, deep pot of salted water.
Never rinse your pasta. The starches released during cooking help the sauce adhere to the noodles.
Every great sauce requires pasta water, so remember to reserve a cup or two.
Be wary of over-salting your dish. Pecorino has the ability to open up your palate in a way that makes everything taste a little stronger. Salted butter is overkill for this dish, especially when you have salted the pasta water already.
Grate your cheese ahead of time and always add it last. If you return a pan to the heat after cheese has been incorporating, it just sort of lumps together instead of sticking to the pasta.
Combs’ final tip is this: If you want to improve your cooking skills, take a recipe from your favorite cookbook and follow it to a T. Then do it again, and again. If you’re a beginner and want something to taste amazing, it’s best not to search for shortcuts or add your own “special ingredients.” For example, if the recipe calls for guanciale, a delicious cut from the cheek of the pig, find the good stuff instead of settling for bacon. More likely than not, the recipe writer knows their stuff.
Sotto’s Cacio e Pepe
- 1/2 pound fresh tonnarelli or high-quality dried pasta like bucatini
- 2 tablespoons fresh cracked pepper
- 6 ounces butter
- 2 cups reserved pasta water
- 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano
Instructions: Drop pasta in properly seasoned water and pull just before it’s al dente. While pasta is cooking, add pepper to a dry pan and lightly toast until aromatic. Add butter and 1 cup of pasta water to the same pan and heat until combined. When pasta is cooked, drain and add it to sauce pan and toss over low heat. Let the noodles combine with the sauce. Remove the pan from heat and toss in Pecorino Romano and do not put back on the stove. If the pasta is too tight, adjust with more reserved pasta water. Check for salt and pepper and serve.