Saltimbocca is one of the chief delights of Roman cuisine. I’m not talking about the ancient Romans—who sprayed a fermented fish sauce called garam on nearly everything—but modern Romans. These urbanites have developed a cuisine that mixes and matches modified provincial dishes with new inventions, and when you look into the history of a contemporary Roman recipe, such as fettuccine Alfredo, you’re likely to find that it’s decades, not centuries, old. Saltimbocca, meaning “jump in the mouth,” probably has a late-19th-century origin. It’s made by pinning slices of veal and prosciutto together with a toothpick, sautéing them in butter, and then deglazing the assemblage with white wine. At Cacio e Pepe the veal has been replaced with monkfish, and the resulting saltimbocca ($14.95) is richer than the original. It arrives crusted with grated pecorino and wearing whole sage leaves proudly on its breast like a Swift boat veteran displaying his medals.
A newcomer to the hurly-burly of Second Avenue, Cacio e Pepe fancies itself a Roman trattoria, perhaps channeling Lupa’s success. The walk-down space is roomy, rustic, and convivial, with a pleasant tenement garden out back dotted with comfortable pastel chairs. The joint takes its name from another Roman recipe (tonnarelli cacio e pepe, $10.95), in which hot pasta, still dripping with cooking water, is tossed with pecorino cheese and crushed black peppercorns. The result is beyond spectacular, and the café ramps up the excitement by theatrically turning the pasta inside a huge rind of pecorino di Fossa—a ewe’s-milk cheese from Emilia-Romagna wrapped in burlap and aged three months in tufa caves—as it’s ferried to the table. Why not use Roman cheese instead? Maybe it’s a matter of hurt pride—nowadays pecorino romano is usually manufactured in Sardinia. Following Roman tradition, the pasta of choice is tonnarelli, homemade square-cut spaghetti. By the way, black pepper became wildly popular in Rome—when it arrived around 500 B.C.
Another modern Roman fave is coda alla vaccinara ($14.95), deboned oxtails done “butcher-style”: braised with tomatoes and celery until the sauce clings thickly to chunks of meat, a tribute to the ability of Roman butchers to use every inch of the animal. Cacio’s version, too, is delicious, although the tail is sometimes a little tougher than it ought to be. Yellow coins of creamy polenta decorate the plate. Other Latium obsessions make cameo appearances. The favorite Roman veggie is artichokes, and for some reason, the restaurant neglects to serve them except in a salad, mixing individual leaves with lamb liver pieces in a warm herbal bath. Hey, it’s good! Mint frequently appears in Roman cooking, and it does here, as well, most notably in the milk pudding called panna cotta ($6.95). But a companion objected, “It tastes like toothpaste.” Like Otto, Cacio e Pepe jumps on the lardo bandwagon. While Mario and company drape these pungent strips of air-cured lard across a thin-crust pizza, this trattoria wraps them around medium shrimp prior to grilling. Nice try, fellas, but it doesn’t quite work. I wish someone would have the balls to serve lardo the way God intended it: at room temperature in very thin slices. Perhaps, as in Emilia-Romagna, it could be accompanied by doughy fritters hot out of the fat. My heart would skip a beat.