Although Justin Smillie labels his creation a “grown-up mac ‘n’ cheese,” the head chef at Upland is merely being modest. The only similarity between his cacio e pepe and the classic cuisine of childhood is unmistakable comfort. A menu staple since the establishment opened in October, the $17 pasta dish incorporates bucatini — a thick, hollow spaghetti noodle — into a simple medley of black pepper, pecorino, and parmesan. Minimal ingredients, maximum flavor.
To give the starch its smooth, creamy coating, it’s whipped, to order, in a bath of butter, pasta water, and the two Italian cheeses. It hits the bowl immediately thereafter, doctored only by the addition of pecorino shavings and cracked peppercorns. On the tongue, it delivers a precious, understated tang and space. The true marvel of the dish, however, is the textural contrast of chewy, al dente pasta against the lush backdrop of its sauce.
Inspired by the fare of Rome, the uncomplicated yet elegant cacio e pepe at Upland echoes what Italian chefs have been demonstrating for generations: that less is more.
The Village Voice is counting down to our Best of New York City issue in October. We’re combing the city every day, one dish at a time, to guide you to the most delicious food in NYC. These are our 100 Favorite Dishes for 2015, in no particular order, save for the top 10.
Here’s our countdown up to now:
#93: Almayass’s Mante
#75: Ippudo’s Pork Buns