Finding Inspiration in the Neighborhood: Italian Food in UptownMay 18, 2018 11:38 am
Uptown Charlotte boasts an impressive collection of restaurants. Nearly one third of the top 25 in Charlotte Magazine‘s latest “50 Best Restaurants in Charlotte: 2018” are in Uptown. Uptown has fortified itself as a destination for people all over Charlotte, and all over Mecklenburg County. In fact, restaurants are a main draw for county residents visiting Uptown.
But what about Uptown as a neighborhood? With a 600% increase in the number of Uptown residents in the last 20 years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they (we) need somewhere to eat. And Uptown is responding. Over 25 restaurants have opened in the last year in Uptown, with more in construction and planning phases. Neighborhood restaurants are being built, to fit the communities and populations who are moving here.
Victoria Zabel, of Zia Pia Imports + Italian Kitchen described the many Italian-Americans who have come to her, pleading for the ingredients and cuisine to which they are accustomed.
“There’s a strong Italian culture here,” Victoria observed. “More and more are coming into Charlotte and they’re moving from places like Boston, Chicago, New York—places that have strong traditions of Italian food. And they’re coming here looking for good food.”
I made my artisanal purchases at Zia Pia Imports & Italian Kitchen and Orrman’s Cheese Shop, both conveniently located in 7th Street Public Market, Uptown’s own mission-based food hall.
Cacio e Pepe is a dish that spans the spectrum of peasantry to fancy. It is, of course, one step away from macaroni and cheese. But when a fine cheese is used, and care is taken to execute this simple dish, it becomes something truly remarkable: a perfect vessel, a lens through which to look at, and appreciate cheese. And appreciate cheese, I do.
A properly executed Cacio e Pepe, like those seen throughout the piazzas in Rome, at Locanda in San Francisco, or at Uptown’s own new Italian eatery, highlights the cheese while celebrating the perfect cheese vessel: pasta. The trick is to undercook your pasta, reserving some of the starch-filled pasta water, and use that as a base for the cheese sauce. The finished product should be tight, with the sauce clung to each noodle. My version does add one ingredient to the original, but the breadcrumbs can easily be left out and the black pepper added alone, for those traditionalists in the Queen City. However, the black pepper breadcrumbs provide both a spicy bite and a welcome textural contrast to the al dente noodles.
It’s a cheese-lover’s pasta and one that can truly celebrate the distinct flavor of one or two cheeses. Typically, those cheeses are Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano. But we’re not in Rome. So, I take Rachel’s advice and use Cupula as a substitute for Parmigiano. And she recommends a traditional Pecorino as well.
Cacio e Pepe (yields 2 servings)
3 oz. dried pasta (try Zia Pia’s bucatini)
Heavy pinch of salt into boiling water
2 oz. grated Pecorino Cacio de Roma
2 oz. grated Cupula
¼ cup fresh breadcrumbs*
*just leave out a piece of French bread on a plate overnight, crush in bag
At least 8 turns of the mill of freshly-ground, medium-coarse black pepper
6 quart stock pot
2-3 oz. ladle
8-10” nonstick pan
Boil your water—add salt and cover. While that is coming up to boil, grate your Pecorino Cacio de Roma and Cupula cheeses.
Toast your breadcrumbs in a dry pan over medium heat until they change in color from blonde to medium-blonde, add pepper until fragrant and remove.
When the water is at a boil, add your dried pasta, bending it into the water when possible. Look at the directions on the packaging and subtract 3 minutes. Set a timer.
When your timer goes off, ladle 8 oz of pasta water into your non-stick sauté pan. Drain your noodles in a colander and transfer them to the sauté pan, making sure they are submerged in the water to allow them to finish cooking. Add more fresh water to cover the noodles, if necessary.
Boil the noodles rapidly until water is 80% evaporated and noodles are cooked. Check after 2 minutes for doneness and add more fresh water as needed (not more pasta water, as that will make it too salty). Add cheese. The trick is to time it and allow for a cooked noodle while letting most of the water evaporate. Gently lift up the pasta with your tongs occasionally to allow for the steam to continue to release, being careful not to break-apart the noodles. The sauce is ready when the pan is dry, and the sauce and noodles just start to cling to the bottom.
Using your tongs, lift the pasta, swirling it while placing it in the bowl. Do not simply dump into the bowl. Treat the pasta as you would an Italian grandmother-in-law (that I just so happen to have): con respecto e dignità.
Top with a generous handful of the black pepper breadcrumbs and grated Pecorino.
I serve this dish as a side, alongside chilled, grilled asparagus and sliced pork on a sunny, summer day. But it can easily be a main course with the addition of grilled chicken, shrimp or beef and tossed with baby spinach or fresh peas. For a vegetarian version, serve traditional antipasti vegetables (eggplant, onions, mushrooms, artichokes, olives) either over the pasta or on the side. And try it cold, right out of the fridge, on a slice of warm garlic bread (cheat: frozen Texas Toast) and trust me, you’ll forget about the lure of cold pizza on a Saturday morning.
‘Buon appetito, y’all!’ —Ben Jarrell