I’m on my fourth shirt and third cold shower by the time I start getting ready for the dinner party we planned at my friends flat. London—and the rest of England—bake under an unforgiving sun. My basement room turns into a makeshift oven, what does that make me? Mostly sweaty, but it would be cool if I became a nice sourdough or maybe a cake.
I double, triple check my ingredients before I leave. I note that I have more than enough spaghettoni but a lack of pecorino. I put what I have in my tote and make a note to stop for more cheese on the way; the pepper is already at their flat. Three ingredients make an elite dish, so simple yet so elegant: Cacio e pepe. A little bit of technique, and a lot of love. Channel my Italian roots. Anxiety. I hate cooking for people, but I love cooking for people.
By the time I make it to Shoreditch and climb up the four flights of stairs to the entrance to the flat, beads of sweat have formed again on my brow. I gladly take a glass of water and a seat in front of the fan, the only respite our AC-less apartments have from the heat. People filter in slowly. At some point a baguette, tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil make their way into the apartment. Conversation continues easily amongst us; soul music adds a slowly beating rhythm to the party. The oven door opens up to welcome in the freshly cut bread, now coated in olive oil. Five minutes later, a warm piece of toast with fresh bruschetta enters my hand, then my mouth. Garlic and acidic tomato mix with the char of the bread. Italians know what they are doing, and I am happy as a clam.
The night goes on. At some point, the smells of guanciale searing in a pan overwhelm the aromas of the room. We all realize how hungry we are. Like ducks in a row, we bring our plates up to the finished pan of carbonara. I take a hearty portion and put it away easily. Cheese intermingles with the fatty yolk and the spicy, savory guanciale. Pasta pulls it all together. For a moment, I close my eyes and let my senses transport me to the Roman apartment of the friend who cooked for us. I had a tough act to follow. Food isn’t a competition, and this dinner party had no winners (except for our appetites), but I didn’t want to cook up a dud.
We clean the dishes and I start preparing the kitchen for my course. I take the pasta out of my bag and lay it next to the salted water sitting in the pot. Cheese grates back and forth, falling like snow into a soft pile. I take a pinch; I can’t help myself. Nutty, salty, pungent. Pecorino hits different. I ask for the pepper and am directed to a pre-ground tin. I am both a nerdy and prissy person, and cacio e pepe is meant to have whole peppercorns toasted and then crushed. In my mind there is no way I can make it correctly now. I recruit a friend and we go on a mission to find what I need.
We do not find what I need.
On the plus side, we attended five minutes of a flat-earth rally, and if that isn’t that what living in a city is all about, then I don’t know what is. I head back fretting about the quality of my yet to be started dish and resign to using whatever I have. I throw the powdery pepper into the pan and turn the heat on low; a lively aroma hits my nose unexpectedly.
On the other burner, blue flames lick the sides of the pot of now boiling water. I throw in the pasta – the clock starts now. Five minutes pass; the pasta water is sufficiently starchy. I dip a mug below the bubbling surface and pour the cup of still boiling water into the pan with the toasted pepper. I empty a mug full of water into the pile of pecorino, forming a cheesy paste. Exciting smells fill the room. The pasta continues to cook.
Four minutes later, I bite into the pasta and a slight crunch remains only in the center. I quickly transfer the noodles into the pan using makeshift tongs formed of a large fork and an even larger spoon. Pasta water spills everywhere, and my legs get a little burnt. Sweat coats my arms and drenches my hair from the heat of gas stoves burning. I stir the pan vigorously and check the toothsomeness of the pasta every thirty seconds. Water gets added whenever the pan starts to run dry. The peppery and starchy mixture cooks the pasta, which takes on its flavor.
Three minutes later, I bite into al dente noodles. The pecorino paste gets hastily added into the pan, now full of pasta and starchy liquid. A wooden spoon emulsifies the cheese into the pasta water. The newly made sauce coats every noodle. I take a bite for taste. Too much pepper. A million thoughts race through my mind. I dread the final tasting. I grab what’s left of the pecorino and start grating it furiously into the pan. The cheese balances the sauce out just as the wedge’s rind starts to run dully along the surface of the grater. What I brought was just enough.
The chaos of the room falls back into order again; the pasta is finished. Standing over the pan, the punchy pecorino and the warming pepper comingle into a deliriously tempting aroma. An orderly queue forms—England is rubbing off on us.A twirl of my fork picks up a vortex of spaghettoni and sauce and dispenses it into their bowls. One by one, we file to our seats that are scattered across the living room. I sit down last, cross-legged on a daybed in the corner with my bowl in my lap. I take a bite and close my eyes. I bob up and down with the bites. Someone asks why I’m smiling like an idiot.
“I’m just happy with how it turned out.”
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<p>Hello! My name is Anand Ambrosi, and I am very excited to be studying abroad in London for the summer of 2022. I study civil engineering at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC and I am fascinated by the many ways that cities impact the lives of those that live within them. In my free time I enjoy reading books, hanging out at coffee shops and public parks, and learning about geography (specifically urban geography). I look forward to sharing my experiences throughout my summer in London as I explore as much I can of what this great city has to offer.</p>