At the moment, cacio e pepe is everywhere.

The Roman pasta dish (“cheese and pepper” in Italian) features on menus all over the city. And it’s not just old-school trattorias serving it up. Instead, versions of the dish – some traditional, others less faithful – can be found at some of the trendiest tables in town.

With only three, sometimes four ingredients, it’s a dish that inspires reverence when done right. It seems straightforward, but it's easy to mess up. This guide showcases the best of the best.

Bar Liberty

Bar Liberty's recipe for cacio e pepe is restrained, stripped to the bare basics – pecorino, black peppercorns, olive oil and always dry (never fresh) pasta, which, according to some, clings to the sauce with more fervour. The dish leans more towards pepe than cacio, with tonnes of black pepper and the odd pecorino chunk strewn amongst the bucatini strands.

234 Johnston Street, Fitzroy

Park Street Pasta & Wine

Park Street has dared to switch out the bucatini in their cacio e pepe for mafaldine, a chunky ruffled pasta from Naples, which the kitchen makes daily. It may not be traditional, but it still feels suitably Roman – piled into a big ceramic bowl, the texture is reminiscent of tripe alla romana – and it’s an excellent vehicle for the sauce, which gets trapped in the curly ridges of the noodles. The pasta pushes the limits of al dente here, with plenty of bite, and the sauce contains a respectable amount of pepper. It’s finished with a downy blanket of shaved pecorino, so dense you can barely see the pasta underneath.

268 Park Street, South Melbourne
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Estelle

Estelle’s cacio e pepe involves pecorino, but that’s about as much as it resembles the original. Instead, the team at Estelle serve elegant plates of 11 hand-rolled tubes of macaroni with a thin but powerful sauce (almost like a cacio e pepe essence) poured all over. It’s finished with fried saltbush and large shards of house-cured guanciale, which shatter like the top of a porcine crème brulee, and a delicate, fleeting pecorino foam – pecorino rind, butter, shallots, white wine – that evaporates soon after it hits the plate.

243 High Street, Northcote

Smith & Daughters

Smith & Daughters' talent for making vegan things taste un-vegan is undeniable. There’s no cheese here, but you’d be forgiven for thinking there is. Instead, chunky laces of bucatini are tossed in a sauce flavoured with faux parmesan (made from coconut) and black garlic. The pepper element is twofold: a black pepper from Kampot, Cambodia, and a less intense white version that provides a slower burning, secondary kick of heat. There’s a real umami quality to the sauce, a funk that’s uncannily reminiscent of real cheese.

175 Brunswick Street, Fitzroy
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Cutler & Co.

Tiny, bright yellow envelopes of agnolotti hold house-made ricotta, fragrant with lemon zest, and come covered in a smooth, classic cacio e pepe sauce. The sauce is sometimes made with pecorino, sometimes Parmigiano-Reggiano, depending on what the cheesemonger has supplied for the day. More fluffy shavings of it finish the dish. It’s delicate and hearty at once.

55-57 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy
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Cucinetta

At 29 square metres, dining at Cucinetta really does feel like you’re in someone’s kitchen. Three times a year, the cosy diner holds cacio e pepe week, where the dish is served from a giant Parmesan wheel. It’s always a sold-out event. The team here had little choice but to add cacio e pepe to the menu full time. The theatrics have been toned down – the parmesan wheel has been replaced by a smaller pecorino one – but you can still watch the chefs expertly toss the pasta and pile it straight onto your plate. Silky strands of house-made spaghetti cling to each other with cheesy abandon. The pepper is not insubstantial, but this is the version you want if cheese is your priority. For an extra $3 you can add shavings of fresh truffle, too.

4 3 Murphy Street, South Yarra

Pentolina

If you’re a purist, Pentolina shouldn’t be your first stop. All of the classic cacio e pepe elements are here, just in very different guises. Their version is a pecorino fondue – a foamy concoction made from pecorino romano and fresh cream – with a twist of house-made spaghetti and shavings of black Italian truffle on top.

2/377 Little Collins St, Melbourne

Marameo

All the pasta here is made in-house. There's a lot of dishes to choose from but the pick of the bunch is the cacio e pepe. The best bit? At lunchtime it only costs $15.

6 Russell Place, Melbourne
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