September 2010

Enough with the wah-wah “I’m not in Kansas anymore” pity party about your Italian vacation and there being NOTHING TO EAT in America.  C’mon!!!

This is how to do it:  get off your vacation exhausted duff (okay, do some yoga first).  Let the airplane headache pass and move on.  Or, just plain move.  I walked to my Weight Watchers meeting and saw that, yes, Virginia, there ARE consequences to your cornetto eating – but basta!  Enough.  Move on.

NYC Italian Coffee Bar

I walked to my favorite coffee bar in NYC — Tarallucci & Vino — a completely Italian place, I presume owned by Italians, but if not – certainly the people who work there are speaking the mother tongue.  And, their customers are.  So, too, the bambini.  I ordered un espresso DOPPIO – figured that being in NYC – I couldn’t just order caffé like in Rome and expect to get espresso.  Squisito!

Greenmarket Goodies

A short stroll away: our version of the Campo dei Fiori – without the statue of the executed guy.  The Greenmarket at Union Square.  I filled my market bag to overflowing: beets with succulent greens still attached.  Radishes, broccoli, cauliflower.  I love fall greenmarkets with its squashes, pumpkins and potatoes.

There you have it.  Pure food: the American way.  Now, start cooking.

Vacation is over. Home again and I have to admit: I have no idea what to eat!!

Janet Eats without a clue? How can this be? It is certainly more than just that “now the party is over” feeling.  It is more the realization that eating good, pure food in the U.S. is just so damn hard.  The idea of another serving of factory chicken from the NBC Commissary — well, it just makes me sick thinking about it.  The Italians really know how to make simple food.  Even with something as indulgent as a cornetto – you know the ingredients do not come from a chemistry lab.

Time to pull out my Food Rules again.

This morning before leaving, I spent some time speaking with the young banker who rents me a room in Rome with un bagno privato. We don’t always converse that much. She speaks virtually no English. I do all right speaking Italian with her.

Really, think about how few words we use in a conversation with someone we barely know: weather (il tempo), food (il cibo), politics (Obama. Hahaha – these conversazioni can get a little more compicato. People I know in Rome really wanted to talk about Obama and, interestingly, the Nobel Prize! which they, like most of us, did not understand. “Couldn’t he just say no to it?”)

After we completed our short chat and I packed, I proclaimed I was going to walk for awhile, then get my ultimo caffé and cornetto. Ha! My ultimo cornetto! Of course, I have the photographic evidence of my cappucino — with a heart, as in I left my heart in San Pietro — and oh that ultimo cornetto. Nothing tastes quite as sweet as that first and last taste on a foreign shore.

It was both restful and invigorating: this Roman Holiday. I am fortunata to have friends in la cittá who know all those little osteria & trattoria that cook simple Italian cuisine. I had meals in at least three restaurants — without menus. Just more places to put on that list of consiglio – advice – I insist anyone going to Roma consult!

Allora! As the receipts say: ARRIVEDERCI E GRAZIE. Goodbye and thank you.

Parco Oppio

I sit at a small cafe in the middle of a park — in the Colle Oppio.  We are just steps away from the Domus Aurea and a short walk above the Coliseum.  That means this was once part of Nero’s gargantuan Villa. An estate that in its time was even too much for the indulgent ancient Romans (my knowledge of the history of this area is superficial at best).

In this century, I am drinking una limonata, which the Italians also call – oddly enough – Lemon Soda. Not that it sounds anything like lemmin sew-duh, mind you.  It is a Roman indulgence of mine.  I don’t usually drink full-sugar (or “light” for that matter) sodas.  But, this is so good.

What I love about this park:  it is all Romans, just a few turisti like myself.  Otherwise, it’s grandmas with the little ones.  Or, old folks out for a stroll and a sit on the bench.  And, oh my goodness, the children yelling “Fabio” “Giovanni”,  kicking balls,  terrorizing the pigeons, and chattering in their perfect high-pitched “va bene”s.

Having said that,  it is very peaceful, a universal oasis in the midst of honking horns, purring scooters and German tourists screeching for attention.

For lunch on una bella giornata – a beautiful day – I purchase a prosciutto sandwich on pizza bianca from my favorite forno in the Campo de’ Fiori.  What apparently makes it a specialty of Rome is the inclusion of fichi – figs.

Prosciutto & Fichi Panino

It was incredibly rich. And memorable. Just like the cittá for which it had been deemed a specialitá.

Funny. As I sat on the bench of the Palazzo Farnese to eat my ham and fig sandwich, a pigeon shat upon the British man next to me. It is probably time to go before it happens to me. Although, knowing the Italians, it is most likely a sign of good luck!

It’s always strange that last day (or at least last FULL day in Roma).

On one hand,  I want to eat everything I think I won’t be eating for awhile.  Although,  in fact,  it will be as if tomorrow when I will be here again.  It has been soltanto — only — a week that I’ve been here (or as the baristas in the coffee bar across from “my” apartmento said:  “poco, poco“).

In Piazza San Pietro

And – as you have read — I have eaten many wonderful Italian delights.  I am certain at no cost to the avoirdupois because I have eaten like the Italians.  Nothing in between my basic,  albeit indulgent,  repasts.  Un caffé and pastry in the morning.  Pasta, panino or pizza for lunch.  Usually one,  okay,  sometimes two,  gelato per day.  And light dinner if it was a heavy lunch and vice versa.   In between: camino, camino, camino. Walking walking walking.

So, on this “last” day,  I shall treat it like any other day in Roma.  Mangia bene and camino.

Oh, wait. I think it’s time for gelato!

It was an international polyglot of women:  an American from Manhattan,  a former New Yorker who lives in Roma,  a Parisian who has called Rome home for over 20 years,  and my Finnish friend who lives in Italy by way of Brooklyn and Amsterdam.

We met for lunch – local local – at a trattoria in Trastevere called Augusto.  No menu.  Just cute waiters who rattled off the pastas of your dreams:  arrabbiatta,  cacio e pepe, melanzane.  The four of us split 2 pastas two ways.  Followed by a secondo (2nd course, the “meat” course) that I shall not soon forget.  You’re just lucky that I took the picture of the dish before I’d devoured this Brasato (braised) Veal with Potatoes.  Fall-apart tenderness with monumental, yet simple, flavors — redolent of rosemary.  And, a basket of bread with the perfect balance of crusty and chewy!

The four of us regaled one another with our childhood experiences of soaking up the juices with bread.  From “no-no” to “hidden scoops” to “of course you can’t let the sauce go to waste!”

Dolce:  a Tiramisu that was still trembling from the tender touches in the kitchen. Four forks,  four mouths.  Devoured.

Along with the spoken menu, the check — il conto — written and calculated on the paper covered with oil, crumbs and escaped driblets of sauce.

Full moon = la luna piena

On a Thursday night in Rome, I had the delight of dining at the home of a former New Yorker – a woman who has lived in Rome for some 23 years. Patricia has this fabulous house (yes house!! — it was probably a stable centuries ago) with a garden.   Beautiful,  che bella!

We sat outside in the garden listening to Miles Davis and some kind of Hungarian tango music under an avocado tree — all illuminated by the full moon.   La Luna Piena.

The evening was organized by Patricia and my closest friend in Rome:  Nina, a lovely Finnish woman with a wicked sense of humor.  Patricia fixed us aperitivi of olives,  a Parmigiano-like cheese from the Castello,  grapes and Italian bread sticks to dip a soft cheese she mixed with a culinary concoction invented by her daughter’s boyfriend.  Sidebar note:  HE was described as a young man who could both build a house and invent a mix of eggplant and garlic that would replace aphrodisia for the gods.

You know how you can fill up on “starters” only to have the cook announce “dinner is ready”?  Oh, dear.  The wine flowed as we made our way from the garden to the dinner table inside.  The meal of braised chicken thighs with shallots and peppers over a bed of couscous with sultanas garnered a culinary standing ovation.  Limoncello and biscotti for dessert.  Are you kidding?   Burp.

The entire meal experience in a private Roman home was a highlight!

I followed the meal with a long passeggiata.  While on this stroll, I took a picture under the sienna moonlight, and wondered at the romantic street names.  In NYC its 13th Street.  Or, Fifth Avenue.  Here: Via del Neofiti and Via del Madonna dei Monti — hanging vines and all!

On a crystal-clear,  sunny morning,  I headed once again to one of my favorite spots in Rome:  the Campo dei Fiori.  Though it has all the characteristics of a piazza, it doesn’t have that name because it was once the spot where they executed infidels and the like.  I recall reading once it couldn’t be called a piazza because executions weren’t allowed in a piazza.  Sounds a little bit like a myth.  I’ll have to research that one and get back to you.

Anyway.  Campo means “field” as in field of flowers — oh and right in the middle of the square is the statue of some guy who was executed in that “field” not piazza “of flowers.”

The Campo is now home to all manner of vegetation besides flowers.  It is the site 6 days a week (taking a rest on Sunday) to a wonderful farmers market.  Filled with familiar and not so familiar veggies.  All sorts of curious greens.  And industrious vendors.  I saw a man today patiently cutting the ends off green beans — about 4 at a time — and tossing them into a bowl of water.  Dinner for some busy Roman mama who doesn’t have the time to string her own.

I picked up my breakfast at the Forno Campo dei Fiori: pizza bianca, and walked one square over to the Piazza Farnese.  You mght recall my story of the sudden rainfall (down a little bit from this post).  It was in Farnese.  On this day,  I sat with my pizza on the benches of the Palazzo Farnese,  watching the Italian mamas and their little ones nibbling on THEIR Bianca with a flock of birds flying in a wild formation, and nuns scuttling through the square.  In the background I heard someone yelling “Guido. Guido”.

Yes,  it’s true — open up your eyes, ears and heart a little in Roma, and you too will find yourself in a Fellini-film moment.  True magic!

I can find the Pantheon in Rome practically in my sleep.  That is, until I want to visit.  I wander and wander and wander, and still no Pantheon.  That’s often my experience when I travel:  I hit upon my favorite places merely by happenstance.

Several hours after my tortelloni lunch and a visit to another exquisite Caravaggio (Madonna of Loreto at the Church of Sant’Agostino),  I figured it was time for the day’s dessert (likely instead of gelato — though maybe not. The day is, after all, only half done).

Anyhoo — the dolce di giorno was granita di caffé — from the Tazza d’Oro near the Pantheon.  It is a sweetened coffee icey confection, layered with unsweetened whipped cream.  I’m pretty sure when you read about the ambrosia of the Gods: this is It!

I would go so far to say that if you had to choose (only under threat of death) between gelato and this heavenly iced dessert,  you’d be better to choose the granita.  You can always find good gelato in the States, but you have to come to Rome for the granita di caffé.

That makes it a pretty expensive treat (air fare included).

It was a beautiful,  warm yet slightly overcast Wednesday in Roma and I tried some new experiences.   I caught up with a couple of my beloved Caravaggio paintings (Crucifixion of Saint Peter and Conversion of Saint Paul — both incredibile), and then thrust myself right into the 21st Century.

I visited Maxxi:  the new truly modern art museum, designed by the great Iraqi architect: Zaha Hadid.  The museum was — as the kids say — waaaay cool.  An interesting exhibition of the work of Luigi Moretti , the dude who designed grandiose spaces for Il Duce as well as the Watergate complex.

Afterwards,  I set off to find an intimate ristorante on a little side street.  The trattorias are, of course, all over the cittá of Rome.  I found this place called Osteria Margutta.  And, devoured a wonderful lunch of Tortellini stuffed with ricotta and walnuts — though they claimed it was zucca: pumpkin.  All covered in a luscious cream sauce.  Fabulous!!!   Or, as they say about food: squisito.

I’d show you a picture but oops I ate it all before I had a chance to take the snap.

Such is the wonderful adventure of looking for something new.  And finding something squisito!

What can I say.  When in Rome:  eat it.  Every day.  At least once.  Sometimes twice.

If you get my list of must-do”s in Rome (and if you’re coming to Rome even if you don’t know me, you’re required to get that list) always sempre always on the List is the pasta dish called Cacio e Pepe.   Simply it means ‘cheese and pepper’.  In practice, it takes a gifted hand in the kitchen to turn pasta and some of its water with parmigiano reggiano and black pepper into one of the best pasta dishes ever!

The first time I ever saw it is at this little hole in the wall Sora Margherita in the Jewish Ghetto.  In Rome, of course.  I watched as plate after plate of it came steaming out of the kitchen and knew right then and there:  I wanted it!

I was – for some odd reason – too intimidated to ask.  So I figured it had to have the word “parmigiana” in it, being so cheesy and all.  So,  I mumbled parmigiano and ended up with some red-sauced dish I suspect was Eggplant Parmigiano.   Certainly, not the steaming plate of pasta with the mound of cheese I was expecting.

Right up there with pizza bianca and my daily serving of gelato comes the pasta of my dreams: cacio e pepe.  Want it.  Gotta have it.  And,  I do!  Every trip is a return trip to Sora Margherita.  A place, by the way,  you can barely find, hidden as it is behind the fall of red ropes at its door.  The sign outside is new.

You know how you’ll run into an Italian restaurant in the US, and it has some kind of Italian name that may not necessarily make sense to Italians but it sounds so, well, Italian.

Okay so this is a stretch as a food theme.  Work with me here (poor is saying hey! You used to write this stuff on me!).  Anyhoo.  In the neighborhood where I’m staying there is a shop that sells Nikes and other sneakers.  Tiny little place I walk by every day on the way to the main stretch of Via Nazionale.

They call the store Beaverton.  How funny is that.  Here we are: girl from Marion Street in Albany, Oregon in Rome happens upon an Italian store — selling sneakers invented in Oregon — and named after a Portland suburb.  Well, in fairness, there is a Nike connection but the Italians don’t know that.  They probably just find the name clever!  Or, should I say ingegnoso.

They call this a wedding cake of a building.  And that’s actually an insult — the Italians hate this building.  It is the tomb built for King something or other on the Piazza Venezia.  I like it.  One sunny day,  they actually opened it up for i turisti.  There are actually no public innards to it.  It is all stairs and show.  Oh,  and some hapless sailors who have to stand guard 24 hours a day.  I read once they have a high rate of suicide.

Not very cakey sounding!

This is right up there with my favorite foods in Rome.  Pizza Bianca.  It’s — I guess — best described as pizza dough naked except for floral olive oil and a little salt.  It is that perfect combination of crunchy and chewy.  And not just anyone can make it.  The best in my view (and of those in the know) can be found at the Forno Campo di Fiori.  On the periphery of the succulence of their open-air market.

A little slab, poco poco — and some water.  Maybe a peach or date from the market – a little caciocavallo (cheese) and you’re set for lunch.

Except, for dessert. Better go find myself some gelato. Ha! While sitting on the marble statue of some dude who was executed here in the Campo (16th century o somethin’) I saw a young couple, wife pg, husband carrying un bambino, all eating gelato — the baby turned away when offered a lick. I sat here trying to figure how to say “a baby who doesn’t like ice-cream?!?!” in Italian. But decided against intruding.

Il caffé comes in many forms here in Italy. Cappucino, of course – though properly never past noon (time was they wouldn’t even serve it then). Caffé which is espresso. OUR coffee is caffé americano. Not sure if it’s called that if you’re German. But un caffé estraordinare can be found at Sant’Eustachio (that’s Sant-ay-you-Stock-eeyo). It comes with sugar and a foamy head that exceeds the inky espresso itself. Comes with spoon.

I am writing this from what was probably some ancient Roman’s villa, but is now a park above the noisy traffic of Italian sirens, automobiles and Vespas.

Just pondering the beauty of breakfast in a bar (that means caffé here) in Roma.  Simple but squisito — delicious.  Un caffé (that means espresso here : ) and un cornetto.  Cornetto covers all manner of breakfast pastries.  From luscious cream-filled to simple croissant.  I would never have coffee and a pastry at home.  And not only because I’m on vacation do I eat like this (granted, walking helps).  I just have to say it (and maybe only this once) “when in Rome…”

It was what one could only call a romantic moment in Rome.  And I guess it raises the question whether you have to know the person(s) you share that moment with.  I didn’t.  Know them.  But,  it was a shared moment that turned strangers into intimates.

I had just arrived that morning.  An overnight flight with very little sleep.  I exercised my “get-rid-of-jetlag technique”: stay outside, never stop moving and stay awake until “their” bedtime.

I mixed that with my favorite foods: lots of caffé, un gelato (tre gusti — 3 flavors: panna cotta [obvious taste],  Baci [like the Italian chocolate candy] and a wonderful flavor called Nonna’s choice [unique combo of rich vanilla, orange & pine nuts]).  A small rectangle of pizza with zucchini flowers and cherry tomatoes (circles are left for personal pies — otherwise pizza here comes in slabs and you gesture when the pizza man gets the right measure of pezzo di pizza).

On about the 7th hour of constant walking,  I decided to head to the Piazza Farnese — a charming piazza — and order a glass of vino bianco.   In Italy,  cocktail hour comes with at least 2 plates of snacks: chips, nuts, olives, bruschetta — house choice.

Suddenly, the sound of the water from the fountains in the Piazza Farnese was amplified,  four-fold.

It was pouring down rain!  A storm as sudden as the velocamente patter of the children in the square.

And here I sat — in the perfect place under the cafe umbrella.  Just a misty hint of the storm on my face when the wind shifted.   It was magical. And, yes, just a little romantic.

Benvenuta a Roma.  Welcome to Rome!