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Archive for February, 2010

dolci & vini

Sweets and wines.  That seems to be the theme of the weekend, starting yesterday morning when Jack and I made an errand-packed trip to Dolci Desideri to soak up the scene as well as the coffee and treats.  A happy crowd always packs the small space in front of the counter, but the orders flow in and out with amazing rapidity and ease.  If it weren’t for the friendliness of the 3 people on the breakfast crew, you’d think they must be highly tuned robots.  I worked in coffee shops and at restaurants for many years, and remember the way meeting the meal-time rush becomes an experience of purely bodily memory, in which the paces and spaces between the plates and esspresso machine and dishwasher is mapped onto the mind.

Jack’s school friend Tobia was there with his Mama, Papa, and baby sister Anita, who was lapping up cappuccino foam—a passion her Papa finds “worrying.”  Tobia and Jack sat next to each other on the little yellow pleather couch, and giggled at each other’s sugar- and lemon-cream-smeared faces.  They asked what ciambelle were called in English, and when Jack said “doughnut,” they all started laughing.

We picked out some cookies—and early Easter “ovetti” to bring to the dinner party tonight at Jack’s friend Felix’s apartment.

In the evening, Peter and I walked across the street to the Villa Villino where Leonard Barkan and Nick Barberio were hosting a tasting party with a title: Vivat Bacchus.  Best known as an eminent art historian and literary critic famous for such groundbreaking (the pun is hard to resist) works as Unearthing the Past, Leonard is also an oenophile and wine writer for Gambero Rosso.  He and Nick, a photographer with an eye for everyday ironies, are also incredibly generous.  They invited the whole community, and served 20 different wines from 5 of the major Italian wine making regions.  Leonard had prepared a list of all the wines, and set them up on the marble counter according to region and varietal.  (Thank you, friends!)

I’ve learned so much about Italian wines over the past few months, and now feel less bewildered and apt to choose something with a well-known name.  I tasted 5 wines from 3 regions.  I’ve always preferred the crisp mineraliness of Alsatian wines in whites, so I liked the two wines I tried from the Alto Adige: a floral Gewurztraminer (Walch 2008) and a Moscato Giallo/Goldmuskateller (Rottensteiner 2008). The latter was full of apricots and was both light and dense at once.  I also had just a sip of a Tocai, Livio Felluga 2008 that was also like delicious stone fruits but dry and crisp.

There were all kinds of goodies to eat between sips, and I stuck to the marinated olives and two kinds of pecorino—one cream-colored and sharp, and the other deep yellow-orange and dotted with black peppercorns.  That was delicious—and made a nice bridge to the first red I tried, a 2006 Barbera d’Alba called Tre Pile from Aldo Conterno, my favorite wine of the night.  From there (and over the course of two hours) I moved to the most full-bodied red, a Nebbiolo d’Alba: Rocca Albino 2007.  I like wines that can hold their contradictions without neutralizing them—like those whites I mentioned, and like this one, which was both lush and stiff at the same time. I guess wine writers call that “structured.”  And that’s about right.  The Barbera and Nebbiolo I tried had architectural aspects.

This is an appropriate style, in a place where you can’t help but be steeped in the appreciation of architecture, and where buildings are strong and durable, and yet elegant and soaring at the same time.   For example… the Tempietto:

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Sunday morning was spectacularly sunny, and warming up quickly.  We had our first spring day (followed by more rain today).  It was perfect for our walk—with Anna, Jon, Lulu, Jesse, Rena, Nick, and Zoe—down the hill and across the Tiber to the old Jewish ghetto where one special forno makes perfect doughnuts.

When we got to the octagonal tower next to the old Cenci palazzo, we could smell the sweet warm scent of baking dough.

There was a line out the door, as expected.

(Those cakes in the window are ricotta-chocolate chip and ricotta-cherry tortes, with their crumbly, not-too-sweet burnt sugar crusts.)

Jon went in with a handful of change, and came out with the last 4 doughnuts.  Just in time!  These kids would have been inconsolable.

These are the antithesis of Krispy Kremes: dense, chewy, and just slightly sweet.

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The gelaterias are opening their doors.  Puddles in the cobblestones sparkle in the sunlight. Rainstorms are rushing through, and leaving in their wake warm spots and green buds.

During one of these post-rain spells yesterday, Jack and I walked down to Trastevere to buy a birthday present for Agnese, whose party is today.  Our favorite destination for toy and art-supply shopping is Piazza San Cosimato, which has an open air market, a playground, great scootering terrain, and three toy stores.  After picking out a magic wand and a set of stamps complete with ink-pad and pouch, we went to the playground.

After bouncing and climbing and swinging and staring at the winos, Jack was ready for our next stop: Fior di Luna gelateria, where all of the ingredients are organic, local, and/or fair trade, and the gelato tastes intensely of its few flavorful parts—whether those are pistachios, vanilla beans, or blood oranges.  This gelateria also uses only seasonal ingredients, so the flavors that dominate now are citrus, nuts, and chocolate.

Spring is on the way, though.  Look at the flowers popping up in the Bass Garden!

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Two incredible events punctuated this week: a wine tasting led by sommelier Pina Pasquantonio, and snow in Rome, which hasn’t happened since 1986.

The snow was thrilling!  A group from the Academy walked down to the Pantheon, to see the rare sight of snowflakes falling through the oculus.  I took Jack to school, where the children were jumping and dancing and shrieking about the neve.

The wine tasting, very nearly as thrilling, was a rare opportunity as well.  Most days, we know Pina as the most important administrator at the American Academy.  But she is also a certified sommelier, and in this role she is in her element.

Pina & Gianni, also a sommelier

The tasting began with a crash course in the geography and most important varietals of Italian wine.  Italy has the most grape varietals of any country in the world, and of the 850 or so, 350 have a special status. Could this be one reason wine-lovers trained in varietal-focused American wines find Italian wine-shopping so daunting?

We started with a spumante produced in the metodo classico, which means that the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, and not in a huge steel vat.  This wine, like all of the others we tasted, was a wonderful sense-experience.  Pina pointed out the bubbles, which were tiny and few, a sign of high quality.  She instructed us to taste, and then to eat a piece of bread with olive oil—made from her own olive trees—and then to taste again to experience the palate cleansing effect of this effervescent minerally wine. (This was Bellavista Gran Cuvée Pas Opere Franciacorta 2003 from Lombardia.)

Next, we tasted a wine that was recently rated one of the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Spectator: Jermann, Vintage Tunina 2007 from Friuli-Venezia Giulia, a blend of Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Malvasia Istriana, Picolit, and Ribolla Gialla.  It was probably the most complex, interesting, and best white wine I’ve ever had.

These were followed by an incredible red that first silenced everyone and then inspired murmurs of sensuous pleasure—Nino Negri, Sfursat di Valtellina Cinque Stelle 2005, a Nebbiolo from Lombardia—and a dessert wine that awed us again with its amber glow and its multifaceted sweetness.  This was the Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryé 2008, which Pina exclaimed smelled exactly like Sicily.

(Looking back at my photos, I realize that once the wines were poured, I was too busy to remember my camera.)

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The weather this weekend is Janus-faced: stormy, dark, and wintry yesterday, bright, clear, and spring-like today.  A perfect morning for walking around Rome, and for seeing the sunlight stream through the windows of Borromini’s whimsical, symmetrical, magnificent dome of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza.

I think this space was meant to be seen, and felt, on a clear day in winter, when the light is clean and welcome, as it warms the white dome and flashes off of the pressed gold leaf.

On our way to this gorgeous, idiosyncratic space, we took the time to notice some other, smaller wonders of Rome.  The water line of an 1870 flood:

A gigantic basin:

Borromini’s corkscrew steeple:

We stopped at a cafe to warm our hands and revive Jack, who was getting limp with hunger.  Like a good little Roman child, he carbo-loaded.  In rapid succession, he ate a cornetto (croissant), a mortadella and mozzarella panino, and a chocolate egg with a Hello Kitty surprise in the middle.  He washed it all down with some aqua minerale frizzante.

Then, he chilled:

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It’s cold, rainy, and February.  But with a fire in the fireplace, an amazing Indian lunch, and a handful of confetti, we brightened up this dismal day.

Jon and some of the kids went out to the Triangle Garden to gather some dampish wood.  It lit… and smoked and hissed… but also blazed, and had the kids alternately staring entranced at its flames and running helter skelter calling out for hot cocoa.  Lulu lolled, and Jack fanned the flames.

Mona and the cooks made the best Indian meal I’ve ever had, with curried chicken, dal, spiced rice, papadum, raita, two chutneys, and sauteed greens.  Everyone went back for more, and then we noticed the cake—a fluffy almond cake infused with toasted, crushed cardamom seeds.  With a dollop of tangy yogurt on the side, and a perfectly pulled esspresso, this dessert went down in history.

What an inspired culinary performance!

And despite the rain, Carnevale goes on.  We’re saving most of our confetti for tomorrow, when the sun will shine, but I sprinkled a handful down from the window on Jack, for whom the simple pleasure of watching brightly colored snow fall is close to ecstasy.

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