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Archive for March, 2010

We’re in Florence.  Today’s my birthday.  Yesterday we went to the famous gelateria Vivoli.  I know I should have tried the cinnamon-orange, but I can’t give up an opportunity to savor one of the nutty flavors I love so much.  Yesterday I went for the classic nocciolo—hazelnut.  Jack had a puckering cup of limone mixed with fragola (strawberry, but the word always reminds me of “Fraggle Rock”).  Jack also got a big kick out of the address of the gelateria, in Isola delle Stinche.  Stinky—ha ha ha! (He’s just about five, so that’s the height of humor.)

Last night we took a chance on a restaurant, and it turned out to be an enjoyable meal.  The highlights were the antipasto dish of fagioli con bottarga, and the Florentine steak, which my mom, Peter, and I all ordered.  It was rubbed with rosemary, grilled rare, sliced thin, and served on a bed of arugula. Perfect.

Pictures will come….

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It was actually pretty chilly, and the sky was gray, but the fruit trees are blooming, the kids are antsy, and everyone just wanted to hang around in the big back garden yesterday.  The grill was going from 11 to 7.

There were pork sausages of all kinds, veal chops, pork chops, lamb shoulder, lamb leg…. Most of us ate bites right off the grill, with our fingers. Yes, it was greasy and brutish and washed down with plenty of beer and 3-Euro wine.  I brought a salad of romaine, treviso, pears, fennel, and walnuts.  No one ate it. Some of the foods were local and artisanal. Others were, well, hot dogs and cream-in-a-can.

We played ping pong, bocce, kickball, and frisbee.

For more pictures, go to my Flickr page.

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After one of the more fantastic of Saturday lunches at the Academy—which included my new favorite twist on panzanella (big olive-oil—or was it chicken fat—soaked bread chunks, radicchio, fennel, pinenuts, and raisins, with it’s delicious balance of bitter and sweet), and chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and violets—Jack felt like sticking around with the kitchen crew.  First, he just wandered from here to there, munching an apple.  Then, Mona asked him if he wanted to help Josh in the garden.  Oh yes!

What are we planting? Cilantro.  Oooohh! That bodes well for spring meals from the RSFP!

I love the little garden house out back here by the olive trees.  The phone actually works.  Now, there is a sense memory from my early childhood—rotary dialing.

New leaves are popping out on the olive trees, and the apple and plum trees are blooming.

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Walking through Rome the other day, I had two missions: get a pizza lunch at Roscioli, and try on some shoes from the list of brands my doctor gave me. It became an emotional journey, with it’s own motifs and atmosphere of ironic pathos that is captured so well in that Dylan song, (which I love in The Band’s rendition) “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” that came to mind when I walked past this scene.

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble;
ancient footprints are everywhere.
You can almost think that you’re seeing double
on a cold dark night on the Spanish stairs.

This road repair was on the way to Campo di Fiori, where I stopped at the market stall that is the humanized, de-DIY-ified version of what we call “the bulk section.”  The man who runs this stall is a virtuoso of Eur-Anglo languages and regional Italian sauces.  Every time someone stepped up with a bag of herb-pepperoncini mix, he would ask “Inglese, Francais, Espanol, Deutsch?”  I heard him explain in three languages what kind of sauce should be made, and when to add the herbs to the tomato base.

herb blends for sauces

other "bulk" items

From here, I took my prematurely ancient footprints the few blocks to Roscioli, where I saw its sign rising like a beacon on the horizon (and creating a great color juxtaposition with those shutters):

Most days, I eat at the Academy, because it’s right at home and the food is regularly extraordinary.  But sometimes I just get the craving to carry out a sandwiched slice of Roscioli pizza.

My favorite kind is the sauteed, garlicky, salty spinach and mozzarella.  It’s simple, and exquisite, folded in a piece of brown paper.  Often, people stand around these cask & board tables to eat their quick bite.  12:30 was too early for the average Roman, though.

table outside Antico Forno Roscioli

I limped with my lunch toward the Corso, passing on my way the scaffolding-covered Pantheon. (Glad I saw it before those went up.)

And finally, I began my hunt for a better shoe, based on my doctor’s list of brands.  Some of these are quite chi chi, with snooty salespeople to match.  As soon as I was done in the Geox store, for example, having decided that they were all either too stiff for my feet or too flashy for my taste, I became a despicable object of scorn to the saleswoman.  And her store is nothing special next to Hogans, where the staff is even more disdainful, the sequin-studded leather even more attitudinal. I tried on probably 12 pairs.  Someday, I’ll make a decision.

Someday everything’s gonna be different,
when I paint that masterpiece…

When I finish that dissertation? No, I’m not that delusional.  Speaking of that behemoth document, though, here’s my favorite recent piece of Byroniana (which might just be the unintentional irony of the shopkeeper’s name… but I don’t think so).  Right next to the Keats-Shelley museum, in Piazza di Spagna, whose name looms larger than life?  Lord B’s, of course.

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Sunday lunch

Sicilian style, on a sunny Sunday, with Susan Stewart. It was as sumptuous and soothing as all this sibilance might suggest.

Yesterday, we were invited to have lunch with Susan, whom we’ve known mainly through her writing, both poems and literary criticism.  I’ve been spending a lot of time with her book Crimes of Writing in particular, which addresses the literary authenticity scandals of eighteenth-century Britain, a topic close to my dissertation.  At Sunday lunch, however, we talked mostly about Italy and food.  Susan had set a table on the little, plant-festooned balcony of the apartment she rents, the walls of which are lined invitingly with old books and older pictures.

view from the bedroom

While we chatted in the tiny kitchen, Jack explored the apartment.  See him in the window?

He’d found a little library ladder.  What a great piece of furniture!

Meanwhile, Susan was boiling spaghetti and shredding the bottarga, a specialty she’s been serving to her two sons for their birthdays since they came to Rome when they were not much older than Jack.  Bottarga is the salty, pressed, preserved-in-beeswax roe of tuna that Italians serve with lemon as an antipasto or tossed with pasta.  The dish had three ingredients—butter, bottarga, and spaghetti—and was sensational.

Susan then fried up a platter of anchovies, and served them on a bed of arugula with lemon slices.  This dish was followed by a Sicilian salad of blood oranges and marinated black olives. And then we ate Cassata, a Sicilian ricotta cake that’s dotted inside with chocolate chips, iced with dense icing, and decorated with candied fruits.  Needless to say, Jack was a big fan of this part of the meal.

Susan lives right in Piazza San Cosimato, where there’s a playground.  After the meal, we went outside, and eventually walked back up the steps from Trastevere to the Gianicolo, and home.  The sun is so welcome.

Jack took pictures all the way.  He managed to capture a good shot of an acanthus leaf, the variety that tops Corinthian columns, and—gosh!—a good one of his parents.

The rest of this post has nothing to do with food, and is really an unrelated addendum about everyday life in Rome.  The thing about everyday life is that it often throws you into unexpected and odd experiences.  I’ve been having problems with my feet—joint pain (no more 10Ks for me)—so I went to an orthopedist today on the Aventine hill.  I got lost, of course, in the spiderweb-like network of streets, but finally found my destination. I was buzzed in, and walked up the dark stairway of an apartment building that also houses a group of English-speaking doctors.  The whole appointment went as it might have any place in the U.S. (she went into enthusiastic detail, with a skeletal model, of what was wrong with my feet, complimented me on my slow pulse, seemed perversely excited that someone so young should have such problems, and made chit-chat with me about having husbands in the same fields) until the end, which seemed to me to be particularly Italian: the doctor suggested I go shoe shopping, and wrote down a list of brands I should look for!

This appointment was followed by a visit to a clinic run by nuns where I stood like a flamingo on a platform and had my feet x-rayed.  When I got home and told Peter all about it, and that I’d gotten a cortisone shot, he said, “so you’re on steroids?”

But I figure all of this is better—and more interesting—than taking, as some Italians do, a spot of grappa in my coffee every day.

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Last night, Chris and the kitchen crew cooked a delicious meal which included Tuscan beans slowly braised in terra cotta pots in the fireplace.  The beans had an extra depth of flavor that was set off by the sprinkling of fried sage leaves the cooks put on top before serving them.  A perfect, woodsy combination.

Chris, tending the coals

low-tech crock pot

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This one, led again by Pina Pasquantonio, the administrator here at the Academy and a sommelier, took us up several levels from the last one.  We got to taste what I’ve only ever read about, and never expected to taste: “Super Tuscans.”

We began, again, with a spumante: Ca’ del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvée Anna Maria Clementi, 2002, named by the current owner for his mother, who founded Ca’ del Bosco, and containing a blend of chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir.  Having spent about six years in the bottle, it was zingy with minerals, fresh and chewy at once, and mouth-cleansing with its vibrant little bubbles.

After a bit of bread with Pina’s homemade olive oil, we moved onto a dense white: Gravner Ribolla Anfora 2004.  Pina led into this wine with its story—which is also the story of its winemaker Francesco Gravner.  He had a successful high-production winery, and was making a nice income, but was dissatisfied.  He went on a research trip to Georgia, where he tasted the local wine made in clay amphorae, the way the Greeks and Romans used to do it.  He came back to his winery in the northeastern Italian Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, and began making wine in small batches, with only the best grapes, with the amphora method.  The grapes are gently pressed with an ancient press, and the juice drips through a screen into the amphorae which are lined with beeswax and buried up to their necks in earth.  The juice ferments for seven months underground, and is then decanted into large oak casks and aged for 36 months.  Gravner only decants the wine into bottles during a waning moon, when the planets are properly aligned.  This biodynamism comes through in the bouquet and flavor of this wine, which are vegetal, leathery, and earthy in the most interesting way.  The color of the wine was a gold verging on amber, like a dessert wine, but it was bone dry.

five stunning wines

The next wine, which Leonard exclaimed was “a legendary, rare wine!” was my favorite, but I’ll never be able to buy a bottle because of what is referred to as a prohibitive pricetag: €120.  This was the “Super Tuscan” L’Apparita 2004 by Castello di Ama, made from 100% merlot.  This is a wine that has me bowing down in worship before this much-used, much-maligned grape.  Its color was like a ruby, its bouquet full of leather, dark chocolate, earth, bread baking, sweat, spice, and wood—“sandalwood,” said Pina.  The taste created different sensations all over the mouth, but what made me close my eyes was the anise that lingered in a long, delicate line.

While we sipped and swirled in awed silence, Gianni, Pina’s partner in life and wine, poured out little sips of the two final wines: Bolgheri Superiore Ornellaia 2005 and 2006, Bordeaux-blend Super Tuscans.  They were both completely their own wines.  The 2005 was nuttier, both were complex, but Pina seemed most inspired by the 2006, in which she smelled pine and salty sea spray.

Wow, what a night.

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