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Archive for the ‘Pasta’ Category

We’ve lived in Minneapolis for a month now.  We spent the first 9 days in our new place without furniture, which was interesting.  In fact, it was surprising how quickly we adapted to living with minimal stuff.  But don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into a sermon about the importance of living with less.  I’m glad to have a couch to sit on, pots and pans to cook with, and 200 pairs of shoes to choose from.  (Well, no, sadly, I’m actually limited to a few pairs of Birkenstocks, since that arthritic toe joint has flared up again.)  What made that first week of camping out on hardwood bearable was the thrill this city buzzes with when it’s summer time, the lakes and parks, and the amazing food spots we’ve discovered.  There are great grocery stores, fun farmers’ markets, and countless hip cafes, coffee shops, bistros, patisseries, and pizzerias. (According to some survey that was cited in the Star Tribune last week, Minneapolis is the hipster capital of the country. I bought a $3 cup of hipster-made coffee at our neighborhood farmers’ market and thought it was so-so.)  Our favorite place to eat out is the pizzeria we went to on our first night here, which is just a block and a half away: Lola. They have an enormous, round, beautiful, shiny, copper wood-fired oven in which they cook thin-crust pizzas topped with only the best ingredients.

They also have the tastiest soft-serve vanilla, which you can get between cookies, unadulterated, or with a drizzle of olive oil and sea salt.  The latter tastes like a vegetal twist on caramel, which is novel and delicious.

One night, instead of having pasta bianca, we went uptown to Lucia’s, where Peter had mussels served with this delicate chive-flower-sprinkled crostini:

And after our things finally arrived (but before our kitchen was fully functional)…


to celebrate we went to another fantastic bistro, Cafe Maude, where Jack ordered a kids’ cocktail called “Rubber Ducky,” which is topped with a Peep!

I think it’s love.

And, let’s see, how many times have I been to Patisserie 46? I’ve already lost count.  Our first time there was also something of an occasion. We met up with my college friend, writer Emily Sohn, whom I haven’t seen since graduation!  She lives here with her husband Gabe and adorable son Zach.  After some morning pastries and perfectly executed cappuccini, we walked slowly to the closest park, where the little boys stripped down to their shorts and splashed around in the wading pool.  The first time I tasted Patisserie 46′s delicate pastries was the week before, when I found their stand at the Fulton Farmers’ Market, which is close to home.  While I ate a cherry & almond-topped brioche and drank my hipster coffee, Jack, in the mood for more savory fare, waited in line at Chef Shack for a brat with mustard.


I also bought two heavy bags of produce: a gigantic head of oak leaf lettuce, English peas, baby bok choy, new potatoes, kale, cucumbers… I forget what else.  We’ve been eating very well.

A few days later, when my parents came to visit, (in addition to eating at Lola and Cafe Maude, and then Cafe Ena) we visited the Mill City Museum, which is really the museum of flour.  We learned about the central role of flour in the growth of Minneapolis, and stood for what must be our oddest family portrait.


Notice anything peculiar about me? Yes, that’s right, I’m pregnant.  The little girl is due November 2nd, and is squirming and wriggling away as I write. Jack is so excited.  When I asked him to take a belly picture, he took me quite literally, and cut off my head:

Jack has been busy playing with his new neighbor friend.  They wanted to have a lemonade stand, and the only lemonade I had was the pricey Trader Joe’s organic. Their customers commented, they said, on how delicious the lemonade was.  No crystal lite on this corner!

Another day, we went to Sebastian Joe’s Ice Cream on Upton Ave., where they make their own small batches of uniquely flavored gelato-like ice creams.  The first time we went, I got cinnamon.  Next time they had salted caramel. Mmmm… is all I can say.  They have back-garden seating, which feels Berkeley-like, and a big iron turtle to crawl on.


It’s been a busy, happy, well-fed month.  And even though I haven’t touched on it much here, I have been doing some cooking.  But it’s summertime cooking: quick, a little lazy, conducive to warm nights. Last night, I mixed up a pesto for our ravioli using basil from the pot on the front stoop and peas from a local farm. The peas gave it a bright color and sweetness that was a refreshing change from the basil pesto I usually make, which always contains the evidence of an over-zealous garlic pusher. If only I could extend the evening with a few glasses of rosé….  Instead, I’ve been reading Clarissa.

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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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This distinction, between red and white, is an important and ubiquitous one in Roman society.  Well, at least when it comes to snacks and drinks and—if you’re talking to children—dinner.  There’s, of course, red or white wine.  (But these are just the most basic distinctions.  In addition to the great array of differences based on geography and terroir, there’s also the difference of fizz. But fizz, we’ve found, covers the spectra of bianco through rosato to rosso, and of seca to dolce.  In other words, it’s possible, and a pleasure, to find a dry fizzy pink wine and a sweet fizzy red wine.)

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I thought moving to Italy would expand my son’s diet into the far reaches of foreign flavors and textures.  He already liked olives and peppers.  We seemed to be on the right track.  But for some reason, living in Rome has contracted his taste.  His favorite choice, when it comes to dinner, is pasta bianca or pasta rossa.  And usually, he’ll choose the bianca: pasta with olive oil and grated parmesan.  He seems to have given up green things, which drives me nuts, because there are so many more wonderful green things here than there have been anywhere else he’s lived—except Berkeley, where he lived when he was just cutting teeth.  Green leaves with cheese, green leaves with nuts, green leaves with sweet onions, green leaves with grains, gazillions of great greens!  He won’t have any of it.

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The third important category of the rossa/bianca divide is pizza.

Pizza rossa is a thin, tasty crust spread with savory tomato sauce; each good forno will have its own sauce, some more salty or herbaceous than others.  Pizza bianca is a bubbly pizza crust topped simply with olive oil and salt.  Again, each forno’s dough has its own taste and consistency, and is topped with more or less salt.  You can also order pizza bianca morbida (soft) or dura (hard-crunchy). My favorite place to buy both is Panificio Beti, in our neighborhood.  The lines are always long, and the family behind the counter always bustling and full of banter.

These Roman basics serve as snacks or sides at any time of the day.  Italian life is riddled with rules, but, as far as I can tell, pizza rossa and bianca exist in a looser realm.  As a rule, Italians don’t eat on the run the way Americans do.  Even to-go coffee is a very rare sight.  But pizza rossa can be eaten with dignity while one is walking along the sidewalk.  The pizzeria guy will cut a piece in half, slap the parts together sauce-side-in, and wrap the bottom half in a piece of paper—a process that takes about a second and a half—so the snack is ready to eat as soon as it passes from his hand to yours.  I’ve seen people eat it for breakfast, for elevenses with beer,  for a late afternoon snack, and for dinner.

Last night, still satiated from the big Saturday Academy lunch, we had salad, pizza rossa, and vino rosso, for dinner.  Jack had the white ribs of the lettuce, pizza bianca, and milk.  I wish he’d broaden his taste at least to complete the color combo of the Italian flag.

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Of activity, that is.  (The real flurries are more like blizzards, falling on friends and relatives all up and down the east coast.)

But life here has been moving so fast, and what do I have to show for it? No photos of food, anyway.  The food has disappeared before the camera reached it.  Friday night they served latkes with dinner, and many of us ate three or more.  They were just so good!  Crispy crunchy on the outside, soft and hot on the inside, potato goodness throughout.  Our Saturday lunch was another bonanza of flavors.  The risotto, in particular, was impossibly delicious.  Lemony, smooth, perfectly toothsome.  That evening, yesterday, we hosted a pizza party.  Twenty or so friends filled our living room, bringing beer, wine, chocolate, good stories and loud laughs, and I somehow managed to keep serving hot pizza in defiance of the size of our oven.

(I’ve actually done some roasting, baking, and pizza making in it.  My grandma used just a toaster oven for years….)

The pizza came from our local favorite, Pizzeria da Simone.  People are constantly coming in and out of this pizzeria on Via Carini, at all hours of the day.  Pizza rossa for breakfast?  No problem.  We got a whole range of toppings last night: zucchini blossoms and anchovies, sausage with cheese, sausage with mushrooms, spicy sausage with tomato sauce, mushrooms with tomato sauce, prosciutto with cheese, mortadella with artichoke hearts.  It was all devoured before I thought to take a picture.  I love Roman style pizza.  The crust is like what we’d call flatbread, but isn’t completely flat, and the toppings are combined in moderate twosomes or threesomes.  None of this deep dish everything nonsense.  (How will we ever reacclimate?)

This morning, Peter and I, along with Ramie, Rena, and Lisa, ran the 10K “Christmas Run” in Villa Pamphili.  The scene was a fascinating cultural tableau.  We were some of the only Americans in the crowd of 400.  The race was set to begin at 9:30, but the organizers and pace-setters lingered in the cafe adjacent to the “Punto Jogging” for an extra 15 minutes of leisurely cappuccino sipping.  Finally, after we had been jumping up and down in the 28-degree air (that’s Farhenheit!) waiting, the pace-setters, who wore color-coded balloons, took their places and the race got off to a silly, stumbling, good-hearted start.  Some of the runners, being typical Italians, talked the whole while.  Except on the uphills.   The course, like the balloon-following, was whimsical, winding through forest on narrow, muddy trails, and up grassy hillsides sparkling with frost, past fountains and the chestnut-lined avenue on this awesome piece of land that until recently was a massive chunk of private property on one of the prettiest hills in Rome.  I ended up running in a pack of middle-aged men, who were yelling and laughing to each other the whole time, (Ciao, bello!  Buon Natale!  Attenzione! along with much commentary on the mud puddles) and one other woman, who wore a set of red antlers.  Some people were dressed up as Babbo Natale (that’s Santa to you) and many wore the elf hats they gave us at registration.  It was a fun-run with decidedly Italian inflections of the good life: the cafe at the finish was mobbed with sweaty people sipping espresso, talking loudly, and gesticulating heartily.  The men wore tights, and the women’s black eyeliner was unmussed.

Back home, Peter and I polished off the leftover pizza, and I cooked some pasta for these elves:

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Last night’s dinner was a celebration.  The meal marked the inauguration of the American Academy in Rome as a Slow Food Terra Madre Community.  Terra Madre is a network of food producers, purveyors, artisans, and consumers committed to making food sustainable for human economies and communities and for the planet.

The event started at 4:00 in the afternoon with the children.  First, they all went out to the garden to gather carrots, radishes, and fennel for what turned out to be a radically simple salad of these three vegetables washed and simply sliced, with no accessorizing flavors or sensations.

After that, the children followed the kitchen interns to one of the dining room tables, where a half dozen large cutting boards had been dusted with flour and set up with a ball of dough.  The task: to make orrechiette, or little ear-shaped pasta.  It was an interesting display of manual and cognitive development.  The 2-4-year-olds loved the feeling of dough in their fingers; they were happy to manipulate the soft irregular shapes, and completely disregarded the goal of shape.

The 8-10-year-olds worked with the manual confidence of seasoned chefs.  Confidence, that is, not skill.  They rolled the dough into snakes as fast as that, then chopped the snake into bits with fast loud chops, and squashed those bits into bowls as big as clamshells and as small as fingernails, quick as they could, talking Star Wars and Legos all the while.

The result (of their efforts and of those of the kitchen staff) was delicious: tender pasta tossed with pork sausage, chopped braised kale, and just enough red pepper flakes.

This meal, including arugula salad and a semifreddo with tart orange granita, culminated in speeches by the presidents of Slow Food Italia and of Slow Food Roma, and with the presentation of a certificate recognizing the efforts of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, and naming the Academy a Terra Madre Community.

Then, we drank “after dinner drinks” and decorated the Christmas tree.

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I haven’t actually been making or eating as many meatballs as it may seem from the frequency of their appearance in these posts.  But last night I did make a new (for me) variation on an old theme: meatballs that were halfway between Lions Heads from Shanghai cuisine and Milanese, with some of my favorite flavorings thrown in.  The dish was inspired by a cabbage-wrapped meatball meal the RSFP kitchen cooked for us about a month ago.

In the morning, at the market, I bought some pork which the butcher ground on the spot.  I love that they do this.  Then they show it to you, as if to say, “is this to your liking?”  I bought a big cabbage and some parsley, and started to plan the process in my head.

While shopping, I also bought a city bus and admired some chocolate tools:

Harry, Jack, and a serious toy

Dolce Desideri has fun with chocolate

Prep:

Then, the meatballs: ground pork, breadcrumbs, 1 egg, salt and pepper, a generous pinch of freshly crushed coriander seeds, and small pinches each of ground cumin and cinnamon. I rolled them into a generous size—something between a golf ball and a billiard ball.  I browned them in the pan, while the cabbage leaves blanched.  Then, when all was cool enough to handle, I wrapped each ball in a leaf and set them on a plate while I deglazed the pan, randomly, with sweet vermouth.  (It was the only non-quaffable alcohol in the pantry, and turned out to be the best secret ingredient!)  Then, I put in the meatballs and poured in some stock, covered them, and simmered for 15 or so minutes.  Meanwhile, I cooked some pasta and tossed it with olive oil and parsley.

We took a break from mask-making to eat.

Jack & Felix

swaddled polpette

Then, we got ready for dancing.

Felix, Jack, Pio

Who are these masked dancers?

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My mind and time have been taken up with other writing projects during the past week—my dissertation, about which I won’t talk here, and my story/pamphlet for Bioversity, about which I will talk, at some later date.  But I have to steal a few moments from eighteenth-century literature to do some musing on marjoram.

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Every Wednesday night at the Academy, the RSFP kitchen cooks an entirely vegetarian meal with local, seasonal ingredients.  Last night, the highlights of the meal were hazelnuts (chopped on a bitter green salad with beets) and marjoram.

Marjoram is often thought of as a meat herb because it can hold its own alongside the most flavorful lamb or venison.  But last night’s main course was potato gnocchi with marjoram and chopped walnuts, pecorino and some wilted green (something chicoryish but not too bitter… plain old spinach?).  It was a risky dish, because the piny astringency and almost medicinal zest of the marjoram could easily have overpowered the humble little gnocchi.  That’s why I’d like to praise, along with the herb so evocative of wildness, the kitchen staff here.  Not only did they create delicate gnocchi for almost fifty people, but they seasoned it delicately with one of the strongest herbs.  The dish had to have been prepared with gentle fingers—to keep the gnocchi fluffy and to crush the leaves of marjoram without mincing out the flavor.  The wine pairing was exquisite, too: a slightly effervescent, green-grassy crisp white from Lazio.  Like a vinho verde, but even greener.

Thanks, guys!

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IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.

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Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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Going to Venice for a long weekend is like being transported to a different realm.  In this immersed city, we immersed ourselves in grand-scale Renaissance art, long winding walks, gelato, spritz (Amaro—a bittersweet red liqueur—and prosecco), and seafood.  What everyone says about the acoustics stands out as a strong sense memory: without the sound of cars, the ear hears the click of heels on stone, voices talking, murmuring, laughing, and the soft splash of water against stone and brick.  True, there are motor boats, but their rumble is nothing after the roar of Roman traffic.

We ate well.  Oh, yes we did.

On the first night, we turned the corner from the little alley where we were renting an apartment (with 5 others from the American Academy), and happened upon Paradiso Perdito, a wonderfully unlost paradise of seafood, pasta, off-beat music, and attractive diners and servers both young and old.  Here’s a sampling of that meal.

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antipasti

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vino di casa pump

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frito misto

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amazingly flavorful garlicky pasta with a never seen before crustacean

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squid ink pasta

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Jack fell asleep on my lap.

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see the rosemary sprig?

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nicely boned

Other highlights: The dolci, which we all agreed were better than any in Rome.

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how many pistachios are in this torta?

This place especially, which Lisa discovered at 7:30 one morning, by following the aroma of buttery baking, had the most amazing almond croissants we’ve ever had.  They weren’t overly sweet and flabby like so many, but were improbably both dense and flaky, and were almost savory in their delicate sweetness.

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bread turtle?

I didn’t actually take any photos of anyone eating gelato, because I always had a drippy cone of my own to control, usually with some combination of fruity and nutty.  My favorite duo: cherry and hazelnut.  Jack’s favorite: strawberry and cherry.  But this is the place to get it:

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We happened upon this graffito, which to me says, “Is this a gelato I see before me?”

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We also saw lots and lots of art.  Jack was inspired to do some painting, and then ran off to chase pigeons.

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We took one gondola ride, but it only went across the Grand Canal, took two minutes, and cost 50 cents.  Still, it seemed to make everyone happy.

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Susanna & Stephen

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Peter

Our last meal was at the Anice Stellato—the Star Anise—and it was a meal to remember.  I wasn’t so good at photographing every plate, but my favorite dish was a lamb tenderloin rolled in crushed pistachios.  Oh, my….  The wine, a local carmenere blend, and an antipasto plate called sarde in saor, with sardines, polenta, and pickled onions, also stood out.

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Jack enjoyed hanging with the grown-ups.  And I think they liked his company too.

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Aurelia, Jack, Richard, me

(For more photos, check out my Flickr page.)

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Yesterday, I attended a panel discussion celebrating the publication of the Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated into English by Maureen Fant. Also in attendance were Sheila Levine, the editor from UC Press, who co-founded that wonderful magazine, Gastronomica, which features stories about the intersection of food and culture; and Chris Boswell, the sous chef here at the American Academy, a former Chez Panisse chef who is passionate about things like heirloom wheat varietals, and who cooks us amazing dinners here five nights a week.  He co-founded the Rome Sustainable Food Project with Mona Talbott.

pasta book

The highlights of the discussion were the humorous bits.  The hundreds (or more?) of pasta shapes which have evolved over the past few centuries have names which carry stories—many of them humorous, and sometimes with political overtones, such as strangulapreti (priest stranglers), and sometimes simply naughtily ridiculous, such as cazzetti d’angelo (little angel’s balls).  Oretta’s book combines the lore and history of all of Italy’s known varieties of pasta, which she learned mainly through personal conversation and perusal of personal recipe collections.  Part of the value of the book, then, is that it captures in text an oral and manual tradition that is beginning to be lost to convenience foods.  There are also instructions for making all kinds of pasta, and descriptions of how they are traditionally served.

Oretta also has some strong opinions about historical chronology.  She said that not only were Italians making pasta two hundred years before Marco Polo was born, but that when Marco Polo got back from China, his mother probably served him a big bowl of pasta—an assertion she delivered with her characteristic exclamatory tone and gestures.

Then, we ate five or so takes on pasta for lunch.  My favorite was the lasagna—made with incredibly few ingredients: house-made lasagna noodles separated by thinly sliced, narrow zucchini and pulled smoked scamorza, a spun cheese like mozzarella but more flavorful.  It was a taste sensation to remember.

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