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Archive for the ‘Shopping’ Category

Today was beautiful.  Daylong full sun, a few big cumulous clouds drifting by, sandwiched between rainy days.  This morning I went on an epic shopping run, stopping at two open-air markets for fruit and vegetables, the GS supermarket, and a toy store (for the birthday party tomorrow), pulling my heavy cart behind me.

When I finally got home, it was time to go out again—to refuel with coffee before Jack’s playdate in the park.  I walked and Jack scootered over to the Academy bar, and while I sipped my esspresso, he scooted into the kitchen to say ciao to all of his friends there.

Then, we swapped the scooter for the bike and continued on to the sprawling Villa Pamphili park, where there were lots of huge tempting mud puddles for Jack and his friend Felix not to ride through, please!  Felix’s family arrived here this summer from Norway, for his father’s fellowship at the Norwegian Institute.  Jack and Felix are classmates, and both are learning bits of Italian at school.  They rode along shouting strings of nonsense punctuated with words like “basta” and “guarda!”

At the top of a broad hill, after climbing up and down through open gardens and umbrella pine groves, a new playground has been installed.  The boys had fun climbing and swinging.

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The other great thing about this park, besides the playground, the running paths, the beauty, the pond, and the people-watching, is the cafe at the top of the hill, Vivi Bistrot.  We went there with the hope of sitting at a table and having a warm lunch, but all of the tables were booked.  This must be a good spot!  All—or most—of the food they serve is organic, and they do their own baking.  They couldn’t seat us today, but we assembled a nice picnic out of pesto pasta with tomatoes, organic chicken wings, pizzeti (sandwiches made with pizza bianca), and some interesting juices.  The oddest item was a strange twist on American imports: a wrap containing “crudo & Philadelphia”—prosciutto and cream cheese.  Jack ate it, but I thought “yuck.”

Here’s the bucolic setting for this spot, which would be a nice place to have an aperitivo in the middle of an evening walk, or a quick jolt of cappuccino during a leisurely jog:

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Tonight, for a change, we’re going out for Chinese.

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As we rode the train north-east, from Rome to Venice, we passed through Italian regions famous for their food and wine.  And really, which ones aren’t?  One sight that struck me again and again was the smallness and odd shapedness of, and variety of growth on the fields.  They reminded me of Vermont.

Why is this interesting?  There is a correlation between the size and shape of the agricultural fields, the omnipresence of them over all kinds of landscape, and the presence of produce like this in the markets:

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treviso

I’ve been interested in the fact that there’s so much great variety at these street markets which are all over the city.  Why are people in many different economic situations able to buy a variety of leafy greens or tomatoes, for example, when in the U.S. the less well-off are stuck with processed food at their local markets?  One explanation is that Italy has a culture that values food, and that the rituals and culture based on food are stronger than the modern urge for convenience.  Another explanation is that lots of agricultural land has been owned by the church for a very long time, and is leased to people who farm relatively small plots.  This means they don’t pay a premium for land, and therefore don’t have big profits as their only care; the small scale also encourages crop diversity.  And I guess there’s the geography of the place—no great plains to cover with corn; mountains; and a strong sense of regional identity. Wine culture has something to do with it too; food and wine are seen as something special and are historically connected to national and regional identity.

The economics of food in the U.S. is a real problem.  Because of the perversity of the farm subsidies, which go toward commodity crops and wealthy farmers, non-nutritious processed food ends up being a lot cheaper than good, whole food.  Because organic food and “unusual” produce is more expensive and less available, it is seen as elitist food.  There are changes that could be made: government support for small farms growing diverse crops, and for the creation of farmers’ markets in many more places; revamping the farm subsidy programs to provide more help for small food producers and less help for the factory farms.  I really think there’s hope, if the government can ever break the power of the strongest lobbies.  But the other problem, which relates to the comparison with Italy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a food culture.  Food isn’t really valued for itself, doesn’t have a lot of history or ritual attached to it (except on holidays, when the tradition is to overeat), and isn’t passed down through the generations as a set of rules, knowledge, and values.

Convenience encroaches here, too, though.  I see people in the park where I run gathering wild edible greens and mushrooms.  They are all over 70, as is, I think, the farmer-couple I like to buy from at the market.

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What a Saturday!  Jack and I started the day with Harry and Ramie at Dolci Desideri: cappucini and cornetti (one with marmalata, one whole wheat with bitter honey) for the moms, frutti di bosca (wild berry) muffins for the boys.  Then, in the 39-degree-Fahrenheit chill, we walked around the block to the outdoor market on Via Nicolini.  First, we went to one of the small organic farmers’ stands.  What’s in season at this farm near the airport?  Dandelion greens, chicories, peppers, eggplants, potatoes, various hard-skinned squashes.  I bought some of almost everything, and she stuffed some fresh herbs in my bag for free.  At the next stand, we bought apples, plums, pears, and broad beans.

Back at the Academy, we stopped in at the bar, and Alessandro made Jack some hot cocoa.  He doesn’t know how lucky he is.  The ingredients were whole unpasteurized organic milk, house-made chocolate ganache, and house-made marshmallows.  While he worked, Alessandro told Jack, in Italian, about his pet turtle.

Lunch at the Academy, served at one, was phenomenal as usual.  The dessert was an incredible taste sensations.  “Outrageous,” according to one diner.  There was a sweet crumbly shortbread style tart crust, in which was a warm custard flavored with—or really just subtly evoking the flavors of—honey, lemon, pinenuts, a few raisins, and something else more evanescent.  What was it?

Unbelievably, we did more eating as the day went on.  Some of our next door neighbors with young kids came over for dinner.  I roasted a bunch of the veggies I’d bought, and tossed them with pasta, rosemary, olive oil, and grated pecorino romano.

Nick and Rena brought dessert: a Dolci Desideri cherry-infused chocolate cake that seemed to be half crumb, half ganache.  Jack and Lulu licked all of the plates clean:

licking1

I’m not sure what the goggles were for.

licking

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Everyone says it’s impossible to get a bad meal in Italy.  That’s not true.

After spending a wonderful morning in the galleries of the Museo Borghese, feasting our eyes on the Caravaggios, like his “Self Portrait as Bacchus,” and on the sculptures Bernini carved—improbably rendering marble as smooth and pliant as flesh—we took the bus back to Trastevere in search of a good lunch.  You can’t tell by the facade of authenticity, or by the menu, or the prices, or the aromas coming out of the kitchen.  But some meals are disappointing.  The pasta was greasy, the porcini were soggy, the stew was bland, the antipasti boring.

But we did see some other interesting sights.  An ivy covered house:

ivied house

Marcus Aurelius’s copycat version of Trajan’s triumphal column:

marcus aurelius

and some black laundry items hanging out:

laundry

Today is Saturday.  We have big plans.  We’ll start at Dolci Desideri with Ramie and Harry, and then go to the market around the corner to buy some veggies for tonight’s dinner.  Then, I’m getting together with my new friend Ruth, who works for the non-profit Diversity for Life, an organization that promotes education in agricultural biodiversity (mainly in the U.S. and Africa, where it’s most needed).  After that, Jack and I will meet up with his friend Dylan for some play date fun.  Then dinner… what will I cook?

The day started off with a beautiful sunrise:

sunrise

we went

wewe

we

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Fall fell in a swirl of branches, leaves, and whole trees.  Yesterday afternoon, we watched the pines and bamboo swaying in circles as the wind picked up.  Rain fell hard, and stopped quickly.  And then, the most magnificent double rainbow I’ve ever seen arched across the Rome skyline, and the mountains, free from the haze after a long hot summer, seemed etched into the sky.  This morning, the air was crisp, about 15 degrees cooler than yesterday’s, and smoke from burning piles of brush signaled the arrival of autumn.  We rode the bus to our usual stop, just past Piazza Ottavilla, where we saw a huge pile of downed trees and branches.  Later, I ran through the park at Villa Pamphili, and saw huge old pines and palms lying broken on the grass.

I had spent the morning on a long market circuit in Trastevere, stopping at my favorite shops: Antica Caciari for fresh ricotta, Canestro for organic cereals, grains, lentils, and peanut butter, and Antico Forno Roscioli for delicious bread and un cornetto integrale–a whole wheat croissant with bitter honey inside.  I knew I’d found an amazing baker when I saw the impossible combination of whole wheat flecks and buttery thin flaky pastry.  How do they do it?

I love walking around Trastevere because of its spider web of narrow off-angle streets that open onto beautiful architectural surprises.

Trast. arch

Rena sent me on a hunt for this place, which carries organic milk in a little fridge near the door.

checco

nut tart

Wow!  It looks pretty, but what would it be like actually to eat this nutty tart?

The Fontana d’Acqua Paolo, seen from the pedestrian bridge, Ponte Sisto, jutting up at the top of the hill, marked the line I’d need to walk to find the steep set of stairs that would lead me up the hill back home.

Ponte sisto

And now, the pictures we’ve all been waiting for…

Il Arcobaleno!

arcobaleno 1

arc 2

I’d been cooking dinner, when Jack, sitting at the high counter in the kitchen, said, “there’s a huge rainbow in the sky.” Uh huh.  I was busy.  But then, I decided to look, and couldn’t believe it.  We ran down the stairs, but not before Jack resourcefully thought to pull on his puddle boots.  We buzzed Lulu and Jesse’s apartment, and ran outside with them to stand in the street.  The rainbow made a full half-circle.  And then we realized it was doubled by a fainter, inverted rainbow above:

double bow

Peter called down from the terrace, where everyone else was watching it.

Peter on terrace

The view from up there was even more amazing.

arc from terrace

arc terr 2

Jack

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I met my friend Marjorie the other morning at one of the dolci destinations, Desideri, on Via Carini.  While I waited for her, and cooled down from the fast walk from Jack’s school, I checked out the amazing display of gelato and dolci—which refers to sweets of all sorts—in the display cases.  A steady, but meandering, stream of people stopped in to lean on the counter and order their morning treats—all kinds of cornetti, and cappuccino.

Marjorie arrived, and began to tell me all about the different sweets at this famous cafe.  I decided on an almond-covered cornetto, and she asked for un cornetto integrale—one made with whole wheat, and filled with bitter honey.  Wow!

Look at this beautiful cappuccino.

desideri capp

From there, we hurried over to Via Nicolini, to the block-long market, to get the good veggies before they were gone.  Marjorie took me to her favorite farmer-vendor, and we slowly admired everything on the table.  We heard two women exchanging recipe ideas and exclaiming about the first cucumbers and the last melons.

I bought too much, but I have no doubt it will all be cooked and eaten.

10-1 produce

I cooked the broad beans in a Roman style—sauteed with olive oil, tomatoes, and garlic, and dressed with plenty of chopped parsley.  The tastes were surprisingly complementary, and the taste of the beans was that of simple freshness.  It was clear they’d been picked that day.

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I love the way, in Italian, the word for “bakery” also means “oven.”   It’s a word- and food-lover’s favorite instance of synecdoche.  Jeannie introduced me to the family-run Antico Forno Marco Roscioli a few weeks ago, during our little culinary tour of Trastevere.  When I went back this week, it was because I had two cravings for the two things I bought there last time: fig bread, and the treat Jack and I like to call “secret cookies.”  Next time, I’ll get some of their pizza bianca and one of their famous apple torts.

The fig bread is made with farina integrale—whole wheat flour, which comes from local growers and millers.  Roasted walnuts and dried figs are rolled into the dough as it’s shaped for its last rise, and the interior comes out looking like this:

fig bread

Need I even say that it’s delicious in the morning, toasted and spread with butter or honey, served with a caffé con latte?

These other treats go well with a post-pranza (that’s lunch) espresso:

almond cookies

Made of the most delicate blend of flour and marzipan (I think), they are topped with sliced almonds and dusted with powdered sugar.  The first time I ate one, I was savoring the sweet, tender crumb when—oh my!—I came upon the concealed sugar-soaked sour cherry.  What a delight!  Jack is crazy for these cookies, and loves boastfully to tell his friends he knows their secret.  They are so rich, though, that these will be special treats.

For more on Forno Roscioli, and for some entertaining translations—such as “biological jam” for confettura biologica, by which they mean “organic jam”—check out their website here.

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There are certain food items my family would be unhappy to do without: eggs, milk, peanut butter, and basil.  Only one of these items is not a regular part of the Italian diet.

I had heard that the big, fancy gourmet food store near the Vatican, Castroni, was the place to find peanut butter.  This store is amazing for its glittering array of precious victuals.  The pleasure is in gazing at the novelties, and not in purchasing.  There is one high shelf in particular that had me staring in dumbstruck awe.  Call it a shrine to American cravings.

Castroni

For the sorry traveler who feels deprived and disappointed by what Rome has to offer in the edible realm, here is his Skippy, her Betty Crocker.  See the size of the Skippy jar? See the price tag, in euros, above it (3.90)?  The cravings must be strong, indeed.  This was not the place for me to buy peanut butter.

I asked my friend Jeannie where to get it.  She told me about Canestra, a health food store in Trastevere, not far from the cheese shop where I got the ricotta.  This is what I’ve been looking for:

peanut butter

It’s organic (biologico) but not local; it’s made in Germany.

The other items on my list of essentials are very local.  The milk and eggs are from the immediate region of Rome.  We buy them from the Rome Sustainable Food Project.  The milk is whole, unpasteurized, and delicious—especially frothed up in the form of a cappuccino made by Alessandro at the Academy bar.

milk & capp

The basil, in a picture here by Jack, is in our window basket.

basil

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What a morning! My friend Jeannie took me on a tour of some of her favorite food shops in Trastevere. We left our boys, Nico and Jack, drawing with crayons at Scuola Arcobaleno, and took the 44 bus down the hill, transferred to tram, crossed the Tiber, and hit the streets.  Our first stop was at a bar (yes, it was morning, but coffee shops are called bars, here), the interior of which was like a cave of sparkling chrome and mahogany.  We stood at the marble counter and sipped cappuccinos, priming ourselves for a busy morning.

Our first stop was Antico Forno Marco Roscioli—a beautifully abundant bakery better known as Roscioli.  Follow the “FORNO” sign:

fornoInside, a curved bank of display counters embraces the gaggle of customers pointing high and low to the breads and pastries they want.

pane

bakers

bakers

I bought pizza bianco, a half-loaf of whole wheat bread with figs baked into the crumb, and four little almond macaroons which, I just discovered, conceal a sweet cherry in their centers.  Next time, I’ll have to get one of these apple torts:

tortine di mele

From there, we wandered into the Campo di Fiori, over which the hooded heliocentrist heretic Giordano Bruno presides, and where on weekday mornings there is an open-air market.

campo di fiori

I bought un pezzo di zucca—a chunk of pumpkinish squash—which I’ll use in risotto, and some spices I’ve been missing: ground cumin and cumin seeds, and cinnamon.  The vendor scooped tiny handfuls with a plastic bag:

spices

Next, we went to a shoe store.  Having brought with me four pairs of sandals and two pairs of tall boots but nothing in between for the rainy fall weather, I justified to myself a shoe-shopping detour.  Jeannie took me to a shoe store, called Ugo Celli, that has been in business since 1912.  After looking at the selection in the window display in the foyer, you enter the store, which has looked just like this since 1938, when it was last renovated:

shoe store

They still have the original register (though they also accept credit cards):

shoe store register

Feeling weighed down with purchases, we decided to turn in the direction of home, but made one last culinary-destination stop, at Antica Caciara, a friendly cheese shop just off of the main drag of Viale di Trastevere.   Jeannie bought a mild cheese called Sienetta and some feta, and I asked for some Sienetta as well, along with some ricotta, all of which were wrapped carefully in slightly waxy paper.

Lunch hour was approaching, and we both had fresh things in our fridges, along with the bread and cheese we’d bought today, so we decided to head home.  We also felt a twinge of guilt for not working but shopping all morning.  The walk home will make anyone feel virtuous, though, because it’s basically a climb up a mountain.  This aspect of living in Rome gives me deja vu, because it’s just like my walk from “the gourmet ghetto” of Berkeley to Euclid Ave., where I lived for a few years.  Stairs, paths, hairpin turns, bags heavy with good food, lush vegetation.

Here’s just a taste of my walk home:

steps 1

steps 2

Just one more flight…

steps 4

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wall

wall 2

just wide enough to look or shoot through

I had an interesting personal-historical palimpsestic experience this morning on my way home from dropping Jack at school.  I wound my way to the market street, and went to the last stall, where there is a sign saying “Vendita Directa,” meaning that the fruits and vegetables are sold directly from farmer to consumer.  I don’t know how to explain the presence of bananas from Ecuador on the table, but oh well.

On my way home, I decided to take a little staircase I hadn’t seen before, which seemed to lead in the general direction of the American Academy.  It led to a sidewalk that ran along La Mura—the gigantic wall built around the ancient city.  I knew that the Academy was situated just over the wall, in a sort of nook near the wall’s highest point.  If I just walked along the wall, I’d find a way in.  I kept walking and walking along the wall, as it started to wind down the steep hillside.  Cars rushed by me on one side, and the high wall reflected hot sunlight on the other.  I kept thinking, there has to be a way through this wall!  And then I realized the historical and ironic nature of this walk—about a mile out of my way.  My position on the outside, and my desire to get in, put me in the place of the barbarians the wall was constructed to keep out.  I may be an American, and wearing jeans from the Gap, I thought, but I’m carrying a bag of figs, and I’m trying to learn Italian!

Finally, I decided to turn around, and this time, I spotted a woman pushing a stroller through a narrow doorway in the wall.  This passageway led to the park and playground right near the Academy.  I was in.

Now for some pictures.  Last night, a bunch of us at the Academy did our best to eat as Romans do.  We had a pot-luck barbecue, but there were no barbarian-style hot dogs or burgers on the menu.

I made pizza:

my pizza

Lars and Eva brought sausages to grill:

grill

When the rain let up, we carried all of the food outside to a table under the trees:

carrying

The fire kept burning, and more meat came out.  This was the butterflied leg of lamb Russel and Annie bought at Testaccio on Saturday, along with some sweet cippolline:

lamb

It was a good spread:

the table

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