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Posts Tagged ‘Rome locavore’

My dissertation, that is, is done.  Sadly, so is our packing.

We’ve been saying goodbyes to good good friends here in Rome, and will leave on Thursday.  It’s an anticipated sadness and loss, so it’s one that ebbs and flows, comes and goes at unexpected moments.  Life goes on, too, as do the food and wine discoveries. Why did it take 9 months for me to learn about this vino vivace I’m sipping right now?  Monsupello, an off-white slightly fizzy wine made with Pinot Nero grapes (skins taken out), from the Pavia region in the north of Italy.  The reason I didn’t know about it sooner is that Jeannie and Valeria, friends and moms of Jack’s friends, discovered it at our local enoteca—wine shop—and bought it all up.  But with the new season, new caseloads have come in, and we’re all drinking it.  I had it first on Jeannie’s balcony in Trastevere while Jack and Nico “went fishing” with coat hangers over the edge.  Then I had it two nights later at Valeria & Andreas’ apartment.  Two Roman veterinarians, they told us about their dreams of opening a restaurant in London or Berlin that serves good basic Roman cuisine.

Late, too, I found out about Necci, a wonderful little cafe that does everything from breakfast pastries to toy-swaps for the kids with aperitivi for the parents.  Jeannie, Sarah, and I went to Pigneto, a Roman neighborhood outside of the city center, last week, on a mission to taste the artisanal cornetti (Italian croissants).  The chef, a British guy named Ben, is one of those admirable chefs who uses only local and seasonal ingredients and who is reviving old ways of making things.  Jeannie and I had chocolate cornetti and agreed that they were the best we’d tasted in years.  Light crunch to the pastry flakes—dark, warm chocolate within.

Necci is a fun place with great deck seating, kid-friendliness, a sense of humor, and delicious food.  Some pictures.

Jeannie & Sarah

banana flush pull

After a long, leisurely hour and two cappuccini at Necci, we walked down a central neighborhood street that has an open air market during the morning.  I bought a melon, a bagful of cherries, and susine plums.

Then we wandered with our fruit-heavy bags back to Sarah’s car, stopping in little shops along the way.  One of them was a funky second-hand store, with everything from a vintage Singer sewing machine—from the 1910s—to Pokemon cards.  Now, if I had known then what I know now, I would have bought a huge handful of those cards.  For the past few days of goodbyes Jack has been cathecting all of his mixed emotions onto his carte di Pokemon.  I buy a pack for him (and they’re exploitatively expensive!) and he gives them all away as regali.  Or his more cunning friends convince him to trade 4 for 1.  I tell him I won’t buy him anymore, and he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school or see his friends again.  I say, “I know you’re sad that we’re leaving. Let’s talk about what you like about Rome” and he’ll say, “I like the buses and the carte di Pokemon.”  It’s been a sad time for him, because he’s had such a wonderful year.  He learned Italian and finally feels comfortable with his Italian friends and teachers. He loves his school.  He loves life here at the Academy where there are always friends available right next door. So he channels his emotions into the things he can grasp at and consume until we go away (friends are too complicated for these operations): Gormiti (little Italian elemental action figures), Pokemon cards (which, he doesn’t know, are everywhere), and ciambellini (the mini doughnuts they make at the Kosher cafe we stop in almost every morning before school).  We all do it.  I’m drinking more coffee because I know I won’t taste coffee like this in the New World.  I’m putting one more slice of mozzarella on my plate because it might be my last for years. I’m getting a cup of pistachio gelato even if Jack doesn’t want any.  We’re trying to squeeze in one more coffee-date, playdate, late-night conversation with the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  And I’m trying to drink in the views and sounds of Rome so that I won’t forget any of it, so that it won’t become muted and hazy when we get back to “real life.”

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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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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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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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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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Last night, the RSFP served ossobuco.  The platters came out piled with hunks of glistening meat and bone.  Something about about the primal nature of this meal brought out the sillies in us.  We started trying on each others’ glasses.  Some began eating with their fingers.  There was quizzing on food and sex.  And then the marrow sucking began.  While this was going on, there was laughter, of course, which caused a fleck of marrow to fly, projectile-style, from one man’s lips to another man’s shirt.  (You know who you are, friends….) He wore the badge of grease for the rest of the evening, which ended with grappas, noccinos, and amaros.  I wish I had a picture of my friends holding greasy bones up to their puckered lips.  And they, I’m sure, are glad I don’t!

The vegetarians may have been horrified, and luckily for them, were not at our table.  The combination of disgust at the finger-licking sensuality of this unabashedly carnivorous meal, and the ethical divide would be enough for some harsh condemnation of the bacchanalian scene.

Is it enough to say that we know, because of the dedication of Mona and Chris to finding sustainable, local food, that these animals we ate were raised and killed with care and humanity?  Many prefer not to think about this, but when you’re sucking the marrow out of leg bones, the fact of your dinner’s other form as a cute little calf is hard to avoid.

Another way to think about it is as veal shanks braised in stock and white wine and garnished with gremolata—a simple dressing of parsley, garlic, and lemon.  Another perspective is health: a quick google search suggests that bone marrow is nutritious and may even help to account for the low incidence of heart disease in offal-loving societies.

It was, then, a most basic and most complex feast.  And it was delicious.

Since I don’t have any pictures, I’ll direct you to this video of Mark Bittman and Fergus Henderson roasting bones and then spreading the “jiggly” marrow on toast.

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No.  I’m not talking about that mystery conglomeration “corn dog” that masquerades as meat, but meatballs, served cocktail-catering-style on little wooden skewers.  We took Jack to a cocktail reception last night, and his favorite items were the polpetti, or, meat lollipops.  (My favorite was the split date posing as a dish for gorgonzola and a walnut quarter.)

The reception, here at the Academy, was for the new American ambassador to Italy, David Thorne.  Alice Waters was also there, having come from a big Slow Food event, and planning to stay in Rome through Thanksgiving.  I think you can guess which dignitary I was most excited about meeting.

This morning, Jack said, “Mommy, can you make polpetti?”  Yes! And you can help!  So, after dropping him off at school, I stopped at the Super Carni—a little butcher’s shop owned by a grandparently couple, which sells lots of organic products—and asked for “del bovino per polpetti.”  Probably not very correct, but he understood.  Remember how I mentioned that Italians are always, in a tacit and politely bossy way, telling you the proper way to do things?  Well, I had asked for beef, but after half-picking up a piece of beef, he set it down and reached instead for the chunks of veal, which he then put through the old-fashioned meat grinder twice, making sure the texture was to his satisfaction.  I love the immediacy of this operation.

And of this one:

For the recipe, check out this post.

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