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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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In my last post, I attempted both to recommend Food Inc., and to criticize what I saw as the overly facile closing message (“vote with your fork”).  There was more to the event, here at the American Academy in Rome, and there is a positive alternative to the dark suggestion of the film that Monsanto may well take over the world.  Briefly, these follow-ups/upsides have to do with braised pork and grass-roots.

Let’s start with grass-roots.  Since the screening, I’ve talked with a lot of people about how depressing the film is.  It seems to offer only the meager solutions of “voting with your fork” and waiting for policy change to adjust the prices of food.  Obviously, more needs to be done and can be done.  One of the people I’ve talked with a lot about these issues is Mona Talbott, the executive chef here.  She is passionate not only about great cooking but also about reforming American food culture through cooking education.  An over-reliance on convenient but unhealthy fast-food is in part a consequence of a general lack of cooking skills and knowledge.  Another part of the problem is the misconception that fast food is cheaper than home-cooked food.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  The Rome Sustainable Food Project works on a tight budget to provide nutritious, delicious, and sufficient food for all of us.  Mona points out that the world’s oldest traditional diets, like that in Italy, have had such long histories of sustaining people in part because they can sustain—with complete nutrition—the most people.  In other words, traditional diets are complete, and they are poor people’s diets.  The basis of the Italian diet is the lowly triumvirate of beans, grains, and greens.  These are affordable. Pasta is cheap.  The cheapest cuts of meat are delicious when cooked slowly.

But cooking, which often isn’t learned in the family anymore, needs to be learned if families are to be fed on these inexpensive foods rather than on fast food.  Actually, many people don’t know anything about food anymore, much less cooking!  If you take a look at my friend Sharyn’s comment on my last post, you’ll see what I’m talking about. She teaches in a university, and her students don’t know about the seasonality of any foods.

Several things need to, and can, happen, with a grass-roots effort. More communities can take on the reform of school lunch on their own, and even put in edible schoolyards (playground gardens) and teaching kitchens.  Children, then, can teach their parents about seasonality and cooking.  Or they can learn about food and cooking by asking their grandparents, as their doing with the help of Bioversity’s campaign Diversity for Life.  Cooking schools can teach home cooking.  Institutional kitchens—like the one here, with its unpaid interns—can double as educational kitchens.   Old routines, like canning parties, can be revived.  (Mona mentioned this today, and you might recall one of my recent posts about the biodiversity scientist I met recently, Stephan, who has fond memories of tomato-canning parties in a neighbor’s garage.)  Children can be taught the basics of cooking, and along with those, the comforts and thrills of cooking, by being included in the process of growing and making food.  With the encouragement of children and community-based campaigns, working parents can be convinced to plan ahead and find the time to put together a healthy meal—even if it’s just rice, beans, and something green.

Mona, who has cooked for the best restaurants and wealthiest people, wants to devote herself to this grass-roots cooking re-education effort when her tenure as the head of the Rome Sustainable Food Project ends.  She’s a real inspiration.

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Immediately after the film screening on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion with two of the farmers who sell their organic foods to the Rome Sustainable Food Project: Enzo Foi, who came with Filippo da Sole, from the farm and agriturismo destination Lo Spicchio; and Giuseppe Brandizzi, from the organic dairy Biola.  The audience had many questions about organic agriculture (agricoltura biologica) in Italy, food politics in Italy, and the differences between the U.S. and Italy on these matters. Enzo told us, without the wish to romanticize Italy for the mostly American audience, that the main difference between the U.S. and Italy, in terms of industrial agriculture, is scale.  Here, as in the U.S., there is a large industrial-farm lobby that shapes the politics; synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are used (although the European Union has outlawed GMOs and rBST); small-scale farmers are going out of business.  But, also as in the U.S., there is a movement to expand sustainable agriculture, and to encourage buying locally produced food, and some politicians are helping to promote these causes.  (There are, of course, differences.  Italians know how to eat and have a culture of food, for one!)

More important than the help of politicians, though, is the grass-roots movement exemplified by these men and their families, who are educators and cooks as much as they are farmers.  They farm and cook and eat the way they do because they want to preserve the land, foods, and traditions that have sustained people for centuries and that could—if not cared for—be lost to oblivion.  If you’ve seen Food Inc., consider the proud strut of this rooster compared to the falling-down factory chickens:

Lo Spicchio gallo

After the film and discussion—and in spite of the revolting images of factory farming we’d just seen—we all eagerly went upstairs to the dining room to eat a meal prepared with the ingredients from Enzo’s and Giuseppe’s (and a few others’) farms.  We ate Lo Spicchio pork braised in Biola’s whole raw milk; cardoons roasted with lemon and buttery breadcrumbs; polenta; local red wine; and the most flavorful “blondies” I can imagine. (We eat a lot of braised meat here, in part because Mona and Chris like to cook the whole, traditional, foods of everyday Italians.  The braising cuts are the cheapest cuts.  The other night, Chris and the interns cooked up an amazing meal of braised lamb with harissa, chickpeas with greens, and cous cous.  Simple. Complete. Delicious.)

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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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This was one of our most fun Halloweens, because of the bustling community of kids who live here in 5B, the family ghetto, the building adjacent to the main American Academy building, (where the best unkept secret is that we have the best apartments).  Halloween really started on Friday, before dinner.  The kitchen staff had prepared trays of bat- and ghost-shaped sugar cookies, icing, chocolate cupcakes, and frosting for a big decorating party.  (Knowing the kitchen-witches here, the ingredients were as local as could be.)

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The cupcakes were so crumbly that they required adult hands, so the Roving Locavore got to work:

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Cheers, Aurelia & Lisa!

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Mid-day on Saturday, Halloween proper, Jack and Lulu got to work on the papier-mache components of their costumes.  Lulu’s parrot head paint was drying, so she helped Jack paint his fireman’s helmet:

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After we returned from Halloween party #1, at Nico’s house at 4:00 (boy, was it a heavy candy-eating day!), the Academy kids paraded and trick-or-treated around the apartments and studios of the Academy building, where the fellows were dressed as witches, death in various forms, Bacchus, a princess, John the Baptist, devil & angel, and a fortune teller.

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the tube is for the milk-bottle O2 tank on Jack's back

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who knew that Dante had hooked up with a gondoliera?

Later, when the kids were spinning and running and staggering from their sugar overdoses, we had a potluck dinner.  Everyone loved the meatballs, sangria, and the zucca lasagna.  I made a pear-apple-almond crumble with mostly local or at least organic ingredients.

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