Americana in Roma

Long time, no blog! School has been all-consuming, but even though I haven’t been writing, I’ve been eating. I promise to fill you in. Food in London continues to surprise me, and I will write more on my culinary adventures here soon enough. But for now, Rome has my heart (and pen).

Salty, Cured Pork Hocks hang heavily at a small deli near the Pantheon

Being in Rome gave me the same feeling as lying on the beach in the late afternoon hours, skin still tingling from the early morning sun. Rome enveloped me, wrapped me in a warm towel. And it fed me. If I could chose only one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would hands-down be Italian.

It isn’t just about the pasta (oh, the pasta), or about the unpretentious commitment to cooking seasonal, fresh food, or even about the breathtaking and historically rich settings in which all this delicious food is being consumed.There is a food philosophy and culinary culture that permeates all reaches of Italian life, and the soul of that ethos is what inspires me to cook. And to eat.

Fresh Spaghetti with Chicory and Pecorino at La Fraschetta di Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio.

TRATTORIA di ROMA

Regional cuisine throughout Italy varies considerably (and I love it all), but here I’ll focus predominantly on the glory that Roman food brings to the table. As Anthony Bourdain so aptly put it: “In France, the chef is the star. In Italy, the food is.” Right on.

"Strangled Priest" pasta at the phenomenal Der Bruttone trattoria in Re di Roma

There are many new players on the Roman culinary scene reconceptualizing classic dishes, and I have no doubt their food is inventive and tremendously tasty. What compels me, however, about Italian food is how sumptuously delicious it is in all its natural glory.

On this trip, I sought inter-generational, family-run Trattorias. The kind where the Nonna-I-never-had leaves thumbprints in the pasta dough—where the meal comes with a jug of red wine and is served on wooden tables that splinter your elbows if you’re not careful.

Our meal at Der Pallaro encompassed all of these qualities. No menu, no fuss, minimal tourists, and nonna herself—apron clad and sharp as a tack—wobbling between tables to greet her most loyal customers while her son sliced fresh prosciutto and grated parmesan at the front of the house.

A Hearty First Course at Der Pallaro: Stewed Lentils, Pork Meatballs, Proscuitto, Salami, Fennel Salad, Olives, and Suppli

The only question the waiter asked at Der Pallaro: "Do you like Cheese?"
We got Pasta Two Ways:
1) Cheesy, pancetta-laden cream sauce
2) Full-bodied tomato and cheese sauce

The robust Trattoria tradition in Italy means that recipes aren’t written, they are taught with care, between family and friends. Therefore, food is absolutely integral to family life. I firmly believe that if people ate more family meals, we would be healthier, smarter, and more engaged human beings.

PIZZA MIA!

I can indulge in pasta talk for ages, but I can’t forget to mention the pizza. Rome is a major Italian metropolis, packed with hungry tourists looking for a quick bite. Pizza-by-the-slice outposts have sprung up on most street corners. As with all Italian food, the quality of the ingredients is what dictates the quality of the pizza. So, I simply wasn’t willing to eat a mediocre slice of pizza knowing the best of the best may be three doors down. 00100 Pizza is tucked away in a quiet corner of Testaccio and its pizza, trapazzini, and suppli selection blew the other shops out of the water.

A Trapizzini, I learned, is like a crusty bread version of pita, which can be stuffed with any assortment of tasty treats, like braised goat or stewed chicken. I chose the pillowy pork and beef meatball and was not disappointed.

The tomato sauce was just puckeringly fresh, and was scooped straight from a simmering pot—no doubt prepared hours prior, its sweetness and complexity of flavor developing over time. The initial crunch and subsequent tenderness of the freshly baked pizza and trapizzini crusts actually recalibrated my dough/crust standards .

00100 Pizza slice drizzled with Sweet and Tangy Balsamic Reduction. The balsamic was offered as a condiment in a plastic squirt bottle alongside the standard crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese. Brilliant.

DOLCE, DOLCE

Gelato at San Crispino, our overall favorite. The basic chocolate was out of this world.

I also love, love Italian sweets. Their egregious use of nuts (often pine nuts, pistachios, or almonds) lends their desserts a hearty and almost savory quality. (Note: Cannoli is my all-time favorite Italian dessert. It is Sicilian, not Roman, so was hard to find. Even cannoli uses almond and sometimes pistachio)
The highlight of my ventures into sweet Italian treats was gelato. More specifically, pistachio gelato. Gelato has a lower fat content than ice cream and is churned at a lower speed, so it has a denser consistency, almost like taffy (or clotted cream). Because it is less rich than ice cream, the fresh, nutty pistachio flavor brings a heartiness and mouthfeel that was positively delightful.

Out of all the pistachio gelato I consumed--and I won't admit how much--this was my favorite. Knibbly bits of pistachio lent amazing texture to the creamy, milky gelato.

Crunchy, Toasted Almond slices packed into a butter Cookie. Flawless.

This Pistachio Biscotti was crunchy, crumbly, and spot on.

MY BABY’S GOT SAUCE
I know it’s strange, but I just can’t end on dessert. Back to pasta! Pasta and its accompanying sauces can come in seemingly infinite combinations. I have no doubt there are purists out there who insist, for example, that bolognese be served only with spaghetti, but I contend that when pasta is as fresh as it was served in Rome, and the sauces as flavor-rich, it’s hard to go wrong.

Perfectly rich, creamy and decadent Carbonara at Dar Bruttone. Oh, and it was topped with shaved truffles.

From the near bitter chicory sauce (pictured earlier), which was so fresh it was almost palatte-cleansing, to the sultry, rib-sticking carbonara above, Romans have truly perfected their sauciness, and I salute them.
The ultimate dish that encompasses the pure simplicity yet awesomeness of Roman pasta is Cacio e Pepe. I have to thank my friend Christina, my wonderful travel companion, for bringing it into my life. It sounds simple enough: olive oil, cracked black pepper, pasta water, cheese. Yet, when not executed perfectly, it can be watery, gummy, and downright disappointing.
When it’s done right, I can’t get enough of the stuff, and have been determined to recreate it in my own kitchen. It’s cheap, hearty, and feels special–plus, even the pickiest eaters will gobble it up. After sampling a few recipes (yes, a few, over the course of only a week), and testing them on willing subjects, I came up with my own recipe mostly drawn from this Saveur recipe. Give it a try at home and let me know how it goes!
Cacio e Pepe

Homemade Cacio e Pepe using both regular and spinach Tagliatelle (it's what I had on hand and I think it adds some flare 🙂

Ingredients:

Kosher salt, to taste
1 lb. pasta, preferably tagliatelle or spaghetti
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, plus more
to taste
1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano
3⁄4 cup finely grated Cacio de Roma
1 tbsp good quality Butter (I use the most spectacularly fresh and rich butter from my favorite London dairy outpost: Neal’s Dairy Yard)

Note: If you can’t find Cacio de Roma cheese, substitute Parmesano Reggiano instead. I promise it will taste good!

Preparation:

Bring a 6-qt. pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta; cook until al dente, 8–10 minutes; reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta. When the pasta has about 3-4 minutes left to cook, heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add pepper; cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Ladle 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet; bring to a boil. Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet; spread it evenly. Sprinkle 3⁄4 cup each Pecorino Romano and Cacio de Roma over pasta; toss vigorously to combine until sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes, adding some pasta water if necessary. Melt in the butter until the pasta has a glistening sheen.

Transfer to 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining Pecorino and more pepper. Serve immediately. Enjoy!

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7 thoughts on “Americana in Roma

  1. oh goodness. it sounds all so lovely and delicious! i was with Pia and her family when i visited Rome. ANd I agree. the food is amazing!! btw, Pia and I were talking about a pasta party when school reopens. I have a feeling we might have to rely on you to provide the cooking! lol.

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