I recently had the opportunity to spend a very short break in Rome. It is hard to find words to describe la città eterna. Actually, Rome has a weird image among Italians, being famed for its traffic, its chaos, and the loudness of the inhabitants. I am not claiming any of this to be false, but what we often do forget in Italy is the pure beauty of it. This is a very Italian attitude: we tend to get used to beauty, take it for granted, and not fight to keep it. In Rome you can literally breath history and every corner has a million little details to lose yourself into. Italy is a country with an amazing density of history and art, but Rome manages to be denser. Stendahl syndrome‘s apart, Rome is actually more than just its history or its monuments – in case they were not enough. My family comes from very close to Venice so I know it quite well. While Venice, with its unique beauty, is basically an open air museum, and its soul has been a bit lost and faded in the centuries, Rome is still a big centre of power – the Italian state and the Vatican might not be as powerful as they used to (I’m quite grateful for that actually ) but still there is an impressive number of power administration buildings and persons, and you can easily feel it while you walk around. And in Rome there is a huge amount of people living there, studying there, coming there for its cultural and entertainment attractions. There is a lot of people who choose Rome, for a reason or another, and this reason is not always work, like it is for Milan. To add even more to its charm, the light is already the bright one of Southern Italy, the climate is mild, and the city, although full of traffic and noise, offers a lot of parks, piazze, and fountains to enjoy.
What I did there was basically walking. And walking, and walking. I was motivated partly by the inevitable public transport strike – how come Italy manages to be always so Italian and meet all prejudices in one go? I also managed to visit this exhibition – if you go there, be prepared for a long queue and some overcrowding also inside, but apart from that, I strongly recommend it if you have any interest in art, even if you are not a huge fan of Caravaggio’s period or of painting.
Of course I had a few food addresses to try out. First I walked up to Pizzarium – I did not have a map and if I had known how far it was, I probably would not have ventured till there. Still, I am glad I did. First, because it is just a huge luxury to ask for directions in your own language, and I really enjoyed the process. Second, because of the food: pizza al taglio and a few fried items according to tradition, but with the best possible ingredients you can buy in Rome, most of them locally sourced, and it is hard to imagine a place where you can find better starting ingredients. You’ll probably leave with the regret that your stomach is just too small to try all their food.
The second place I’d like to vividly recommend if you visit Rome is Roscioli. It is a salumeria, a place where you can buy cheese, ham and other delicatessen. It offers a selection as amazing as its prices. It also has a few tables where you can order food and a glass of wine – make sure you book unless you turn out very early and just in two, like we did. We were a bit scared of the prices. It is expensive, especially for eating in a microscopic table with people ordering any kind of (expensive) food to take away over your head. Having said that, I really loved the atmosphere of a temple of food, a very packed one indeed. Then the food started to arrive: by the time we left, we decided the meal was very good value indeed. If you can’t afford the restaurant, there is a panetteria just around the corner where you can buy some things to eat on the go, more reasonably priced.
At the salumeria they brought us a huge basket (refilled when we finished it) of all kinds of bread and pizza bianca (focaccia’s name in Rome, quite low and not very oily compared to northern varieties, simply delicious). The brown bread ‘casereccio’, wood oven baked, has set my new standard for bread perfection. I could not stop nibbling at the crunchy, nutty crust. They offered us little buffalo mozzarella balls and little sun-dried tomatoes while we waited.
I ordered a ‘insalata di carciofi’ just because I love artichokes and I was drooling over the large mammole, typical from Rome, that were on display everywhere and in full season. I’ll post the recipe soon. If you come close to artichokes I urge you to try it, it is overall not difficult if you know how to clean artichokes, and it reveals all the charms of this vegetable, which is surprisingly underestimated outside Italy. My partner ordered a brik roll filled with sweet and creamy robiola cheese, served with bitter crunchy endive dressed with olive oil and a bit of crushed mustard seeds. Another startling dish I’ll try to recreate, sooner or later. The mains were a classic pasta con coda alla vaccinara. Coda alla vaccinara is cow’s tail meat, cooked in a stew with onions, carrots, tomato sauce and a lot of celery. It is a relatively poor dish that, when properly done, is delicious (the hard bit is taking all the grease out of the tail so that it is tender without being oily). This specimen was perfect, but it did not surprise me because the dish is one of my father’s favourite, and he prepares it exactly like that: careful degreasing, long cooking and a lot of celery. The other main instead was a real surprise that let us speechless. It was ‘pasta cacio e pepe’: pasta, home-made thick egg spaghetti cooked al dente, cacio, ie cheese (pecorino romano), and pepe – black peppercorn. The cheese transforms into a cream and I was ready to swear it was some very refined fondue, but you could not taste any cream or milk in the dish: the flavour was very complex though. I could not believe these were all the ingredients, but they are: I managed to recreate the dish here at home and it does require anything else. You do need outstanding starting material, but I had some pecorino left from Calabria, and we made our own pasta. The procedure is straightforward and is below. I used my ordinary ‘fresh pasta with bite’ which is made up with half durum wheat semola, half normal flour, and an egg for person. You can basically use any very good pasta, not necessary fresh handmade one, and any very good pecorino, provided it is not too fresh and in very very large quantity. Just watch the salt, you may want to leave it out of the pasta’s cooking water if your pecorino is salty.
In the end, it was a big surprise. La cucina romana is not famed for being a refined one and popular dishes coming from Rome – carbonara, cacio e pepe, amatriciana – have become little flags for laziness in cooking. But you can afford to be lazy, with the right ingredients. And this posh and expensive place, together with the Pizzarium, reminded me that excellence starts from ingredients. Excellence brings food to a completely new level and apart from very few places in the world (I’d count Roscioli among these) you just cannot get a huge variety of excellent ingredients. The only excellent ones you have at hand in practice is what is produced close to you, and if you want to create really stunning cooking, you’ll need to use these. I definitely need to concentrate more on German products..
Spaghetti cacio e pepe
Ingredients: (serves 4 as a main)
If using fresh pasta:
600 gr egg pasta (spaghetti alla chitarra, tonnarelli… don’t use tagliatelle, they would not work here)
If using ordinary durum wheat pasta:
500 gr spaghetti
two tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, skin on (‘in camicia’)
a generous grind of fresh black pepper
200 gr grated pecorino
Method: cook the pasta in plenty of (very lightly) salted, boiling water. In the meanwhile heat gently the olive oil with the garlic cloves and the black pepper. When the pasta is very al dente (with egg pasta that could take just a minute, so have everything ready beforehand!), remove the garlic from the oil, take a ladleful of cooking water, put it in the pan with the oil. Drain the pasta, and cook it mixing often in the pan, until the water is almost all absorbed (if your pan is not too large, you’d better use two, because the pasta needs a lot of space for this). Add the pecorino, turn off the heat, and mix thoroughly. The pecorino will melt to a cream. Serve with extra black pepper and a dusting of more pecorino.