ETA 8/17/11: OH MY GOD YOU GUYS GOOGLE STREET VIEW. BEST THING EVER. Confirmed: the first restaurant is Ristorante da Cencia (named, on the awning, Antica Trattoria da “Cencia”) and the second is La Canonica. Holy shit, Google Street View. You are terrifying and also mighty.
I am in Rome. I have not made nearly enough jokes about roaming in Rome. Rome is gorgeous and wind-y and I have trouble taking my face out of the map long enough to not trip over my feet. (I know people say you should wander without the map, but that would be the opposite of fun for me. I enjoy knowing where I am and building mental maps. Bite me, people.) Rome is also a thousand million degrees, and I sunburned my left shoulder because I am part Irish too. Romans speak lots of English, and I speak more awful Italian than I thought I did. (That is, the amount of awful Italian I speak is greater than I thought it was. The awfulness of the Italian I speak is about as I expected.) I am impressed by the quantity of high-heeled shoes I am seeing on women in a walking city. Every stereotype about Italian driving you’ve ever heard is true except insofar as they don’t go far enough in describing the insanity; however, what is really incredible is the parking. They park in crosswalks. They park perpendicular to the street with their tiny cars. They park on the sidewalks. They park in the middle of the piazza. They park on the double yellow line in the middle of the street. You can’t make this shit up.
But let’s talk about the food.
Italian dinners – or maybe just Roman, I’m not sure – often happen in three courses: antipasto, primo (a pasta course), and secondo (a meat course). One thing I love about this is that the portion sizes are really reasonable and make me angry at American portion sizes. On our first night in Rome (yesterday) I ordered artichoke bruschetta for my antipasto, and got one generous slice of bread topped with a thick layer of mashed artichoke and a drizzle of olive oil. That’s it. A bruschetta appetizer in the States is minimum four small toasts or two really large toasts. So I am enjoying the reasonable portion sizes.
Another thing I love about the three-course system is that I get to try lots of things. So last night, I started with the artichoke bruschetta (which was good, although after an unfortunate food poisoning incident I am primed to find the taste of pure olive oil slightly repulsive) and followed it with an incredible egg noodle/wild boar pasta dish. The egg noodles, which I suspect were fresh and not dried, were in a more-sweet-than-savoury tomato sauce with small chunks of the wild boar sprinkled in. (My fresh pasta suspicion comes from the fact that if I tried to make pasta as al dente as all the pasta I have had thus far, it wouldn’t taste good and would give me an upset stomach. But I feel like you could get away with it with fresh pasta, since it’s soft to begin with.) The chunks of wild boar were tough but I didn’t care because the sauce + noodles was out of this world. The egg noodles were perfect in all ways and the slightly sweet sauce (it had carrots!!!) complemented them beautifully, and despite being tough and there not being enough of it I liked the wild boar a lot. For my secondi, I had a dish of stewed ox tail. I was almost asleep in my plate at this point, because I hadn’t slept the night before and had instead traveled several thousand miles. So, much of the ox tail went uneaten. It was tasty, though! I’ve never had ox tail before and this was stewed in a more savory marinara sauce with some celery.
This Italian food is so different from what I’m used to. I’m ethnically Sicilian, the majority of Italian immigrants to the U.S. are of southern Italian heritage if not Sicilian, and there is a strong preference in southern Italy for the characteristics that you think of when you hear “Italian food”: large piles of cheese, infinity tomato sauce, and garlic garlic garlic. (I haven’t been to southern Italy myself yet, but Italian-American food all derives from southern Italian cuisine and I’m told reliably that there is a decent similarity between Italian-American and what you get in southern Italy.) Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Italian-American food. I love it a lot. I literally ate pasta with homemade red sauce five days a week most weeks in high school, so none of this is meant as a knock on Italian-American food. But, while Roman food could not be mistaken by an American for anything other than Italian food, it’s more complex and interesting than the Italian food we are used to, and it plays with different flavours. It is definitely sweeter than we are used to. It uses way less cheese, and – mostly notably to my palate – way less garlic. If I wanted to recreate this egg noodle dish, I honestly don’t know where I’d start simply because the flavour combinations aren’t what I’m used to while still being totally familiar, thus rendering them – to me – nearly unidentifiable. I think a Roman cookbook may be in my future.
For dinner tonight, at a different restaurant*, I had a Caprese salad (tomato basil and mozzarella) and pasta all’amatriciana. The pasta was al dente in the same way as the egg noodles were, which mostly just makes me want to experiment a lot with fresh pasta when I get home because holy gold was it delicious. The sauce was off every chain at the same time, that’s how good it was. My mom thinks lots of onions were involved in its production, but I’m skeptical; beyond that I have no idea because it basically just looks like pasta in a plain red sauce which it is most assuredly not. I want to eat it all the time.
The Caprese salad I had brings me to another interesting point about the food we have had in our two days in Rome. In the US, Caprese is a “salad” consisting typically of slices of tomato, mozzarella, and basil, sprinkled with olive oil and salt and pepper (and sometimes balsamic vinegar, which is totally unnecessary). This Caprese came totally unadorned, with random piles of arugula on the sides of the plate and, as is typical of Capreses everywhere, insufficient basil. (I don’t like arugula. Can I still be a liberal?) Now, it really didn’t need much adornment as the basil was fresh, the tomatoes were ripe and the mozzarella was the best I have ever had hands down no contest. I suspect that it was extremely fresh. It was creamy and mild and seriously just outpaced any other mozzarella I have ever set mouth on. And we eat good mozzarella at my house, my mom is Sicilian and a food snob, so I know whereof I speak here. However, right – this was amazing, but a little olive oil would not have been unwelcome. Similarly, my mom ordered a grilled vegetable appetizer, and was literally served unseasoned eggplant and zucchini which had been nicely grilled. No marinade, dipping sauce, nothing. Now, obviously the wisdom here – and in the food community, such that it is – is that fresh, high-quality ingredients speak for themselves. I agree to a point. I definitely could have eaten entire platters of that mozzarella, and my mom had no complaints about her starter. That said, seasoning was invented for a reason, and that reason was not to mask the poor quality of the foods being cooked. (That is why we have French sauces, people. For heaven’s sake keep up!) Similarly, marinades are not to disguise the fact that you are eating eggplant, and spicing meat is not a thing you do because you’re bored and can’t think of anything to do other than spice some meat vigorously. (In this case, I’m referring to the lamb chops my mom got our first night, which were grilled and totally unseasoned. Again – tasty, but could have used a little something.) So overall, I guess my stance is that while fresh, high-quality ingredients definitely speak for themselves, that doesn’t mean they can’t also make good use of a microphone. Also, not for nothing, but I could buy, slice and grill and eggplant and some zucchini myself any day of the week. Personally, I eat out to experience stuff I can’t or won’t do at home (or because I’m a bum, but mostly the first one). If it was, like, a perfect eggplant, that’d be one thing, but it was just a typical eggplant. So in that regard I feel like restaurants are sort of obligated to step up their game a little.
Finally, I want to talk about gelato. I was lucky enough to go to college in the same neighborhood as Istria Cafe, which I have maintained – and still maintain! – makes the best gelato you can get in the U.S. However, being back in Italy has changed my opinion slightly. Not only is it the best in the States, Istria can stand up against any gelato I have had in Rome on this trip, including the delicious cup I had at San Crispino (which is hella famous and was recommended to me by multiple people). This is not to malign Roman gelato at all. I am mainlining the stuff. But damn son, Istria is even more magic than I realized, to the point where, unlike on my trip to Italy when I was 17, I no longer feel the need to eat gelato 2 – 3 times a day while it is in reach. I had it all the time in college.
So, I have had the following flavour combinations over two days: fragola (strawberry) + crema (cream), zabaglione (liquory egg custard) + ananas (pineapple), lampone (raspberry) + San Crispino (the eponymous flavour, which is basically a berry honey flavour), and mora (blackberry) + kiwi. The best has easily been the cup from San Crispino, which was incredibly light and delicious with the flavours melding perfectly, but all the others were nice too. I am excited to continue eating new flavours and combinations! And yes, I know I said I no longer feel the need to eat it 2 – 3 times a day. I had to spend the first day checking that by eating it three times. I only had it once today! Admire my lesser need!
Maybe tomorrow I will tell you about some stuff I did that is cool. Otherwise I will tell you more about food later.
*I will get the names of all restaurants I ate at, I swear, I am bad at that part. I need a notebook!!