Wednesday, December 30, 2009


A picture's worth- well, you know how it goes. Even when it's not a particularly pretty picture, it's one to cause mouths to water all over Rome. Superstitious traditionalists that they are, Romans would sooner walk under a ladder with a trail of black cats in tow rather than bring in the New Year without a plate of cotechino e lenticchie.

A large ( about 3 inches thick and 8 inches long) spiced up pork sausage, cotechino and zuppa di lenticchie, lentil soup, pair up as Rome's New Year's Eve good luck meal. Lentils which resemble small coins insure prosperity. As for the pork sausage, well, I have my own suspicions about that given the plethora of phallic symbols all over the Eternal City.

Capo D'Anno, as New Year's Eve is called in Italy, is also the day that ancient custom demands the getting rid of all bad things from the past and making way for the new. Although now forbidden by law, Romans have traditionally done this by hurling unwanted items out of windows. Shoes, broken dishes, sofas, refrigerators - they all went flying out of windows like missiles at the ringing of the midnight bells.

It's a good night to stay inside, just in case, and enjoy the customary cotechino e lenticchie.

Felice Anno Nuovo - whatever you eat.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

FOOD RULES: Italian Version

In his new book Food Rules, Micheal Pollan lists the 10 Commandments of a healthy eating plan. I hope this book is an explosive best seller. I hope it gallops out of book stores and is passed around like a reefer at Woodstock. Food Rules should be required reading for every gastronomically confused American (most of us), but especially those dealing with health and weight issues.

But Food Rules would never sell in Italy. What Pollan has written, Italians know. It's why eating in Italy is an art form, why Italians are so fiercely proud of their regional products and recipes, and are so devoted to preserving culinary traditions.

So read this book, memorize those rules, and then for your graduate study program, go to Italy and eat as the Italians do.

Monday, November 30, 2009


What connects a Manhattan restaurant, a work of historical fiction, and an old Burt Lancaster film? It's not just in the name.

I suspect the link has a lot to do with a romantic and profound attachment to heritage and a fierce dedication to quality. At least that's what ran through my mind during my lunch at Il Gattopardo last week.

It started with this: parmigiana of zucchini, smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. A very good way to start.

And continued with a pasta dish: paccheri (typical Neapolitan artisanal pasta) in a rich sauce made from pork ribs.

And ended with a beautiful Pastiera, that most classic of Neapolitan desserts, a ricotta cake with lemony-orangey overtones.

An earthquake registering 10.8 on the Richter scale couldn't have pulled me away from the table.

The menu at Il Gattopardo is southern Italian in the way that may surprise some Americans accustomed to the ubiquitous red-checkered tablecloth variety of Southern Italian fare. Here the ingredients and flavors are certifiably of the Amalfi Coast, but enhanced by the the creativity of Executive Chef Vito Gnazzo who never veers far from the roots of his native Salerno.

Located a few doors away from MOMA, Il Gattopardo is under the watchful eye of owner Gianfranco Sorrentino from Naples.

So... as for the novel and the film, I highly recommend them, but nothing trumps a great meal in my book.

Il Gattopardo
33 W. 54th St.
New York, NY 10019
PH: 212 246-0412

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Following a recipe in Italy has nothing to do with measuring cups and spoons. There aren't any measuring cups and spoons as I discovered when I asked some Roman chefs, friends, and other members of the general population. They don't use them and, in fact, find the concept odd.

The only form of measurement used in Italian kitchens is quanto basta which means "as much as you need". And they always seem to know how much that is. It's an inherent ability, a genetically determined form of creativity that the rest of us can only struggle to learn.
Fine tuning the art of quanto basta is essential to replicating the dishes you fall in love with at the table in Italy (asking a chef for a recipe usually gets you a patronizing smile and a list of primary ingredients).

So it was in this spirit that I attempted to create at home an antipasto from Ristorante La Rocca in Fumone, "my" medieval town south of Rome. The main ingredients are zucchini, smoked provola, and salmon. Here's where it got challenging: I can't find smoked provola where I live and of the 3 or more times I'd eaten this dish, sometimes the salmon was
fresh and other times it was smoked.

With blazing determination, I made some wild and risky decisions, putting blind faith in my ability to know when quanto basta was enough.

Here's what I did:
*Slice zucchini in 1/3 inch rounds, place on lightly greased cookie sheet in 350 degree oven for about 5 minutes. Zucchini should be slightly soft but still firm.
*Arrange each portion like this: create a flower-like shape by over-lapping zucchini rounds, top with smoked mozzarella (unless you can find smoked provola), top that with salmon, either fresh or smoked (I used smoked).
*Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and finely chopped parsley.
*Place under broiler - not too close - for about 5 minutes, or until cheese melts and slightly browns.
*You can top with a sliced cherry tomato or not. I prefer more parsley.
And that's it!

This is more of a guide than a recipe, so please do your own riff on what I've done and let me know. Try your own hand at quanto basta, and free yourself from a dependency on those measuring cups and spoons.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Our world is full of signs steering us away from danger and disaster: SLIPPERY WHEN WET! BUFFALO CROSSING! ATOMIC BOMB TESTING SITE! You need to pay attention and run the other way.

It's in this spirit of civic and moral duty that I post this alert.

If you're hungry in Rome (or anywhere in Italy, for that matter)
and you come across one of these plastic signs, usually large and glaring, STAY AWAY! You will not eat well--which is hazardous to your sense of pleasure and overall great travel experience.

These signs lure you into what I call imposter restaurants, often located around the major piazzas, like Campo de Fiori or Piazza Navona, and equipped with waiters beckoning in what they guess is your native language. What you'll get is a good view and poor to really terrible food. If you're drop-dead exhausted or otherwise in need of a brief respite, take a table and order something to drink, enjoy the piazza scene, and then go elsewhere for your meal.

Consider yourself warned.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


In life as in eating. timing is everything. So it was that on my last days in Rome with so many restaurants yet to visit, I had no choice but to double up on big meals, both pranzo (lunch) and cena (dinner). One day in particular, I hit the big gustatory jackpot: two spectacular feasts.

Augustarello had been on my must-go-to list for several years, and this trattoria in the Testaccio area did not disappoint. From the owner himself, the son of the original Augusto and the embodiment of the seemingly gruff, but, under the barely scratched surface, warm and welcoming Roman nature, to the hearty dishes which for about 150 years have defined the Eternal City's cucina povera, the food of the poor. Pictured here is just one-sixth of my mega-lunch: borlotti beans, sausage, and cotiche (similar to pork rinds) in a creamy slightly tomatoey sauce.

Dinner was at another Roman institution, but a bit more upscale. La Gensola, poised between the trattoria and restaurant category in Trastevere, is owned and run with passion and a palpable sense of humor (the large glass doors were replaced in the main room during
prime dinner hours with a smile and an apologetic shrug) by husband and wife, Claudio and Irene. Who cares about chaos when you're being served an insalata of seppia (cuttlefish) with bruschetta points rubbed with olive oil and pancetta (pictured) and tagliolini with tartufi neri (black truffles).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SETTEMBRINI: A Flavor of Rome

Summer is fading, giving way to the coming of fall and a farewell to those sweet succulent figs, one of my favorites of the many flavors of Rome. The last of them are called settembrini, and perhaps because they'll soon be gone, are to me the best of all.

So it was with bated breath and fear of disappointment that I rushed into the Forno di Campo de Fiori to find, much to my greedy delight, pizza e fichi, Rome's white pizza stuffed with figs, and, in this case, also prosciutto.

It's impossible to describe the flavor, the lusciousness. You think you know how good a simple little ripe fig can be until you've had a Roman fig, and then, like many things in life, nothing else will do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


One beautiful moonlit evening several years ago, I was invited to an event at the Belgian Embassy, the terrace of which offers an exquisite view of the Roman Forum. Amid the chatter and the ciaos of both- cheek- kisses (Italians don't air- kiss like we do), I was introduced to Susan Van Allen, a writer from California. We ended up having dinner together at Ar Galletto in Campo de Fiori, and after a couple plates of pasta (what kind, I can't remember), we began a friendship as fellow writers, Romaphiles, and Italian-Americans discovering the land of our grandparents.

Since then, we've sometimes managed to replay our pasta dinners in Italy, but since we live on opposing coasts of the U.S, our friendship been sustained by phone calls and emails - and by each of us being Head Cheerleader for the other.

Susan's book "100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go" will be released mid-October. I've read the book and the only "criticism" I have is that it shouldn't be restricted to the female gender. Susan's exhaustive research (most of it on sight), her enthusiasm for Italy as a land of enchantment, and her skill as a writer have resulted in a must-read for anyone going to Italy who has a soul. (Italians call this "anima" - it indicates someone of some sensibility and depth.)

So buy it, read it over a dish of pasta - any kind will do - and bond with the thought of planning that long-put-off trip to Italy.

Friday, September 11, 2009


This morning in my local newspaper, yet another food critic tagged an Italian-American restaurant as being "authentic Italian", listing chicken parmigiana, spaghetti and meatballs, and Caesar salad as evidence.

You won't find any of these dishes in Italy, no matter where you go, and it's partly why so many people visit Italy without understanding the food culture, cheating themselves out of one of life's greatest pleasures - the incredibly diverse cuisine of Italy's 20 separate regions.

Pictured here is an example of something that is authentically Italian, more specifically, authentically Roman: carciofi alla Romana, artichokes cooked in the Roman style. I normally write about carciofi in the spring when they're in season in Rome, but the photo was on my desktop, easy to use to make a point.

Friday, September 4, 2009

ON TOP OF SPAGHETTI...'ll never find meatballs.

Not in Italy anyway.

This most iconic of Italian-American dishes, spaghetti and meatballs, is considered a weird and laughable combination by Italians.

You can have your spaghetti as a primo (first course) and then you can order those meatballs (polpette as they're called in Italy) as a stand-alone second course in a variety of sauces and preparations.

The Manhattan location (300 Spring St in the West Village) of Rome's famed Sora Lella restaurant
serves this authentic version of polpette in white wine sauce --a wondrous example of doing meatballs as the Romans do.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

CELLAR 58 -Great Wine & Food Pairing

Maria, long time NYC restauranteur from Abruzzo, and Andrea Tiberi, chef extraordinaire from Umbria, have created a winning mix of food and wine with Cellar 58, an atmospherically cool East Village wine bar on 2nd Ave.

The wines are expertly selected (and well priced) and the food coming out of this authentic Italian kitchen, whether nibbles or the full monty, will thrill the palate and compliment the wines. Andrea does great things with black truffles, not the "essence of", but honest live shavings from his native Umbria.

Best of all, you'll think you're in Italy. You know, that country where they welcome with arms wide open and feed you with love and enthusiasm.

Cellar 58, 58 2nd Ave (between 3rd & 4th St), NYC, NY 10003 212 420-1300


Sora Lella opened in 1959 on the Isola Tiberina in Rome and became as famous for being owned by the sister (sora) of famous Italian actor Aldo Fabrizi as for the quality of its traditional Roman fare. It was here about 10 years ago that I ate the most wonderful abbacchio al forno (roast baby lamb with rosemary) against which I have since measured all others.

So, imagine my glee spiked with skepticism to learn the same
family had opened another Sora Lella, this one in the West Village in Manhattan. Disappointment was not on the menu. The flavors of Rome were there in every dish: polpettine (tiny meatballs) in white wine sauce, gnocchi all'amatriciana, abbacchio al forno, gelato al riso which was rice pudding supreme - and pictured here, the signature Parmigiana di Melanzane con ricotta, miele (honey), e noci (walnuts), the eggplant parm against which I will forever measure all others.

Brava, Sora Lella NYC!!!

Sora Lella, 300 Spring Street, NY, NY 10013

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


The city of Rome is heavily populated with angels: an entire army of them lines the Sant'Angelo bridge, the Archangel Michael looms atop the Castel Sant'Angelo in all his heavy bronziness, and just try to find a church in Rome sans at least one of the winged beings.

Now, finding a little devil here in the Eternal City- that's not so easy.

But I discovered one I think you're going to like. Right off Campo de Fiori, down Via Cappellari (where Donna Vanuzza, mistress of Pope Alexander VI and mother of the much maligned Lucrezia Borgia once lived) is Taverna Lucifero. The decor is early cave, the atmosphere lively, the menu is Piemontese, and the signature cheese fonduta (fondue to most of us) laced with generous shavings of truffle (either white or black depending on the season) is - ok - it's heavenly. Along with other fondue options are wonderful grilled and roasted meats and vegetables. The food and incredibly extensive wine list are both well below what you would expect from such quality.

But there's more! On a parallel street after you round the corner of the
Forno Campo de Fiori
and walk down Via del Pelligrino, Francesco, the owner of Taverna Lucifero, just opened La Cantina di Lucifero, a little bit of paradise for wine lovers.

Angels are nice, but sometimes it's alright to cavort with the devil.

Taverna Lucifero
Via dei Cappellari, 28
Phone 06 688 055 36
Open every evening

La Cantina di Lucifero
Via del Pelligrino, 53

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


No, Carlo Petrini, honorary President and Founder of Slowfood, didn't check with me first. It was simply a matter of good taste that IL QUINTO QUARTO, one of the select restaurants in my book Flavors of Rome: How What, and Where to Eat in the Eternal City, was chosen by the picky-picky panel of Slowfood judges as best trattoria in Lazio for 2009.

IL QUINTO QUARTO is just a few side steps off the beaten tourist trail in Rome, closer to Vatican City than to the Colosseum in the Ponte Milvio area, across the famous Milvian bridge where the Emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius in 312 A.D., thereby ushering in the age of Christianity to Rome. (It's always nice to absorb a little history on the way to dinner.)

One of only two restaurants in the region which offers exclusively the food and wine from the region of Lazio-- of which Rome is the capital, IL QUINTO QUARTO serves all the traditional dishes from the treasury of Roman cuisine as well as some innovative twists on these classics.

Pasta alla gricia, case in point, is a basic and simple Roman recipe of pasta (spaghetti or rigatoni perhaps) with guanciale (similar to pancetta but from the jowl of the pig), lots of ground black pepper, and pecorino romano.

One day having lunch at IL QUINTO QUARTO, I ordered a featured dish of rigatoni alla gricia con le pere. the variation on this classic being le pere (pears), little juicy fresh pear niblets adding a subtle sweetness to but not over-whelming the sharpness of the original composition.

S0 Brava, Bravissima to Angela Pagano, my friend and colleague, and her extraordinary team at IL QUINTO QUARTO.

Osteria "Il Quinto Quarto"
Via della Farnesina, 13
00134 - Roma | Tel. 06 3338768

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


In 1600, the heretic monk Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake smack in the middle of Campo de Fiori.  His social status was upgraded considerably about 120 years ago when a brooding bronze likeness was erected on the spot of his unfortunate demise. 

Some might cry "heresy" to what's taking place here these days.

What appears to be a style makeover is going on in the Campo de Fiori area.  Obika, the famed mozzarella bar "chain",  just took over the space of a favorite hangout and long-standing bar ("bar" in the classic Italian sense of the word) in this Roman neighborhood, attracting a younger clientele.  New hipper stores seemingly pop up overnight along  Via Giubbonari, once a thoroughfare for discount shopping, and a metro dig is going on across the street on Corso Vittorio Emanuele. 

What can't be improved upon should never change. And so the pizza bianca from Forno Campo de Fiori still rules!  And Bruno still stands guard over it all.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009



I'm always asked the question "What is my favorite Roman dish?"  Impossible to answer. But forced to name my favorite Roman pasta, on most days, my answer would be rigatoni all'amatriciana.

The official pasta for amatriciana is bucatini, but since that long hollow noodle has a way of ending up in your hair and on your clothes, rigatoni is often preferred. 

This dish originated in the town of Amatrice in Northern Lazio and didn't include tomatoes until the Romans seized it and claimed it for their own  Serious food fights have been known to occur over whether or not onions should be included in the recipe (most Romans seem to like it this way but many purists  do not) and whether pancetta (Italian bacon) or guanciale (similar but from the jowl of the pig and covered with black pepper) should be used.