Sunday, August 15, 2010

EAT PRAY LOVE: All In One Place

E-mailJulia Roberts goes to Rome, and then all the way to India and Bali.  I never got that far. I did it all in Rome.

I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's book.  We even had mutual friends in Rome - Depression and Loneliness.  Like her they followed me around, sat next to me in restaurants, and often spent the night.

But that's not how it began.  In the early days of my love affair with Rome, I didn't know those guys.  Back then, 18 years ago, I was Donna Reed (or Carol Brady if you don't remember back that far), traveling with husband and daughters, the Griswolds doing Italy.

More than the David, the gondola rides, and  the Colosseum, more than anything,  my first meal in Rome (ordered by Roman friends- I knew nothing about Italian food back then) ignited a fire that kept pulling me back to Italy- to eat and to learn all I could about this spectacular cuisine in the land of my grandparents.

And when the earthquake hit, when the walls collapsed around my snug little world...
the food of Italy kept me alive.

Monday, June 21, 2010


 Of course, zucchini are available all over the world throughout the year.  So why are my Roman friends all atwitter (in the old sense of the word) over zucchini now?

Well, there is such a thing in Italy as zucchini season - just like artichoke season, fava season, or porcini season - and in Rome it's happening right now. This versatile vegetable, all grown up naturally on its own without the help of hothouses or other artificial agricultural measures, takes center stage at the Roman markets for at least a few more weeks.

Although I'm not in Rome now, but here in Florida, I'm remembering a dish prepared for me by a Roman chef.  So in honor of him and the zucchini, I offer the following recipe.


3 T olive oil
1 # shrimp
1 large garlic clove diced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 medium zucchini, about 2 cups diced
1 1/2 cups halved grape or cherry tomatoes
1 small chili pepper (peperoncino) or red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt to taste
1 # linguine

Place large pot of water on stove to boil.

Wash, peel, and de-vein shrimp.  Chop about half of the shrimp into small bits.

Combine and toss chopped shrimp, parsley, and garlic.

Place olive oil in wide bottomed skillet over medium-high heat.  
Add cubed zucchini, tossing to coat.
When almost soft, add tomatoes, stir for a few minutes. Add salt.
Then add  chopped shrimp, parsley and peperoncino.  Cook and stir so shrimp doesn’t stick, over medium heat. 
At the very end of the process, add whole shrimp, turning from side to side quickly so they don’t overcook.  Check for salt.

In the meantime, add salt to pot of boiling water (adding salt to cold water slows down the boiling time), and cook linguine to al dente stage. Drain, reserving some of the pasta water.

Add linguine to sauce in skillet and stir to completely coat with sauce, adding pasta water as necessary. NOTE: Be careful to not add all the pasta immediately.  You want the linguine to remain silky and not soak up all the sauce even with the addition of the pasta water. 

Plate and place several whole shrimp on each portion, sprinkle with more chopped parsley, and serve.

Buon appetito!

Monday, May 31, 2010

PASTA E CECI: Hot & Cold

Romans love their pasta e ceci so much they’ve figured out a way to make this cold weather comfort food work for them in the heat of the summer.  They call it pasta e ceci freddo, the exact same dish served, well, not exactly cold, but at room temperature.
With that in mind, one very hot day here in Florida, I decided to ignore the 90 degree temperature outside and cooked up a pot of this classic Roman soup  using the bag of ceci I had just brought back from Rome.
At the end though I set the AC at 65, threw on a jacket, and ate it steaming hot. The next day - because it really does get better as it sits - I just took the chill off in the microwave, topped with a dollop of olive oil and a few spoons of grated parmigiano-reggiano, and found the flavors to be even more intense and satisfying in this mildly warm state.

Call them ceci, chickpeas, or garbanzos, if you look at these little legumes (or pulses) closely and use some imagination, you'll see that they resemble little ram heads which is how they got their Latin name, cicer arietinum, from aries, meaning ram.

If you're not going to Italy any time soon, you can order exceptional Umbrian chickpeas (they really are better than what you'll find in your grocery store) at Gustiamo.

(pasta and chickpea soup)
2 cups dried chickpeas
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 large garlic cloves, one whole, one minced
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
2-3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
1 cup canned plum tomatoes, chopped
8 oz. (or slightly less) dried pasta (spaghetti broken in pieces or quadrucci)
1 chili pepper (peperoncini) (optional)
salt to taste
Cover chick peas with cold water and baking soda and soak 8 to 12 hours.
Drain and rinse chickpeas.  Put chickpeas in large pot with about 6 quarts water and one whole garlic clove.  After it comes to a boil, lower heat, partially cover and cook until tender, about 2 hours. Drain chickpeas and reserve the cooking water for later.
Puree about 3/4 cup of the cooked chickpeas.
Return pot to stove, add olive oil, minced garlic, rosemary, and minced anchovies and saute gently over medium heat, being careful not to burn - about 2 minutes.  Add tomatoes and one cup of cooking water. Add the peperoncino and a few teaspoons salt to taste and cook until tomatoes are softened, about 15 minutes.
Add chickpeas, the pureed chickpeas, and enough cooking water to just cover the ingredients.  Stir occasionally while cooking for about another 15 minutes.  Add the pasta and cook only until it becomes al dente.  Check for salt, adding more if necessary.
Pour into individual serving bowls, top each portion with about 1 tablespoon olive oil and grated parmigiano-reggiano to taste.
This soup is even better the second day - or even the third - hot or cold.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Sicilian Import: Filippo La Mantia at the Hotel Majestic

Ingredients are Sicilian (minus garlic and onions), ambience is modern hotel elegance, buffet lunch an ensamble of Chef Filippo La Mantia's own creations.

While Lo Chef and Raul Bova (star of Under the Tuscan Sun) were chatting by the window, Susan Van Allen (author of 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go) and I, unfazed by such luminosity,  had one of everything.

Here a seasonal favorite, and on the menu of almost every restaurant in Rome at this time of year, fava beans presented as a thick luscious soup.

Sicilian desserts truly take the cake in my book for best Italian dolci.  On my plate - and it was all mine -torte di mele (apple cake), strawberry frappe, cream of pistachio (consistency of pudding), a true cannolo, and then the mini cassata - veramente la ciliegina sulla torta.

Now I can only imagine what it must be like in the evening for dinner.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Though not from Rome, Caravaggio, who spent much of his life and achieved his status as an artist here, belongs to Rome.

This exceptional exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale brings it all together:  his ground-breaking use of light, the intensity in those faces and bodies which seem to strain to break off the canvas, his ability to take a scene such as the Annunciation or the Supper at Emmaus  painted by artists before him many times over, and bring it to another dimension.  Once seen, never forgotten.

The story goes that Caravaggio once was arrested  over a plate of artichokes that weren't prepared to his liking.  Whether he threw them at the waiter or smashed them in his face, police records verify the incident.

 I know exactly how he must have felt. Though never having resorted to violence, I've often sulked when my Roman artichokes weren't just perfectly done.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


Many, many years ago, before re-cycling came into being, ancient Rome solved the problem of what to do with all those empty amphorae used to hold olive oil being brought into port.  They dumped them in a heap which in time became a hill of about 135 feet.  Flavio al Velavevodetto is built right into one side of this mountain of crockery, visible through a panel of glass.

But that's not the reason to come to this stylish up-scale trattoria.  You come for the ravioli di primavera with fresh herbs, ricotta, and grape tomatoes, or the maialino arrosto con patate (baby piggy & mashed potatoes),  and you finish with semifreddo with zabaglione and deep dark chocolate drizzles.  

And then after you figure out how to pronounce "velavevodetto" like a Roman, you tell your friends about it, and when they in turn thank you for giving such a great recommendation, you say " I told you so" which is, after all, more or less, the meaning of "velavevodetto".

FLAVIO AL VELAVEVODETTO, Via di Monte Testaccio 97/99, Rome, ph. 06 5756841

Saturday, April 24, 2010

CUL DE SAC in Rome: Wine with a Side of Dinner

What do you do in a walking city like Rome on a blustery rainy night?

You seek warmth and shelter and find comfort in a bowl of zuppa di lenticchie (lentil soup) at Enoteca Cul De Sac in Piazza di Pasquino.  Pasquino is the most famous of Rome's "talking" statues placed around the city so disgruntled Romans could post their lamentations and outrages against authority, whether government or papal.

The food is good here, but the wine shines.  Over 1500 bottles listed alphabetically by place of origin from all over the world.  As busy as this place is, especially on a weekend, the staff are courteous and helpful with the selections.  Our wine, a 20 euro bottle of Nebbiola Langhe, fortified us for puddle jumping back home.

But before we did, we registered a complaint about this never-ending rain to Pasquino who will undoubtedly bring it to the attention of Zeus, whom every Roman knows is in total control of this kind of thing.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I had planned to write about my dinner last night, but the restaurant - lauded by a major critic of Roman food - was painfully disappointing.  And so because I can't say anything nice, I'll talk about tomatoes.

The best things in Rome, as in life, may not be free, but they can be very inexpensive.  Purchased from the market in Campo de Fiori for a few euro, these little red gems called datterini (little dates) are sweeter than a bowl of M&Ms - and much better for you. So you can pop them down like pills all day long without guilt or regret.

Hard to imagine that something so identified with the food here were so scary to the Italians when they were first brought in from the New World - back in the days of Columbus.  Thought to be poisonous, tomatoes were kept around solely for ornamental purposes.  And then one day several hundred years later, one brave soul (no doubt intoxicated by that alluring fresh-tomato-in-the-garden smell) succumbed to temptation...and lived to digest it.

The rest, as they say, is culinary history.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


So what do you do after a private nighttime tour of the Vatican where it was only your  group of 20 and  the Vatican guards? You don't want the evening to end, but it's too late for dinner and you don't want to break the mood with the sound of music in a club.  In Rome, you head for your favorite wine bar.

L'Angolo Divino, Via dei Balestrari, 12 (Campo de Fiori) is that place where Massimo, the always in attendance owner and sommelier, knows just what to pour.

And so we sat and relived it all: the Sistine Chapel sans the tourist crush, Raffaelo's School of Athens, the Laocoon, the Room of Muses, the incredibe Hall of Tapestries,  the Belvedere Torso that inspired Michelangelo - all seen as though for the first time.

Our glasses were finally empty, but the memory lingers on.

he memories linger on.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


We're talking vegetables, of course.  Very important to the Romans, and it should be to you as well if you're traveling there.  Along with Caravaggio at the Quirinale, Bernini in Piazza Navona, Michelangelo at St. Peter's, nature's artwork, always on display in the Roman markets, belongs on your must-see list.

And what to look for?  According to Chris Boswell, sous chef at the prestigious American Academy currently engaged in the Rome Sustainable Food Project, the Top Ten Roman Vegetables are:

1) Carciofi—Artichokes 
2) Puntarelle—Catalan Chicory
3) Finocchi—Fennel
4) Funghi Porcini—Porcini Mushrooms
5) Broccoletti—Broccoli 
6) Fave—Fava Beans
7) Cardi—Cardoons 
8) Rughetta—Arugula
9) Sedano—Celery 
 10)Asparagi Selvatici—Wild Aspargus

Enjoy them at their seasonal best at your leisure in all their splendid variations in the market stalls and on your plate.  

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

SALTIMBOCCA ALLA ROMANA: A Composition of 3 Ingredients

OK, so I was all snarky about Mario Batali on the Today Show doing a segment called Saltimbocca Alla Romana and then preparing 3 dishes that weren't.  So here's the classic dish as it's been served all over Rome for decades, a simple composition of 3 main ingredients: veal, prosciutto, and sage.  (One example  of the Flavors of Rome.) Besides that you need butter, a little white wine, and toothpicks.

I learned how to make this dish in all its beautiful simplicity many years ago at the Pepe Verde Cooking School near the Pantheon in Rome.  Of course, the challenge is finding top quality veal and proscuitto as well as fresh sturdy sage leaves.  The toothpicks should be a snap.

Saltimbocca Alla Romana
Veal Scallops with Prosciutto and Sage
A classic Roman recipe, molto semplice, from Scuola di Cucina Pepe Verde, Rome. 

12 veal scallops (about 1 1/2 pounds), sliced thin and pounded (not paper thin however)
12 slices thin prosciutto slices, trimmed a bit shorter in length than veal scallops
12 fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 
1/2 dry white wine
Salt and pepper to  taste
Compose veal bundles by laying a slice of prosciutto on top of each veal scallop, then top with  sage leaf, and secure with a toothpick.
Melt butter in large non-stick skillet.
On high heat, place veal bundles sage side down for one minute and then turn on the other side for another minute. 
 Season with salt (unless prosciutto is salty) and pepper.
Lower heat to medium and cook until veal is lightly golden brown, about 4 minutes.
Raise heat and add wine, scraping bottom and sides of pan, for about another minute.
Serves 6

Monday, March 8, 2010


Robert Browning probably never made it to Rome in March during all his years living in Italy.  If he had, he would surely have eaten a Roman artichoke and then, forgetting all about England in springtime, would have written "Oh to be in Rome now that artichoke season is here."

I, on the other hand, have been in Rome for every artichoke season since 1996 - except for this year.  I'm not happy, but I'm dealing with it.  And hoping some late bloomers will still be around in April

My friends have been speculating for years as to why I go to Rome every March. Maybe I've been rendezvousing with a mysterious Italian lover (they'd be sick with jealousy), sneaking off to experience the rejuvenation powers of a thermal spa (they'd be jealous of this, too), or maybe reaffirming my faith at a Vatican-sponsored religious retreat (they'd probably question this one)? Love does play a role here, and I certainly do get a physical and spiritual boost, but the object of my passion happens to spring from the rich, humid earth of the Roman countryside. I go to Rome every March because artichokes are in season.

And a Roman artichoke, unlike a lover, never disappoints.

For more, including recipes...

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Romans aren't particularly crazy about change. 
They've never quite gotten over architect Richard Meier's design for the Ara Pacis (the 13AD altar commemorating the triumphs of the Emperor Augustus), a contemporary intruder boldly positioned in the middle of Old Rome.

Last Judgment

And after more than 15 years, many Romans haven't yet warmed up to the transformation of the "newly" cleaned and brilliantly revealed Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

There was something comforting and familiar about those old murky colors with everyone writhing in hell.

So it follows that Romans are fiercely attached to their classic recipes and don't want you fooling around with things.

Purple EggplantPasta alla Norma is not of Roman origin. But Romans have lovingly adopted it from its Sicilian roots, maybe because this dish makes such nice use of their full-flavored basil and their beloved  multicolored eggplants. 

Like Roman cuisine in general, pasta alla Norma is  bold and lively, much like the indomitable plucky heroine of Bellini's opera Norma for which, some say, it was created. (Other theories are floating around on this subject.  If you have one, let's talk about it)

Please keep in mind the first rule of Italian cooking:  Use only the freshest and highest quality ingredients.  If the eggplant is spongy and brownish inside, if the basil is limp and lacks flavor, if your bottle of olive oil costs $1.98, go buy a steak and throw it on the grill instead.

But if you follow this primary rule along with Daniela Del Balzo's recipe (it's a simple dish, but you still have to have a plan), the result will be spettacoloso. You can read about Daniela and her cooking school in Rome at AstheItaliansCook.


100 Places

2 eggplants, cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 2 cups cubed)
2 - 3 tablespoons Canola oil, or Canola oil spray, for frying eggplant
2 tablespoons (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with back of knife
2 cups fresh plum tomatoes, peeled, and roughly chopped or small can (14.5 oz)San Marzano tomatoes, drained and chopped
1- 3 tablespoons tomato puree (called passata in Italy)
2 - 4 tablespoons ricotta salata, grated
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper
1 #rigatoni

Place large pot of water on stove to boil.

Place the eggplant slices on a plate or other flat smooth surface, sprinkle with coarse salt and let set for 30 minutes to remove the bitterness.  Wash slices under cold water, dry well with paper towels.

In large non-stick frying pan, heat oil and fry eggplant on both sides until golden brown.  (Turn heat to medium low after oil has heated to prevent burning.)    Remove slices and let rest on paper towels.

To frying pan, add 2 tablespoons olive oil and the crushed garlic for about 2 minutes (do not let burn).  Then add chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, and pinch of salt and pepper.  Saute for 15 - 20 minutes or until the sauce reduces slightly. Add eggplant and chopped basil. Cook and stir over medium heat until eggplant softens.

To boiling pot of water, add liberal amount of salt and rigatoni.
Cook rigatoni until al dente and  drain.
Add rigatoni to sauce and mix well.
Place in individual serving bowls and top with grated ricotta salata and additional whole basil leaves if desired.

Serves 6.

Buon Appetito!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

THE SPAGHETTI SPOON: Or the Art Of The Twirl

In most of the utensil using world, grown men and women with no apparent physical limitations approach plates of spaghetti, fettuccine, and other long pastas with fork in one hand, large spoon in the other.

In Italy, only small children and those challenged by small motor skills would place a spoon in opposition to the twirl of the fork.  I've queried many of my Roman, Milanese, and Calabrian friends on the subject.  They all concur that it's sort of like training wheels on a bicycle:  once the child - or determined adult -gets the hang of snagging the right amount of pasta along with the required number of rotations, it's time to drop the spoon and go solo with the fork.

If this just doesn't work for you, then better to ask for a spoon that to use the knife to cut your spaghetti into little bite-size pieces, a serious infraction of Italian culinary laws at any age.

Friday, February 5, 2010

CARNEVALE IN ROME: Feasting on Frappe

Rome loves a party.  And this year, Carnevale in Rome -- though not approaching the decadence, debauchery, and  downright tomfoolery that took place during the pagan forerunners of this Christianized celebration -- has been pumped up with various forms of street revelry, most notably this Saturday's parade of costumed Romans on horses and chariots following the ancient route down Via del Corso.

So what will everyone be munching on during these festivities?  Not popcorn, not soft salted pretzels, not Buffalo wings  on a stick.  The traditional "you can't eat just one" Carnevale treats in Rome are frappe, fried ribbons of dough copiously dusted with powdered sugar, temptingly displayed in every pastry shop window - and, oh,  so easy to love.

But it doesn't stop there.  You didn't think Italian creativity was restricted to just sculptures and paintings, did you? Take a look at  one small example of what some very artistic pastry chefs can do.

One of the many reasons my heart belongs to a very old city.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


No matter how often or persistently we Italian food purists try to separate them, put them on separate plates, offer them at separate courses,  Americans want spaghetti and meatballs.  Together, in one giant heap  spilling out over the sides of one dish. It's a cultural thing -- like peanut butter and jelly, a burger and fries, popcorn and the movies.

In yesterday's  NYTimes article, Alex Witchel recounts a visit to an Olive Garden in midtown Manhattan stuffed with tourists ordering that All-American Italian comfort food.

How they eat in Italy has nothing to do with it.  Americans own this dish. We invented it, we love it, and, by golly, we'll go to New York where there are  more authentically Italian restaurants than anywhere on this side of the Atlantic, and we'll order it.

I'll still have my meatballs on the side.  And hold the spaghetti.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


You know how when you were in high school, you'd gaze longingly at your boyfriend's picture during the summer months while you were separated by those boring family vacations or sleep-away camps, yearning -- as only teenage girls can yearn -- for his return?

Well, that's me when I'm not in Rome. A crazed yearner! But it's not a lover I'm pining away for. It's food, glorious Roman food. It's spaghetti alla carbonara and rigatoni all'amatriciana, abbacchio al forno, as they can only be done in Rome. I torture myself daily with my stockpile of photos taken table side, such as this one: coniglio (rabbit) with olives and points of bruschetta in a luscious winey sauce. I would have jumped right in had the bowl been a bit wider and my dining companion not a member of the italian aristocracy.

If you journey south of Rome to the Castello di Fumone restaurant in the medieval town of Fumone, such intense dining pleasure can be yours.

I just can't promise the marquis.