They’re the most Roman of all vegetables – the seductive carciofi romani – those round purple tinged, delicious down to the stem Roman artichokes that take center stage in the outdoor markets and pride of place on menus throughout the Eternal City this time of year.
And these artichokes are the reason, to sate the lust in my soul, I go to Rome every March.
Except for this year
It’s not easy to break a 20 year-old habit. There is no patch, no 12-step program, no Dr. Drew to take away the pain and longing.
It does helps to flip through old photos, remembering how the woman who went to Italy for the first time in 1991 in pursuit of Botticelli and Piero della Francesca was hit by a colpo di fulmine (a lightning strike, Italian style) in Rome’s Piazza Navona within minutes of entering the gates of that city. There began my obsesssion with Rome and with the food of the country of my ancestors, an obsession that provided the balm I ultimately needed while adjusting to Life After Long Marriage.
Back then I hooked onto my relationship with Italian food like a starving wolf. So many wonderful things to taste, to learn, not only at the table, but about myself.
PLINY THE ELDER wrote about the sacred fig tree in the Roman Forum in early AD, and the Romans have been loving those blessed figs ever since.
Squash one of the luscious end of season figs called settembrini inside a warm slightly salty pizza bianca from the famed Forno Campo de Fiori and you have pizza fichi, food for the gods as well as the rest of us.
Figs come and figs go, but in Italy there’s always a seasonal food to get all worked up about. More on this and other bits and bites of Italian food info in How To Eat in Italy…If Chicken Parm is Your Favorite Italian Dish.
And you can have that caffe’ (which means coffee, specifically espresso) in a bar which may nor may not serve anything alcoholic. The coffee culture is so strong across Italy that they’ve managed to do with Starbucks what they never could against the barbarians, and that is keep them from invading their country. So when you travel around Italy, forget about your favorite frappuccino, latte, or venti and allow yourself to experience what the Italians are so addicted to – the simplicity of a deeply rich caffe’ (espresso) or a creamy cappuccino.
So then what happens when you get back home, hopelessly longing for that la dolce vita caffeine fix? You can do what I do. I get my caffe’ con crema (that foamy stuff you see on top which is the mark of a perfect espresso) using Sant’Eustachio coffee beans from Gustiamo in my Philips Saeco espresso machine.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A RABID ROMAPHILE IS LURED BY THE SONG OF OTHER SIRENS?
The waterways of Venice…
The river Arno flowing under the Ponte Vecchio in Florence…
The seas and canals and rivers, like all the roads, lead back to Rome.
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 a parade of costumed Romans on horses and chariots beginning at Piazza del Popolo and 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, or corn dogs 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.
My dear friend Daniela Del Balzo, owner of Daniela’s Cooking School in Rome, just sent out her recipe for these pre-Lenten treats along with her words about these delectable delights:
“In Italy the best-known Carnival pastries are Cenci (rags), or Frappe – Chiacchere (gossips), and Nastrini (ribbons), or with more poetic words “Lover’s Knots”.
Each regions has its own version and different names according to the place they come from.
If you try one you won’t be able to stop eating them!
Be careful they are quite addictive!
One tip…is to melt dark bitter chocolate and dip the Frappe inside!!!!!!!”
500 gr plain flour
50gr softened butter
eggs (2 yolks and 1 full egg)
1 tbsp sugar
50 gr brandy liqueur (Rum or Grappa)
100 gr approx. white wine, as required
pinch of salt
peanut oil for frying
icing sugar for dusting
On a board, make a well in the flour and pour the eggs into it. Add the remaining ingredients (except for the wine) and mix together, adding the wine gradually. Stop adding the wine when the dough is firm but elastic, and doesn’t stick to the surface. Knead for about 15-20 minutes.
Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least an hour.
Flour the surface and roll out the dough to a very thin sheet, flouring the surface if required. It is important that the sheet is very, very thin.
Using a pastry wheel cut the dough into strips as long as your palm and two fingers wide. Make a cut down the middle of each “cencio” (so as to obtain two strips joined at the ends), twist the side strips without breaking them.
To make “frappe” shape: cut the dough into strips (approx. 5×10 cm) and then make three vertical incisions on each strip.
Heat the frying oil in a deep pan. When hot (but not too much) fry the dough until lightly golden. It is important that you do not fry them for too long. As soon as you see the colour turning light golden, scoop them out and drain off the oil on kitchen paper. Sprinkle generously with icing sugar. Serve warm or cold.
In a spirit of solidarity with my Italian friends shivering in the snow,
I offer this most Roman of comfort foods, Pasta e Ceci.
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 and find yourself in need of culinary nurturing, you can order exceptional Umbrian chickpeas (much better than what you’ll find in your grocery store) at Gustiamo.
NOTE: Romans love this dish so much they figured out a way to incorporate it into the summer menu by serving it room temperature and calling it Pasta e Ceci Freddo.
PASTA E CECI
(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.
Author Michael Holroyd referred to the Amalfi Coast as “a place of fantasy that seems to float in the sky – a spot that answers the need for make believe in all our lives”.
And John Steinbeck wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
So what’s all the fuss about?
It’s more than the birthplace of caprese and the retreat of Roman emperors.
Dreams come true when Flavors of Rome sets out on the road to the Amalfi Coast.
April 14-22 2012
Space is limited.
Outside of Rome at this time of year, the hills – that would be the Castelli Romani – are alive with an abundance of fungi, the uber-fragrant porcini and the less familiar ovoli. Referred to in English as Caesar’s Mushrooms because according to those who know such arcane facts they were favored above all others by the rulers of ancient Rome, these orangish to straw-colored mushrooms with a white underside and stem are more delicate in flavor than porcini.
Inside the gates of Rome, restaurants offer a salad (can we call it a “Caesar Salad”?) of sliced ovoli, diced celery, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano, dressed only with extra virgin olive oil. And that’s what I ate on a beautiful ottobrata (the last gasp of summer) evening in Rome. Superbus!
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 with small motor skill difficulties 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.
PLEASE NOTE: Practice sessions using the fork with a variety of incredibly delicious pasta dishes come free with every sign-up for my April 2012 tour to the Amalfi Coast and Rome.
What was it that drew all those 18th-century Northern European stiff-collared gentlemen and parasol-toting ladies away from the routine of their proper lives to the wilder shores of the Amalfi Coast and the ruins of once-pagan Rome?
I’ve been there, so like Lord Byron, John Keats, and Kim Kardashian, I understand the lure.
Paradise, of course, is the enchanting land of the Amalfi Coast – that place where some say God fell in love.
In April 2012, I’ll be accompanying a small group for a week-long customized (by me) tour to Positano, a gem of a seaside town tucked into the center of the Amalfi coastline, and then on to Rome for a taste of La Dolce Vita. We’ll be guided by the top professionals in the business, those Italians who know and love their land intimately, and the food – well, because I make it a point to never be disappointed at the table – will be exquisite beyond belief.
And if you’ve ever wanted to be a character in a book, this could be your chance since I’ll be gathering material for my next tome.
For details, prices, and itinerary, please click here: April 2012 Tour Details