From every place I visit, I try to take with me this one souvenir: a food story. My friend even noticed once: “You talk so much about food!”” which made me blush at first (Who? Me, so cultural and philosophical? :)) But then I realized: how can one love life without loving to eat? It is the closest connection to passion, a very physical experience. So now I continue talking about food without the false modesty. And when you go to a country like Italy how can you leave the food out? That’s why my postcards this time will be part photos, part juicy memories.
I had been to Rome once before, when, on a five-day trip, I visited Milano, Florence and Rome. When my friends asked me about my plans for the trip I honestly said: pizza, pasta, tiramisu. This time my goals were not so clearly pronounced, but it was clear: it is going to be much about pizza and pasta (and sometimes risotto) again. We even hopped on a train to Naples – to eat the best pizza in the world (which I still need to test more, because, ironically, I was not in the pizza mood and was eating pasta instead. To be precise, spaghetti vongole (with seafood) with the sea view to match it and the Capri island in the distance). Mind you, I am not the kind of travel blogger who does useful posts like “what to do” and “where to eat”. Mine are just stories that make me smile, little practical information included. Hope, it is ok with you, as it is very ok with me 🙂
Let me start with our most epic dinner. It is set in picturesque Trastevere, a lovely neighborhood, full of restaurants and life, but not so messy as the most central parts. The tourists have discovered it already, but the mass tourism still didn’t (or so it looks). We just had to eat a dinner there – like many others queueing in front of various places (must be Tripadvisor doings). The waiters were handling the hungry lines with the elegance of orchestra conductors. In a narrow side street we discovered a little terrace which led to quite an impressive space inside. And with vacant tables, which is important. The restaurant was filling promptly, this is a good sign too (you don’t want to dine in a half-empty place when others are packed. If empty, not good, right?).
The second floor where we got our table felt like a little chapel – with arches and ceiling paintings. Slowly we were taking in the scene. The dim lights, the brittle of cutlery, low laughter, a big Spanish company arriving, tables being moved together, four young German girls ordering pizzas and a bottle of wine (they must have been to Italy many times with their parents, and now they were playing adults). The waiters could be actors of some typical comedy, and we were figuring out the main characters. So, the short and round man who had ushered us to the table, seemed to play a little role, though he was walking around with an important face frowning his furry eyebrows. His task was to usher to the table and give the menus, but not more. On my question about some entrée with eggplant he said it was a cake. We made a guess that he was called in as an extra help this night. Hence the important look with seemingly less important work. It became clear very fast who the boss was: another short and round person, a woman, an embodiment of la mamma Italiana. She was everywhere, delivering dishes, taking the orders, flirting and persuading us to take more bruschettas. She was the seller, the hostess and the diva, cuz every guy with a plate came to her and she waved them in the right direction.
The wine was still not working when I had my food orgasm. That “cake” with eggplant (baked in oven with tomato sauce and cheese on top) and a bruschetta. What can you do to the grilled bread with tomatoes on top that it can taste heavenly? Did they put some drugs in it? (We have tried bruschettas some other place, which left us unimpressed. While this one was like food of gods). Then the fish mix grill arrived, and Carles, my man, was mocking my choice: “Fish in Rome? Have you ever heard of people coming to Rome to eat fish? Where do they get it from? From river Tiber?” But I had to try their fish. To be honest, I should have gone for the classical choice of pasta. My Mediterranean expert got critical of the fish smell and had to call on la mamma for a fish talk. “It is because it was grilled with the squids”, she found an explanation which calmed my fish-knowing man. And luckily, there were meatballs with rich tomato sauce on the table. I have discovered that to keep your Spanish critic quiet, you can always order jamon (cured ham) or meatballs and some red wine – and thus the situation will be rescued.
There were two more characters: a man in white, delivering our dishes and taking them away, and another man in white with the same job. Which we started questioning about liquors and deserts. If the meal is amazing and we still want to linger, I usually ask for a desert to share and Carles – for a digestive. Better say, once he asked for a sweet wine and got another glass of red. This was not what he wanted. But he drank it anyway and then asked for Limoncello. Later I went through my memory of Italian habits “Ah, aperetivo and digestivo! Ask for digestivo, darling!” Desert was easy (a classical panna cotta), but the choice of liquors was always a tiny Lost-in-translation game. Bored of Limoncello, my man was inquiring: “So tell me, what is Amaro de Capo?” the guy: “mmm, well… It is Amaro…” My man: “De Capo” – “Yes, exactly, de Capo! From Calabria” – “and are you from Calabria?” – “No, I am from Napoli. From behind Napoli”.
Spooning our shared panna cotta, sniffing on Amaro de Capo, I googled it. So, it is instilled on 29 different roots and herbs. “Ahh, that explains it all. I told you, there was some mint and licorice in it”, my liquor expert chimed in. Passing the glass over to each other, we were playing a guessing game: sniffing, guessing, tasting. I was checking on the ingredients’ list: lime, yes, orange, yes, licorice, yes. That explains why it is so difficult to explain what Amaro de Capo is 🙂
In the end, il conto was requested and la mamma came with it saying: “check if everything is correct”. Well, it was correct, but the two last things were missing. Carles meanwhile understood that only digestive was missing and was like “Ah, whatever, it must be on the house”. I paid, left the tips and we didn’t linger more. “Should we go to the bathroom or just leave?”, and there, washing hands, I said: “you misunderstood. Two things are missing”. “Oh, really? Ok, but then go, go!” And speedily we left the lovely place, ended up giggling on the street, in some imagined fear that the guy would run after us in some mafia-like Neapolitan manner. And what would you do?
We were laughing at the story the whole way home. “this is why they don’t trust others than la mamma to take orders! The guy “from behind Napoli” forgot to put our order on our table. Hope, they will not find it out and he will escape punishment”. The next day Carles discovered that his scarf was missing. Well, that must be karma. Hope, the scarf went to our Neapolitan friend.
Trastevere is the ultimate destination to go for dinner. It also saved us during the rainy afternoons or when we were just too tired to walk more. Then we would sit on a terrace, do people-watching and have an aperetivo hour, in our own fashion. Carles would drink smoothies, and I would take Aperol Spritz. Ice cubes tingling in the glass, even if it was kinda fresh for ice cubes, the rainy weather suddenly seemed not so bad, even cozy, with the rain dropping on the roof, tourists and locals enjoying their drinks and snacks. Later I learnt where the magic of Aperol Spritz comes from: it is mixed with prosecco, and this sparkling wine goes fast into the blood and head. I didn’t seem to mind, however.
After one such Aperol magic moment I proposed to walk home and find a restaurant on our way. The google maps gave us several roots, every one lasting almost an hour, and I thought that we could walk half an hour (after the whole day of walking in Rome) – then stop for dinner and later walk home and burn those calories. I should have known better. I love spontaneous ideas like this, but sometimes I miss the organizing gene of my friend Maria who said: “Yes, I plan every hour and every stop, but then I know when and where we eat and where we go after that”. As you will see, I had no idea when and where we could eat. And where we were going to.
Our way, Via Aurelia, turned out to be a dark and winding road, all the way up the hill, with the narrow sidewalk made only for one person. So, the cozy walk I imagined, through the Roman neighborhoods, looking into the lighted windows of cafes and restaurants, it never happened. It was a sweaty, silent and tired climbing up, wondering where the hell we were lost in and why there was no life on this street. After almost an hour, whining in the beginning rain (me, of course), we ended up in our local restaurant with cheerful crowds and waiters running with the huge plates of steaming meat. They had the most interesting way to choose a desert, by the way. A waiter didn’t announce what was on the menu – instead, he would bring a tray with 15 different things, explaining what each of them was (though in Italian, which left me with some surprises like a chocolate muss with a strong and hot flavor like chili). Always a show!
This local restaurant we discovered on our first night, when we arrived, after our plane being an hour late, so we missed our shuffle bus and took a taxi. The taxi ride was an introduction into Roman driving, the driver was crossing the lines, driving like a wind, and on a crossroad a neighbor car driver started a discussion with him, which he ended with some colorful Italian swearing. No better “welcome to Rome!” yet invented 🙂
In the hotel we asked for a place to eat and they sent us to the one on the corner. Is it open at almost midnight, I wondered? Guess what, of course, it was! And even better, besides us the family with a toddler were enjoying their meal. Toddler sat in her baby chair, eating pizza, drawing in it with some pencils and watching some Youtube cartoon – all simultaneously. This is how growing up in Italy looks like. While Norwegian kids are sent to bed at 7-8pm, Italian toddlers spend their midnight eating pizza and doing so many things at once. Ever wonder where this temperament comes from?
There have been so many more food memories (how we got cheated with ice cream in Florence, how we had an amazingly good and long lunch at the market of Campo de Fiori, how our neighbors in a Napoli restaurant were some celebrities), but for here and now you must feel full on my stories (or, maybe, hungry for some pizza). This is where I leave you, asking yourself if you have some Limoncello in your fridge.
Cheers to the food stories! Cheers to the culinary memories and to the joyful feelings a cook’s art can produce!
Do you have any food memories from your travels? Or do you have a city/country where you would come to eat again and again?