Traveling to Rome? My brother is coming to visit at the end of the month and as his little sister who ran away from the Big Apple for cooking school in Italy, I need to make sure he eats well. Time is also limited as we’ll be off to Tuscany for a long weekend and we will be cooking Thanksgiving dinner too. One thing is already clear, no one will be going hungry–or on a diet.
After reveling in the quiet of a Vermont spring for almost three months now, wining and dining with family and friends and unearthing stories and flavors for the Craft di Gusto cookbook project, its time for me to head back to Europe. Next weekend, I am Rome bound to begin a new food adventure as a web editor for the Forestry Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations based in Rome–and to see my boyfriend for the first time in months. Yay.
While listening to a gentle spring breeze patiently rustle the leaves outside my childhood bedroom window in Vermont, I’ve been fantasizing about what I’m going to eat first when I’m back under that hot Roman sun. Here is a list of a few restaurants I’ve been contemplating for that fast approaching first supper, or as my list seems to convey, here is where I plan to get my pasta on.
I’ve been in Vermont for over a month now working on the Craft di Gusto cookbook project and attending to numerous other state side endeavors, including long awaited visits with many family members and friends. While I expect to be heading back across the Atlantic relatively soon, I do miss Rome a whole lot. I also miss her pizza. Therefore in homage to the Eternal City, as a cold rain continues to fall on a seemingly still frozen Vermont, I’ve compiled a list of my 5 favorite pizzerias in Rome. I checked out the weather and although after dark, its still a balmy 61 degrees in Rome. I can’t wait to get back to her golden sun to thaw out my bones. In the meantime, here is plenty of pizza porn for your rainy day pleasure. I’ve also got a pizza rising in the kitchen to get me through the night.
Pasta bianca o rossa? White pasta or red? I weighed my answer carefully as our little, red car raced down the road through dimly lit tunnels that crawl beneath the massive Apennine Mountain range, cutting Italy in half and dividing her landscape into an east and a west. I was still debating it as we wound our way along the narrow, twisting road that climbs and hugs the steep hills leading up and into the ancient town of Amatrice. Even in March, it’s barren slopes strewn with leafless branches and little more than a dusting of snow draped across the higher contours, the local beauty was breathtaking.
Last fall, I completed a three month stage in a Michelin-starred kitchen in Rome. To the uninitiated, a stage is the restaurant equivalent of an internship or apprenticeship. The work is unpaid. The hours are long. The work often monotonous. Kitchens are still very weird places. I often imagine a city broken down into a sea of professional kitchens, an ocean of pirate ships adrift at night, each waging their own battle, with a generally sleep deprived crew, wearing the equivalent of pajamas, wielding knives instead of swords and wrestling gas stoves and outrageously hot ovens instead of cannons. The pirate captain is still the head honcho and is not above treating you like a prisoner of war.
I was lucky in my stage in that while we did work 6 days a week, 16 hour shifts were rare, with my shifts typically lasting only about 12 hours. My fellow shipmates were kind, and our pirate captain was generally absent. But it did take a physical toll on me. I could never get enough sleep even if I slept through my entire seventh day. My joints ached. My running mileage dropped and I had a hard time eating enough to keep weight on. Kitchen work is indeed strenuous cross training, although it isn’t strategically designed to work the right muscles, just the muscles needed to get a meal out. When my shift ended each night around 11 or 12 PM, I was always famished and in need of second dinner, just like any good hobbit naturally would be. Midnight snack became my fourth daily meal and my boyfriend and I began to keep tabs on where to regularly score affordable, delicious middle of the night food in Rome. From the 24 hour grocery stores which surprisingly do exist, to the late night beer and burger joints, we found that there were in fact a lot of options. But one place kept working its way back up to the top of our list–Trapizzino.
We waited for the shuttle to take us to the car park at the airport in Rome with our noses deep in our phones, breathing again ample internet. Only we weren’t reading our email, we were looking up Turkish cookbooks. Istanbul makes me want to cook. It could be the novelty of the cuisine for me as someone who has simply not been deeply exposed to it or the fundamental genius of the spices, but I like to think that its the sheer deliciousness. Turkish cuisine is delicious.
Last week, my boyfriend and I spent a long weekend in Istanbul with the best Turkish tour guide imaginable–a great friend, my former roommate at culinary school and a talented cook. While the weather may have failed us–one day all rain, the next all snow–the food did not. We bravely sloshed through puddles from one amazing meal to another. Although, the affordable public transportation system in Istanbul should not go without mention and definitely made the breadth of our culinary exploration possible–from the tram that climbs up one of the many steep hills that compose the city’s rolling landscape, to the coordinated sharing of late night cabs with strangers heading to the same neck of the woods, to the magical and regular ferries that shuttle passengers back and forth across the Bosporus, the strait which separates the Asian and European sides of the city. Ferries! Perhaps I should say fairies! As someone unfamiliar with a regular and convenient jaunt across water, the ferries seemed nothing short of magical.
Sure, the picture is a little bit blurry, but its a Bourbon Negroni from Red Rooster. I’m sure most folks would be hard pressed to enjoy such a drink without at least a touch of blur. Fig and pear-infused bulleit bourbon, campari, and sweet vermouth. The drink was strong. And brilliant. And actually not mine, but the boyfriend was kind enough to share a sip with me.
Last night my boyfriend and I dined at Red Rooster in Harlem. We were excited. Real excited. We made our precious 8 PM reservation 20 days in advance. 20! The boyfriend was still in Rome when we secured the table. Red Rooster has been on our list for quite some time as I live on the UWS just a few train stops away, but we never focused our game long enough on past visits to make the coveted reservation. They do claim to keep tables available for walk-ins, but based on the general brouhaha we encountered at the door on a Tuesday night, I wouldn’t attempt it, at least not at prime dining hours.
There is a certain inherent frenzy to most popular American restaurants. They want you in and then they want you out as quickly as possible. Turnover is key. Assuming they are lucky enough to keep the crowds coming in, profit is found in the midst of a careful balance between the number of dinners the kitchen can churn out and the number of diners the dining room can squeeze in.
But what if there was only one seating? What if when you reserved a table at a restaurant you didn’t make a quick appointment to eat and run, but instead reserved a spot for the whole live long luxurious evening to sip wine at your leisure, to maybe order an extra dish or two and to take the time to linger over that meal capping espresso before you say a final good evening and bid the night adieu? This isn’t a what if question in Rome. It happens. I have no idea how these wonderful restaurants manage to make money, but I am thrilled that they do. I feel so American that I am utterly awed by this, but I truly am–awed, wowed and won over.
Renato and Luisa’s is just such a wonder. It opens nightly somewhere around 8:30 PM and is only open about 4 hours a day. Romans eat late. When the doors open at Renato and Luisa’s, the restaurant has a tent card on each table with the reservation written by hand. I’ve never seen the staple American reservation book here, there’s no need.
Every time I go to Rome, the amazing boyfriend takes me here. It’s actually where I first met him (so yes I’m slightly biased toward this place). We dined there for his 40th birthday on my last trip. I ate the gnocchi with mussels as my main course as pictured above. It was enlightening–it never dawned on me that gnocchi and mussels are almost exactly the same size and texture. Perfect bedfellows if I may say so myself.
I have plenty to say about the food at this place. I’ve definitely had a lot of it and intend to have a lot more, but as this has become a standard stop for me when visiting the Eternal City, I’m going to expound upon it slowly and save some thoughts for later.
A Roman street food, these deep fried chubby risotto balls are handheld snack vehicles for the real treat–the warm cheesiness hidden in their bellies. I’ve read that when pulled apart, the cheese, typically mozzarella, should stretch like an old school telephone cord which led to them once upon a time being referred to as supplì al telefono. However, one of my books on Roman cuisine has bothered to point out that the rise of the mobile phone has made this point rather moot. Cute.
I ate a lot of supplì on my last trip. It is a good and frequent companion to pizza and as you are probably all too aware, I eat a lot of pizza. Yet in Rome, folks tend to mostly order a whole pizza per person and while it was a habit that I was all too happy to adopt, trust me that supplì plus whole pizza plus often times a beer, a very full (and happy) woman does make. At least I don’t go home hungry when I’m in Italy.
Traditional Roman supplì rosso is made with rice in a red meat sauce wrapped around a mozzarella core, shaped into a plump oval, dipped in egg, breadcrumbed and deep fried in oil.
The hands down best supplì I have had in Rome comes from I supplì or Sisini (which name is correct confuses me, the boyfriend just knows it as the place with the best supplì), a little hole in the wall take away pizza joint in Trastevere that I probably would have walked right on past if my boyfriend didn’t insist on taking me there for an appetizer every time I am in Rome. Although, perhaps the constant crowd of Romans in the doorway should give a passerby the hint that there is something tasty to be found inside. I’ve only ever had the classic supplì rosso here. They hand it to you wrapped in a piece of paper to be eaten immediately. The cheese is consistently glorious. Just look at it in that picture oozing its warm cheesy goodness.
I am by no means an expert on authentic Roman food and am honestly just beginning to figure out what in the world it is, but I feel confident in declaring that supplì judgement 101 must come down to the cheese. If the cheese isn’t melty, the supplì is a total fail. Do this in a shop that specializes in supplì and put two professional chefs in full chef getup at the front counter with yet another chef actually making the supplì in the back and yep, I am comfortable giving you the prize for the worst supplì I’ve had. Supplizio earned this distinction. My cute supplì in the egg carton were actually from Supplizio and had a hard cheese nugget in the center. Bah. Adorable looks can be deceiving.
But back to the yumminess-The tastiest supplì variation I sampled on my last trip was in Bonci’s Pizzarium–asparagus and taleggio. Yes, please. Kind of ugly in appearance, but plenty satisfying in my tummy.
The amazing boyfriend is also a supplì master in training. His recent supplì renditions on my last trip to Rome went undocumented as they disappeared before I remembered that I had a phone in my pocket, but his supplì variations of cacio e pepe and carbonara are both brilliant. Last time he was in New York, he filled my freezer with the little rotund rice balls and I ate them for weeks after he left, sometimes fried, sometimes experimentally baked. But what a pair we make–I make pizza. He makes supplì. You bring the beer (and red wine if you want to make me particularly happy) and I can guarantee you won’t go home hungry from a dinner party at my house when the amazing supplì frying boyfriend is in town.
On a whim, I decided that I needed more iron in my diet. The amazing boyfriend translated this into the above on my first night out in Rome on my last trip. Clearly this man is a keeper. Just look at that meat! I’m not even entirely sure what it consisted of, but it disappeared terribly quickly.
This marvelous platter of rawness was served up at Maxelâ, a Genoan chain restaurant now found throughout Italy and in the UK. While the ambiance is perhaps a bit too polished and too bright in that chain restaurant sort of way, Maxelâ does a marvelous job of leading with the butcher and following with the restaurant. The seeming result is exactly what I want in a restaurant with an abundant raw meat selection–expertise. Maxelâ apparently means butcher in Genoese and the actual butcher was centrally located in the front of the restaurant. There are two Maxelâ restaurants in Rome. We dined at the Rome Piazza delle Coppelle location not all that far from the Pantheon. A location I will remember as we found ourselves trapped under the awning of the Pantheon in a ghastly downpour not too long after enjoying this delicious meal. But if you have to be trapped somewhere by bad weather, why not beneath an architectural wonder built in 126 AD?
We also ate one of my fast becoming favorites–lardo aka cured pork fatback. Heavenly, creamy cured fat spread delicately atop bread. Full stop. Unless you want to add some rosemary or in this case walnuts. Lardo is quite common in Italy, but if like me, you are an American who is fairly new to authentic Italian cuisine but do love your fat, your jaw will drop when you get your hands on some. Do it.
I ate more than just meat that night. As pesto is originally from Genoa, I tucked into some pasta with pesto too. I’ll leave you for now with some simple pasta porn for contemplation and stomach tremors.