It wasn’t lunch time yet, but it would be soon, so I set off from Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere to have a look at the restaurants in the area.
Just in case the chef’s aversion to ‘Tourist Menus’ extends to tourists’ languages…
Bufala con prosciutto di Norcia. If buffalo and prosciutto seem an unlikely combo, they probably are, but that’s not what we’ve got here. Bufala is the luscious mozzarella di bufala made along the Amalfi Coast. Prosciutto (pro-shoot-toe) you already know, although you may not have sampled the variety from Norcia, a village in Umbria, the so-called ‘Green Heart’ of Italy.
Burrata pugliese con rucola e pachino. This is also a multi-regional offering. Burrata is a lusciously creamy mozzarella from Puglia, the ‘heel’ of Italy. Rucola is from all over. You may know it as arugula. Or maybe rocket. (If you’re interested in the story of how this simple plant got so many names – caterpillars, aphrodisiacs and the toe of Italy’s boot all played a role – have a look at Sam Dean’s highly entertaining article in the May 23, 2013 issue of Bon Appétit. http://www.bonappetit.com/test-kitchen/ingredients/article/the-etymology-of-the-word-arugula) Pachino is a tomato, but not just any tomato. It’s a tomato with an IGP – Indicazione Geografica Protetta – a high-end label like the DOC and IGT for wines. The geographical area in question is a well-defined area around the town it’s named for – Pachino – in south-eastern Sicily.
Pecorino grigliato con miele e tartufo. Grilled pecorino with honey and truffles. (and it’s grill-yah-tuh. Silent G!) I’ve had a lot of pecorino, especially in the Val d’Orcia in southern Tuscany, but I’d never had it grilled.
Crostino di polenta con baccalà. Usually crostino means toasted bread, but here it’s made with polenta, which is often unappetizingly described as ‘cornmeal porridge’. It’s a standard of northern Italian cuisine, and not my favourite, so I limit my polenta intake to when I’m in that part of country. The baccalà (cod) holds no appeal for me either – although one of the best antipasti I’ve ever had was a mushed-up ball of cod, olive oil and garlic. Sounds awful. Didn’t look like much. But, oh my goodness, was it delicious! (I’ve also had something similar in Provence. Only there, instead of on toasted bread, they served it in little puffed pastries.)
Frittatina con erbe. A little omelette with herbs.
Strozzapreti all’amatriciana con pachino freschi. Strozzare (stroats-sah-ray) means ‘to strangle’. Preti (pray-tea) means ‘priests’. That’s right. Priest-strangler. Despite the ubiquitous and powerful influence of the Vatican in the region – perhaps because of it – anticlerical views, more or less openly expressed, have a long tradition here. Especially among the impoverished peasants who were often required to share what little food they had with the local priests. Since open dissent was rarely an option, one of the ways they could (fairly) safely vent their anger and frustration involved a kind of linguistic passive-aggression. There are all sorts of legends as to the origin of strozzapreti. One has greedy priests wolfing down the pasta so quickly, they choked to death. Another has the women imagining they were strangling the priests as they hand-rolled the pasta.
Now for what may be the most controversial part of the dish. All’amatriciana (al-ah-mah-tree-chah-nah) means ‘done in the way of Amatrice’ (ah-mah-tree-chay). Amatrice is a town about an hour east of Rome. According to the town’s official website, the only ingredients in the vera (veh-ruh) amatriciana – the real thing – are pancetta – or more precisely, the jowl of a pig – pecorino, white wine, tomato – has to be San Marzano – pepper and chili flakes. So when a chef added a clove of garlic, the citizens of Amatrice hanno perso le staffe. (lost their stirrups). The local headlines screamed – ‘Carlo Cracco and the heretical ingredient, Amatrice furious with the Masterchef’. To get an idea of how seriously Italians take such things check out the PRI interview with Lidia Bastianich (http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-02-11/garlic-or-no-garlic-squabble-kitchen-over-how-make-traditional-amatriciana-pasta.) The people at ‘Food and Wine’, perhaps hoping to avoid the wrath of the volatile Matriciani, have cautiously called their version ‘Strozzapreti with tomato and pancetta sauce’.
Fettuccine ai funghi porcini. Fungi porcini is one of those items we have become so used to seeing on menus, it needs no explanation. It’s one of my favourites, although I think it’s best in fall when made with fresh mushrooms.
Mezze maniche con carbonara vegetale. Short sleeves with a vegetarian carbonara. Just as a short sleeve is a shortened version of a long sleeve, mezze maniche are shortened versions of the longer tube-like rigatoni. A vegetarian carbonara was new to me. I’d only seen it before with pancetta.
Crema di zucca. Squash soup. Maybe in the fall, but not on this warm, spring day.
Maltagliati con ceci. Some things lose their appeal when translated. I don’t know about you, but Maltagliati con ceci (mal-tahl-yah-tee kohn chay-chee) sounds a lot more appetizing than ‘Badly cut pasta with chick peas’. In this case, there are no downtrodden peasants waving knives around. The pasta just ends up that way. Even if you’re a nonna who has been making fresh pasta your whole life, there are always odds and ends left over. In the cucina povera, where nothing was wasted, all these bits would be used in soups, or in dishes like pasta fagioli (fa-joe-lee) – pasta with beans. Recently, in the bizarre world of human tastes and fashions, the peasants’ scraps have become sought after items. If you don’t want to make or, let’s be reasonable, buy lasagna sheets, that you can then cut badly, you can buy factory-made maltagliati. For a premium of course.
There were so many tantalizing places, I could feel myself falling into that embarras du choix spiral – you know, where you leave a store without buying anything, because there are too many choices. In the end I settled on this place. It was in a charming little piazza and had a nice, casual feel about it. I have eaten far better versions of antipasto misto along the Amalfi Coast and in Tuscany’s small towns and villages, but I haven’t spent as much time in Rome, haven’t discovered its hidden gems yet. Besides, I’m of the view that not every meal has to be a gastronomic extravaganza. Ci si può stufare anche delle buone cose. (You can get tired even of good things.) By the way, for those of you who have actually been trying to pick up some Italian as we go along, be careful with ‘stufare‘ (stoo-fah-ray). It has nothing to do with feeling ‘stuffed’ after eating too much. It means your are ‘fed up’, ‘sick and tired’ of something. Definitely not to be used when your Italian host offers you another helping.
Rested and not at all stufata, I set off again, meandering vaguely eastward. I wanted to visit the garden of Villa Farnesina – not to be confused – as I did at first – with Palazzo Farnese across the river, or Villa Farnese, 50 k north-west of Rome, in the village of Caprarola. As well as the outdoor garden, I had read there was also an underground ‘garden’. In the 1870’s excavations for the construction of the embankments along the Tiber had to be halted when the workers came upon the remains of a luxurious Roman villa. One of the most striking features of the villa, the summer residence of Livia, wife of Caesar of Augustus, was an underground room covered with frescoes designed to create the sensation of being in a garden.
The entrance to the villa – and presumably the biglietteria (ticket office) – was on the right side of the building, but first I wanted to have a quick look at a couple of Cedars of Lebanon, one of my favourite trees. Sprawling below them was an unusually-shaped clump of European Fan Palm (Chamaerops humilis, for the garden gurus).
Since I was already at the west corner of the villa, I decided to have a peak at the garden, but I began to feel uneasy. There was no-one around and I hadn’t paid yet, so I decided to go back to the entrance and come back in modo legittimo. After paying the entrance fee, I asked if there was a little guide or pamphlet for visiting the garden. ‘Il giardino non si visita oggi’, the agent replied. ‘The garden is not visited today’. In spite of my protestations – I had printed off the schedule – he insisted the garden was off-limits, mumbling something about restoration work being done that day. Fine. There was still Livia’s frescoed garden. Out of sorts, I was in no mood to ask how to get to it. Besides, I was sure to come across it by following the arrows through the villa.
In addition to sore feet, by the time you leave this room you’re bound to have a sore neck too. I was thinking about lying down on the floor – another advantage to travelling solo is that things aren’t nearly so embarrassing when there’s no-one around you know – but obviously someone had already thought of that and the people in charge had not been pleased. There were signs everywhere prohibiting such indecorous behaviour.
I followed the arrows upstairs, assuming there was another staircase that would lead to the underground garden.
The Sala delle Prospettive was where the 16th century owner, the fabulously wealthy Sienese banker, Chigi, held his wedding banquet.
While this of course had not been in my original meandering plan, it was all captivating. The only thing was, I couldn’t find the way to Livia’s garden. I went back to the front desk, hoping someone else had taken over. They hadn’t. No point getting agitata. I asked how to get to the sala con gli affreschi del giardino. The agent, to whom I had taken a totally irrational dislike, looked at me for a moment and then replied, ‘Non c’è più qui.’ (It isn’t here any more.) Now in addition to being agitata, I was also sconcertata. (without my concert – baffled). Pardon? I asked. Perhaps realizing I wasn’t going to give up so easily this time, he elaborated – ‘Gli affreschi sono stati trasferiti‘. (The frescoes have been transferred.) ‘Oh! When was that?’ I asked. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Alla fine dell’Ottocento.’ At the end of the 1800’s.
Later, when I went over my notes, I saw that I had forgotten, or in the pile of research I had accumulated, had totally missed one not so little detail. The villa and underground garden room had indeed been discovered in the 1870’s, and – here’s the detail – in order to preserve the obviously invaluable frescoes, they had immediately been removed and taken to a studio where they had undergone extensive cleaning and restoration. They are now on display again in the recently opened Palazzo Massimo.
It was time to leave Trastevere. The closest bridge was Ponte Sant’Angelo.
As much as Hadrian loved spending time at his countryside retreat, Villa Adriana, he was well aware that the more fitting place for an Emperor such as himself to be buried was Rome. Since the mausoleum he had in mind was on the north side of the Tiber, he commissioned a bridge, Pons Aelius (Aelius was his family name) to connect it to the city.
A few centuries later, an archangel appeared on top of Hadrian’s mausoleum. Since angels trump emperors, the bridge was renamed Ponte Sant’Angelo. (Bridge of the Sacred Angel)
And a few centuries after that, the angels along the bridge were added. They are rather lovely angels. Incongruously lovely, given that they hold the symbols of the Crucifixion.
I turned around for one last look at Rome’s ‘other side’ and then, in the gathering dusk, headed back to Campo dei Fiori.