I took the kid to Italy for his thirteenth birthday; we just got back a few days ago. I realized when we arrived in Rome that it had been fifteen years since I was last there, an inconceivably long time given the crucial part Italy played in forming who I became artistically and culinarily. The visual influences became apparent immediately in my paintings, and that continued until I left figuration behind entirely a few years later. The culinary influence proved to be even more durable, and increased in importance as I began growing and cooking food all the time when we left Brooklyn for the country. Now that I write about food for a living, the Italian approach to ingredients—the simplicity, the honesty, the glorification of peasant frugality—remains one of my touchstones.
Penne all’arrabbiata was the first dish I learned to cook after I moved there; I reverse engineered it after eating it at a restaurant—Al Pompiere—which is still there behind the RISD building, and still good. Carciofi alla Romana was another dish I became obsessed with, thanks in large part to Sora Margherita, on the same block, and quickly mastered my own version. Artichokes remain one of my guilty vegetable pleasures that I allow myself to buy in the winter when all the homegrown produce is either frozen or fermented. Our first stop upon arriving in Rome was Sora Margherita for lunch. It’s still fully legit and they even had carciofi alla Giudia (the fried version) on the menu in late August because they buy artichokes from Brittany when the local ones are done for the season.
We each had an artichoke, and a zucchini flower (very much in season; they were on menus throughout the trip) and then some pasta: he fettucine al pomodoro e basilico, and I bucatini all’amatriciana. Jet-lagged and a little dazed, he didn’t finish his. The waitress marched over and fed him a few more bites until she was satisfied. “Welcome to Italy,” I said to him. Overall, the food on our two-week tour—Rome, Siena, Modena, Gubbio, Rome—ranged from very good to excellent. It’s hard to get truly terrible food in Italy, especially if you avoid eating within a few blocks of any major monument or tourist attraction. But I don’t want to recount all the meals.
I do want to talk about one, though. I started this blog in early 2006, way back in the prehistoric era of food blogging. I didn’t get serious about reading and engaging with others until a couple of years later. One of my favorites, once I discovered it, was this nifty outfit. Apart from living in my favorite foreign city, Rachel also wrote beautifully and honestly about her culinary endeavors. We became friends, as I did with some other talented writers, and left each other comments regularly. Remember comments? Those were fun. Nothing compared to mashing a “like” button or double-tapping a photo, but still pretty nice, what with the actual words and all.
So, during the lead-up to this trip, I told her we were coming to town. Plans were made. They would be in Sicily for our first Rome segment, but back for our last three days. She booked a friend’s kitchen studio in Trastevere so we’d have room to cook and good light to shoot by. She bought groceries. Her Guardian column for the week was to be about the arancini she had in Sicily, where Alessandro Pace has elevated them to an extraordinary level. Apart from that, though, she said we should just cook, and then eat. (Drinking occurred during both cooking and eating).
She’s fresh off celebrating the release of her second book, Two Kitchens. Her first, available in these United States as My Kitchen in Rome, is essential reading for anyone looking to understand the particularities of Rome’s deceptively simple cuisine. In Baroque painting—appropriately, since apart from the ancient ruins Rome is largely a Baroque town—there is often a portrait of the donor who commissioned the work in the foreground, facing the action, turned partly away from you. This figure was meant to represent the viewer, allowing you to feel as if you were part of the story by imagining yourself in his place. Rachel writes like that; her dual status as a fluent local and wide-eyed outsider make her a perfect stand-in for her readers as she explores the Eternal City and its food.
I made her a couple of things with peppers: one sweet, one hot. You’ll be able to read about them when she writes them up in the Guardian down the road a piece. We collaborated on some pasta e fagioli, using beautiful borlotti beans from the Testaccio market, which I put on the stove to simmer while she ran out and grabbed a few more ingredients. When she got back, she made a quick pasta dough and once it rested she had Milo run it through the machine, a job he excelled at because he’s been doing it at home for years now. (Child labor for the win.) She had me cut the sheets of pasta, deep yellow from the wonderful eggs, into maltagliati.
I don’t have any beauty shots of the finished product, though I did Instagram one in all of its dun-colored glory. But it’s not meant to be a beautiful dish, merely a highly nutritious and filling one that is very good to eat. Which it was. I did shoot a picture of tonight’s dinner, which while not exactly traditional did serve as an homage to this part of the trip. It all began with scant half a box of pasta: not enough to feed all three of us without some serious adulteration. With our Roman feast in mind, I soaked some of the dragon’s tongue beans remaining from last year. I also cut a head of escarole because we’ve been digging various permutations of cicoria ripassata since our return. Some fat lardons of the homemade miso-cured bacon, the beans, shallot, garlic, and herbs (all homegrown) and a couple of ice cubes of the sungold tomato water-parmigiano rind stock I made before we left made a pretty skippy sauce for escarole blanched in the pasta water and the pasta itself. And the September twilight added some seasonal mood lighting.
Our time together could not have been more fun—a perfect conclusion to a memorable trip. You can read Rachel’s Guardian piece about Alessandro’s arancini, complete with recipe, here. If you’re not following her on all the social medias, you should be. And buy her books. Seriously. In an age of over-hyped everything, honesty, sincerity, and above all skill are worth celebrating.