There is a belief among academics, chefs and generally cultured people that the Europeans are far more civilized than their American counterparts. I find this to be true in many waysâ€” in the elegant dress of women, in the lack of beer bellies on men, in the central role played by wine at the table and in the general acceptance of policies like the Geneva Convention rules and the Kyoto protocols. But if there is one area where all semblance of civilization falls away it is in the football arena. And by football, I mean soccer.
Honey Roasted Peanut and I were lucky enough to learn this firsthand when we attended the Lazio vs. Rome game. Lazio is the region where Rome resides, making this a rivalry amounting to civil war. We sat on the Lazio side (the northern curve) because H.R. Peanut’s English student is a season subscriber and secured us the tickets. The curves are where all the die-hard fans sit, which we found out as soon as we came in. No one was sitting throughout the entirety of the game. The small bucket seats were used as a platform for seeing over the crowd, for singing, shouting insults and waving one’s colored scarf. They also served as launch pads for smoke bombs and other objects thrown to protest a controversial call.
Lazio was expected to lose, but that was not to be. When the first goal came, the crowd rushed forward, with each fan throwing himself on the person in front of him. H.R. Peanut and I were sure we would be crushed to death but were relieved to find ourselves still in one piece. After that we secretly prayed for no more goals. Lazio ended up winning the game 3-0.
With a bottle of house wine on the table, things gradually began to move back toward civilization when we went out to dinner with H.R. Peanut’s student and another Italian friend of his after the game. We went to La Montecarlo, a typical Roman pizzeria well loved by these fine young men for its large servings of pasta. They ordered pasta, and H.R. Peanut and I stuck to pizza.
As a starter we had another Roman specialty, frito misto. This consisted of a platter filled with fried things, including my favorite, the deep fried zucchini flower, stuffed with an anchovy fillet. Other deep fried items included mozzarella, olives, potatoes and a tomato rice mixture. These were all good in that bad for you fried kind of way, but I couldn’t help thinking they tasted a little like jalapeÃ±o poppers.
I ordered the capricciosa pizza, which arrived looking positively beautiful with artichoke, mushrooms, sausage and a fried egg in the middle. Many people (including H.R. Peanut) look askance at the thought of egg on a pizza, but when you taste it, nothing seems more natural. The crust soaks up the slightly runny yolk, the flavor balances the tangy artichoke, the earthy mushrooms and the spicy sausage, and the entire combination looks stunning.
I went to the neighborhood of Trastevere (“tras” or “across” the “Tevere” or “Tiber”) with H.R. Peanut the next day. The quaint, winding streets, hip stores and beautiful old buildings of Trastevere instantly won me over, and they also yielded some of the best pistachio gelato I’ve ever tasted. This delicious treat came from Checco er Carrettiere, a well-known bakery and gelateria in the neighborhood. My other flavorâ€”there are always at least twoâ€” was boccio, a chocolate and nut mixture. The word means “kiss” in Italian, but it is also the name of a popular Italian candy bar, which is the inspiration for the flavor. I wasn’t as excited about this one because the chocolate flavor was dominated by a very concentrated nut flavor, probably hazelnut or walnut extract.
I left Rome early the next morning and took at train and a bus to the Tuscan town of Siena. After settling in at a nearby hotel, I sought out a promising place for a late lunch. I ended up at La Cantina dei Tolomei, a beautiful little gourmet shop, selling typical Tuscan wines and foods. It had a paninni counter with a wide selection of meats and cheeses that made my mouth water. The man behind the counter was very friendly and spoke English well. When I hesitated with my order, he helped me out by suggesting what he considered to be the supremely Tuscan combination.
This consisted of Tuscan prosciutto, which is drier and less sweet than the more common prosciutto di Parma, and fresh pecorino. I had never known that fresh pecorino existed, let alone tried it before. The cheese was full of flavor without the characteristic palate-coating, salty, dryness that characterizes the aged variety. The sandwich was a great success, as was the pleasant Chianti recommended to me by my friendly advisor behind the counter.
He also let me sample three kinds of panforte, a Tuscan fruitcake, which comes in three different varieties, and a glass of Vin Santo, a delicious dessert wine, also a specialty of the region. I bought a small Margherita panforte and a bottle of Vin Santo to take home and share with Empanada Boy. (I was missing him quite a bit by then and kept thinking how much he would enjoy the foods I tasted.)
Despite the fact that my head and palate were cloudy from a bad sinus infection, I was determined to try a typical Tuscan meal. I asked my friend at La Cantina dei Tolomei for a recommendation. He suggested I try the restaurants in the Piazza del Mercato, just behind the famous sloping, brick-lined Piazza del Campo.
There were two restaurants in that piazza, one nearly empty and one filled with people. Abiding by a tried and true Mango Lassie rule, I picked the one filled with people, including a large Sienese family gathering. I was seated in a heated tent outside the restaurant, called Trattoria Papei.
I was lucky enough again to receive assistance from a helpful, English-speaking waiter who guided my choices toward the most typical Tuscan options. I started with a glass of house wineâ€”priced based on the percentage of the bottle I drankâ€”and some Tuscan bread. Tuscan bread is made without any salt, ostensibly because there was a high tax on salt in the region a few centuries ago. A old New York Times article I read on the subject found that to be something of a myth, preferring the explanation that highly seasoned Tuscan food is better complemented by unsalted bread. My opinion, and that of many Italians from other regions, is that the Tuscans should get over their silly tradition and start adding salt because their bland, yeasty bread suffers terribly. Luckily the waiter brought extra salt and olive oil, which improved things a bit.
My first course was the Tuscan vegetable and bread soup called ribollita. I selected this dish of my own accord, and the waiter applauded my choice. The warm, thick stew was made with white beans, carrots, celery, garlic, escarole, tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and that same Tuscan bread. The waiter instructed me to pour a stream of olive oil on top. It was the perfect thing for my aching head and stuffy nose.
Next I bit the bullet and tried the tripe, prepared in the typical Sienese way. It is blanched and boiled and covered with a sauce made from onion, basil, carrot and celery. Parmesan cheese is traditional sprinkled on top. Empanada Boy is usually the one to order any dishes containing offal because he is very adventurous about such things. But he was not there to order it and give me a bite, so it was up to me. The only other times I had tried tripe were in Vietnamese pho and in Mexican preparations. In both cases it was rubbery to the point of being hard to swallow. In this case, however, it was tender and soft, with a texture coming down somewhere between meat and pasta.
I wasnâ€™t going to have dessert because I felt ready for some NyQuil and bed, but the waiter insisted he had something I needed to try. He brought me a glass of Vin Santo and some of the little almond biscotti called cantucci. The tradition is to dip the cantucci into the Vin Santo and let it soak up some of the sweet, fragrant wine before taking a bite. It was a refreshing and delicious way to end the meal.
My guidebook called Nannini “a Sienese institution.” And when I looked through the window at the elegant wooden bar and the rows of beautiful pastries. I decided it was the place to go for my morning cappuccino. The place was crowded with locals who had stopped in on their way to work. Most stood at the bar sipping espresso and sampling one of the delicious flaky treats. I ordered a pretty egg bread twist which had raisins in it, and, after discretely photographing it, joined the chatting crowd at the bar.
I loved Nannini so much I decided to return for an aperitivo that evening. The bakery was just as packed as it had been earlier that morning, but this time the crowd included teenagers going out to a party and couples dressed for dinner. I ordered a glass of red wine and snacked on nuts, little egg sandwiches, tuna toasts and cruditÃ©s. The aperitivo wasn’t the making dinner unnecessary. I met two guys from Austin, Texas there, and we chatted and compared notes about our travels.
I had another delicious and humongous sandwich at Antica Pizzicheria a salumeria that has been in existence since 1889. It is now run by Miccoli Antonio and guidebooks continue to laud it for its excellent meats and cheeses. The place was beautiful to look at with a huge variety of products in the windows and glass cases, but I found the servers behind the counter to be a little surly and ungracious. There was also an annoying sign inside the shop that said “No photos please.”
After two days and nights in Siena, I took a day trip to the nearby town of San Gimignano. Like Siena, the town is famous for its many towers and its Gothic Cathedral. Unlike Siena, it is the only region in Italy with a D.O.C.G. (higher than the regular government regulated production area) status for growing and producing wine from the vernaccia grape. Unfortunately, the Museo di Vino Vernaccia was closed for the winter, but I did enjoy a nice taste of the simple, herbal white wine at a bar in town. I bought a bottle to bring back to Rome for Honey Roasted Peanut and a bottle to bring to Empanada Boy.
A raging tourist town in the summertime, San Gimignano’s main drag has a number of little gourmet shops with wine, olive oil and Tuscan products. I stopped in at a salumeria called Mari dal 1920 for a pannini with Tuscan salami and more of that tasty pecorino fresco. It came on a beautiful, but somewhat cardboard-esque round of salt-free Tuscan bread. I sat on the edge of the city wall and looked out over the countryside as I ate.
Back in Rome the next day H.R. Peanut took me to lunch at Cul-de-sac, the city’s oldest or wine bar. The tome of a wine list could be used for weight lifting. I scanned through the menu and consulted H.R. Peanut’s deeper knowledge of Italian wine before ordering a glass of a powerful nero di troia from Puglia.
We started our meal with a succulent wild boar pate. The edges of the pate loaf were tinged with a barely sweetened chocolate, giving the whole dish addition earthy depth. We ate the pate on little crusty toasts and soft pieces of the regular loaf, which was a beautiful thing after Tuscan bread.
We decided to continue in the antipasto vein for the rest of our lunch, feasting on a rich, brie-like olive-oil soaked cheese with paprika and a hard cheese with red rind from being cured in wine. Alongside the cheeses were two kinds of meat, one a spicy salami and the other a softer smooth sausage. This was one of the most satisfying meals I had in Rome.
Continuing in the theme of wine, H.R. Peanut and I trekked over Enoteca Constantini Piero, a wine store that verges on museum status. The top floor is filled with fancy liquors, and the rooms of basement shelves house wines from every region of Italy and many wines from other parts of the world. It is rare to find anything but Italian wines in stores here, so this was particularly notable.
We also wound through the streets near Piazza Navona until we found Giolitti, famous bakery and gelateria. This was to be my last gelato in Italy, a fact which I suspected at the time. Luckily, I went out on a limb and ordered date and pine nut flavored gelatos on a cone. H.R. Peanut demanded that I try some whipped fresh cream, despite my protestations. It was good, of course, but I felt it crowded the fresh flavors of the gelato, so I threw some of it away.
My last full day in Italy was spent at the height of gastronomic pleasure. I was lucky enough to get the chance to accompany H.R. Peanut’s sommelier class on a field trip to Castello delle Regine, a vineyard and winery in Umbria.
First our large tour bus dropped us off at the vineyard, and one of the men in charge of growing and harvesting the grapes (mostly syrah) spoke to everyone about the process. I picked up on a good deal of what he was saying about the importance of pruning and soil, and H.R. Peanut filled me in on the rest.
Next we toured the winery, viewing the steel fermentation tanks used to make the wine and the French oak barrels used to age it. The winery was freezing cold, and the owner kind of blabbed on and on in muffled voice to no one in particular, so H.R. Peanut and I were itching to taste some wine.
Finally the bus took us to the winery’s tasting room and restaurant where we sampled three wines of varying quality and explored their current profiles and potential for aging. After the tasting, we were hungry and in need of something to soak up the alcohol. The winery treated us to a lunch of bread, pasta with wild boar sauce (a typical Umbrian ingredient), thin strips of roast beef and roasted vegetables. We were tired and happy as we made our way back to Rome.
My final evening in Rome had to be spent it style, and the Said dal 1923: antica fabbrica di cioccolato was just the ticket. A longtime chocolate factory in San Lorenzo, the place has recently become a restaurant and cafe as well. The chocolate is still sold out front, but the back has a bar and tables that can be enclosed in the winter or exposed to the air in summer. All of the chocolate molds hang as decoration on the wall behind the bar, and there are cozy book-lined shelves and comfortable couches.
H.R. Peanut, Melanzane and I went there for aperitivi and met a few of their Italian friends. I started with a nice glass of prosecco, Italian sparkling wine. For the price of the glass, I got a wonderful plate of food, including polenta, curried chicken, phyllo spinach rolls and much more. After that we ordered a bottle of wine, which held out well until the chocolate delicacies were put out for dessert.
Said makes a wide variety of its own chocolates and truffles. After stuffing ourselves so full of chocolate aperitivi that we were sure we would burst, one of the owners, something of a dirty old man, offered us free samples of ricotta-filled truffles. Under any other circumstances, I would gladly devour such a treat, but it was all I could do to force it down my throat. H.R. Peanut and I bought fizzy water to settle our chocolate and wine beleaguered stomachs. Still, chocolate and wine are on the short list of my favorite things about life, and it was a great way to finish the trip.
Ciao, Roma! I’ll be back soon.
Viccolo Savelli, 13
+39 06 686 1877
Checco er Carrettiere
Via Benedetta, 7
+39 06 58 11413
La Cantina dei Tolomei
Via Banchi di Sopra, 29
+39 0577 221065
Piazza del Mercato, 6
+39 0577 280894
Via Banchi di Sopra, 24
+39 0577 236009
Antica Pizzicheria Chigiana de Miccoli Antonio
Via di Citta,’ 93
+39 0577 289164
Mari dal 1920
Via San Giovanni, 12
Piazza Pasquino, 73
+39 06 688 01094
Enoteca Constantini Piero
Piazza Cavour, 16-16B
+39 06 3203575
Via Uffici del Vicario, 40
+39 06 699 1243
Castello delle Regine
Strada di Castelluccio Amerino
LocalitÃ Le Regine
+39 0744 702005
Said dal 1923
Via Tiburtina, 135
+39 0644 69204