Archive for April, 2011

Learning Roman pastas (#1)

Much as we love Trastevere and its restaurants, one of our other favorite eating establishments is right on one of Rome’s most tourist-thronged plazas—just the type of location that we usually avoid at meal time. But when we stopped for coffee one morning at Ristorante-Caffè di Rienzo (Piazza del Pantheon 8/9, 06-686-9097, www.ristorantedirienzo.it), we struck up a conversation with Marianna Di Rienzo, whose father opened the restaurant in 1952. She even invited us to come back at dinner time so that the chef could show us how to prepare some classic Roman pasta dishes.

Chef Alessandro Sillani has been with Di Rienzo for 15 years. When we returned around 6 p.m., he and his assistant Tsatsu Nicholas Awuku were not even breaking a sweat sending out dishes to early diners. They decided to demonstrate two of the simplest, but to our minds, most delicious of Roman preparations, cacio e pepe (or cheese and pepper), and amatriciana (tomato and lardons of cured pork cheek). They made both with the thick tubular pasta with a tiny hole in the middle called bucatini. In fact, the restaurant uses Barilla dried pasta, widely available in the U.S. The specific size that seems to be used all over Rome is Bucatini No. 9. Like many restaurants that serve a lot of pasta, Di Rienzo had converted deep-fry vats to boil salted water. The chefs could simply toss the portions of dried pasta into the fryer baskets, lifting and draining in a single motion when the pasta was al dente.

Awuku handled the cacio e pepe. He melted a gob of butter in a skillet, then mixed grated Pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper together in a stainless steel bowl. He poured in the melted butter, mixed well and checked the consistency. When it seemed a little dry, he added a drizzle of olive oil. Once the pasta was al dente (Romans prefer their pasta very firm), he added the hot pasta to the cheese mixture and tossed to coat. He twisted the unruly and springy pasta very tightly to form a nest, transferred it to a plate and then sprinkled on more cheese.

We ate our pastas at an outdoor table, looking at the classic facade of the Pantheon and listening to jazz being played by street musicians. It could not have been more charming, or, for that matter, romantic. And the pasta was delicious. We supplemented our meal with white wine and the superb breads and gelati that Di Rienzo makes in-house. It was humbling lesson that sometimes you can even get a terrific meal on the square with a tourist attraction.

BUCATINI CACIO E PEPE
We have adjusted this recipe to serve four as a pasta course or two as a main course.

Ingredients

1 lb. bucatini
1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons butter
olive oil as needed
extra Pecorino Romano to taste

Directions

1. Cook pasta about 10 minutes in salted water.

2. While pasta is cooking, combine black pepper and grated cheese. Melt butter and add to cheese mixture, stirring well to combine. Add olive oil as needed to create a thick cheese sauce.

3. When pasta is cooked firm, drain and add to bowl of cheese sauce. Toss to coat.

4. Place on plate with large fork, twisting mixture tightly. Add extra cheese to taste.

30

04 2011

We love Roma in the springtime…

The point of this blog is to discover food that we enjoy when we are traveling and to learn enough about it that we can recreate the flavors at home. But we have learned that some dishes are so special at a particular time and a particular place that we have to enjoy them on the spot and not worry about bringing them home. The best place to spot these seasonal specialties is often the fresh food market. Since we were in Rome in early April, all the vegetable stalls at Trastevere’s daily morning market in Piazza San Cosimato were overflowing with beautiful globe artichokes. It meant that the season was perfect to try carciofi alla giudia, the traditional fried whole artichokes made famous in Rome’s Jewish ghetto.

There are a lot of terrific eateries in the Trastevere neighborhood, and, as it turned out, artists recommended the two that we liked best. The glass artists at Studio Forme (via di Santa Cecilia 30B, www.vetriforme.com) told us that we could get a ”real Roman meal” at Trattoria da Teo (Piazza Ponziani 7A, 06-581-8355). We stopped by late one morning to investigate. The staff was busily prepping dishes for both lunch and dinner but happily invited us into the kitchen to see. Not only did they have nothing to hide, they were proud of the quality of their ingredients. One young man out front was patiently stuffing zucchini flowers (fiori di zucca) with cheese and anchovies. Later they would be dipped in batter and deep-fried. Others in the back were cutting tuna steaks and trimming beautiful artichokes.

We were skeptical that we would need a reservation at this out-of-the-way trattoria, but we went ahead and made one. When we returned at our appointed hour, the street was filled with eager would-be diners. Anyone who lacked a reservation was turned away as every table in the small dining room and smaller patio filled immediately. Once we were seated a few waiters hastily took everyone’s orders – the menus were superfluous. Everyone largely ordered whatever was special that night. Antipasti began flowing out of the kitchen, soon followed by pasta plates, with our white-shirted waiter holding them over his head as he wiggled his hips through the crowds. The wine list, by the way, was studded with little gems. We stuck with a superb, well-rounded verdicchio from Le Marche. And we could resist neither the stuffed zucchini flowers nor carciofi alla giuda.

The other excellent recommendation came from Sara Fradiani (www.filogiro.com), a jewelry artist we met at a pop-up store. She excitedly claimed that the best spaghetti carbonara in Rome is served at Antica Osteria Ponte Sisto (Via di Ponte Sisto 8, 06-588-3411), just at the end of the Sisto bridge over the Tiber. Utterly charming and old-fashioned, Ponte Sisto proved as good as she had suggested, with classically robust Roman pastas and a good wine list of reasonably priced bottles. Because it has outdoor seating just steps from the river, it attracts as many tourists as locals, but neither the menu nor the prices seem slated to capitalize on that.

And about those artichokes: Carciofi alla giudia include a large portion of the artichoke stem, which has an especially earthy flavor that is a nice contrast to the sweetness of the choke itself and the crispy potato-chip-like crunch of the fried leaves. They are a tasty treat, but the flavors would go murky if the artichokes were not perfectly fresh and deep-fried at a high temperature. So we will leave the preparation to the trattorie and osterie of Roma in the springtime.

24

04 2011

Roman holiday

With a chance to spend a week in Rome, we decided to book an apartment so we could live more like Romans than transients. A recommendation in the guidebook Pauline Frommer’s Italy led us to Worldwide Accommodations, where we found an apartment in Trastevere, the 13th century neighborhood across the Tiber from the Jewish Ghetto and the ruins of ancient Rome. Overlooked by the 19th and 20th century modernization of the centro storico, most of Trastevere remains a colorful and intimate place stretched out between the Gothic churches of Santa Cecilia and Santa Maria in Trastevere.

Adding to that neighborly feeling, our landlady Carla Conti welcomed us with a simple tube cake that became breakfast for the week when we topped pieces with sliced fresh strawberries and blood orange segments that we purchased at the morning market in Piazza San Cosimato. When we left, she even gave us the recipe (see below).

We enjoyed the cozy apartment with a spacious bedroom, a modern bath, a pleasant sitting room, and a compact but functional kitchen. The neighborhood was so full of good trattorie and osterie that we never did get around to cooking dinner, but we did make breakfast. More to come on some of our favorite restaurants and recipes for typical Roman dishes.

CARLA CONTI’S HEALTHY ROMAN CAKE
Carla makes this simple cake as a welcome gift for renters in her Trastevere apartment. Her version comes out as a large, slender ring. Since that kind of pan is hard to find in the U.S., we decided to cut the recipe in half and use a small (6.5 inch) Bundt pan. Like most cakes and pastries, this one works best if you weigh the ingredients rather than relying on volume measurements. Because it uses vegetable oil and yogurt, Carla calls it a ”healthy” cake – but she often drizzles it with chocolate fondant to make a more decadent dessert.

Ingredients

115 grams white flour
8 grams baking powder
2 small eggs
125 grams superfine sugar
60 grams vegetable oil
75 grams yogurt (plain or fruit)

Directions

1. Heat oven to 350F. Grease and flour small Bundt pan.

2. Sift together flour and baking powder. Set aside.

3. In medium bowl, beat eggs until frothy. Beat in sugar, a little at a time to make sure it dissolves. With mixer running, add vegetable oil and beat until mixture takes on consistency of soft mayonnaise.

4. Add alternating portions of flour mixture and yogurt, beating well after each addition. Pour mixture into Bundt pan. Bake 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted into cake comes out clean.

5. Cool on rack for five minutes. Remove from pan and let cool completely. Slice and serve with fresh berries.

19

04 2011

Off to the races at Keeneland


I was a little surprised when my friend Patti told me that I should wear a skirt or dress, or at least a nice pantsuit, when we went to the thoroughbred races at Keeneland (www.keeneland.com). But Patti knows that my travel wardrobe consists mainly of black jeans and white blouses – not a bad look if I do say so myself, but definitely not the right thing for Lexington, Kentucky’s National Historic Landmark track. (Hats, by the way, are optional.) Keeneland, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, was founded in 1936 to serve as an elegant showcase for the Bluegrass thoroughbred horse industry. Live races are held only twice a year (this year April 8-29 and October 7-29) and are quite an event. Keeneland is especially stunning in the spring when the dogwood, magnolia and redbud trees are in bloom.

We could have gone more casual if we opted for general admission, but we wanted to make a day of it with a buffet lunch in one of the rooms overlooking the grandstand. Between visits to the buffet line for cheeses and salads, roast beef, roast chicken, and several pasta dishes, we pondered our bets and then rushed out to an open balcony to cheer on our horses as they sped around the 1 1/16-mile oval track. We also wandered out to the paddock area where horses warm up and seasoned handicappers can make a final assessment of horse and jockey before placing their bets. “Bet on the horse that finishes first,” someone told me with a laugh. I didn’t have much luck with my $2 bets, but I did secure the recipe for Keeneland’s signature Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce. And that’s a winner.

KEENELAND BREAD PUDDING WITH MAKER’S MARK BOURBON SAUCE

This recipe is included in Keeneland Entertains: Traditional Bluegrass Hospitality and Favorite Recipes, Fran Taylor’s cookbook tribute to Keeneland’s 75th anniversary. I have kept Fran’s original format and size—big enough to serve a race weekend party.

Serves: 10 to 12

BREAD PUDDING

2 quarts milk
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
8 eggs beaten
2-3 quarts cubed white bread (or Sister Schubert rolls)
1 cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Whisk sugar into milk until dissolved. Add eggs, vanilla and stir. Soak bread in mixture for several hours or overnight. Pour into Pyrex or stainless pan. Sprinkle with raisins and cinnamon and “push” into mix. Bake at 250 degrees for approximately 1 1/2 hours or until firm.

MAKER’S MARK BOURBON SAUCE

1 lb. butter
2 lb. powdered sugar
1 cup Maker’s Mark Bourbon

Let butter become soft at room temperature and add powdered sugar. Whip bourbon into mix until it makes a frosting consistency. Ladle sauce over hot bread pudding and it will melt on its own.

02

04 2011