Archive for June, 2011

All menus lead to Rome

Ultimately, we did visit the amazing museums at Vatican City—and here’s our sneaked photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling to prove it. (Yeah, like we were the only ones….) But we have to admit that we were originally waylaid by Rome’s greatest gourmet food shop. And who could blame us? Gastronomy is Italy’s other art. Or maybe its other religion.

When we’d finished eating lunch at Franchi (see previous post), we decided that it was a good time to stop in at Castroni (Via Cola di Rienzo 196, Tel: 06-68-74-383, www.castronicoladirienzo.it, open Mon-Sat 8am-8pm), reasoning that since we were already stuffed, we would be immune to the lures of the merchandise. It was only next door, and we’d still have plenty of time to get back to the Vatican.


The legend over the door reads Castroni Droghe Coloniali, but like some pop stars, the place is famous enough to go by a single moniker. And Castroni is indeed a name to conjure with. Since 1932 the flagship store in the Prati district east of the Vatican has proved that all gastronomic roads lead to Rome. On seeing the walls lined 15 feet high with gourmet goodies, David pleaded, “Do we have to go to the Sistine Chapel today?” Pat gave in, and we postponed the museum trip by a day.

Many ex-pats swear by Castroni for the tastes of home—the full line of Twinings teas, for example, or a broad range of Fauchon products from Paris, or good smoked Spanish paprika. But all the flavors of Italy also find their way to this wonderful shop. This year is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, and while north and south, right and left seem no closer to real unity than they have been since the days of Vittorio Emanuele II himself, Castroni brings all the regions together for a gastronomic love fest.

There’s a modest bar with some casual food, so it’s possible to pop in for lunch and then to spend an afternoon just shopping. (Or drooling.) Bins hold virtually every variety of dried bean or chickpea grown anywhere on the peninsula. The store’s own brand of dry pastas include bags with mixed Roman monuments (maybe the ultimate gastronomic souvenir), and Castroni’s own coffee (whole bean or ground) makes an authentic-tasting Roman espresso—dark and syrupy with some high, almost lemony notes that suggest a lot of East African coffees in the blend. If you find the flavor addictive, the shop also sells a coffee concentrate passed off as an energy drink.

Had we demonstrated the foresight to bring an empty suitcase from home, we would have stocked up on all kinds of goodies that U.S. Customs would let us bring in, including the dazzling array of pestos from Abruzzo made of ripe Leccino olives, of asparagus, or of radicchio. Just add hot pasta and you have a stupendous meal. We also would have loaded up on duck liver and orange pâtés and the jars of small green peppers stuffed with duck liver mousse, not to mention hot-pepper-inspired salsas from Sicily and white truffle and porcini salsas from Umbria.

But since we were traveling light, we limited ourselves to squeeze tubes of tomato paste, mushroom cream, black olive puree, and mixed vegetables. (A squirt of the mixed vegetables paste into chicken broth makes it taste like minestrone.) We find them amazingly versatile in the kitchen, allowing us to add a dollop to eggs, salad dressing, soup, or a sauce to shade the flavor one way or another. (They also make great gifts for friends who cook.) In fact, the only thing we expected to find at Castroni but didn’t were the truffle products of Acqualagna in Le Marche, where the local motto is ”truffles all year long.” More on that next time….

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06 2011

Bites worth standing for

It’s easy to get a good, quick lunch in Rome. Usually we opt for a couple of slices of pizza in whatever pizzeria is closest when we’re hungry. But for even more variety, we sometimes head to a tavola calda—an amazing array of hot and cold dishes ordered at a counter, served up quickly and almost always eaten standing up. One of the best in Rome is found at Franchi (Via Cola di Rienzo 200, tel. 06-68-74-651, www.franchi.it.), which is also one of the city’s most extravagant alimentari (local food stores).

Outside of meal time, this is the spot in the Prati neighborhood to buy sliced cold cuts, cheese, and cooked dishes to take home for dinner. But at lunchtime, the shop is swarmed with office workers (including those from the nearby Prati courthouse) who order from the daily selection of dishes on the tavola calda. The chefs are known for their arancini: breaded and fried balls of risotto drooling with mozzarella inside. But they also make other good things, such as a cold rice salad studded with shrimp and layered with slices of cured salmon, deep-fried cod fillets, oven-roasted vegetables drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, creamy pools of polenta and melted cheese, manicotti….

The scene is a bit chaotic. You place your order, return to the cashier to pay, grab a tray and wait for your food, then hope you can score a tall table or bit of counter space to balance your food while you eat standing up. (Be careful who you elbow aside—the courthouse guards are packing.) Our last visit was a reward for shuffling in the long and pointless lines to visit St. Peter’s. We needed the break before plunging into the crowds at the Vatican museums. The rice balls did not disappoint, the slice of lasagna was as good as any we’ve eaten in a white linen dining room, and the slab of polenta was rich and cheesy.

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06 2011