WHEN IN ROME IV

With my wife I had in the previous three days seen a lot of ancient Rome’s history and architecture. Not just that, we had eaten our way through Rome thanks to the great Anthony Bourdain. All of our big meals were had in places situated far away from the touristic hubbub and frequented by locals. You can read more about them here: http://eatsiprepeat.com/when-in-rome-i/, http://eatsiprepeat.com/when-in-rome-ii/, http://eatsiprepeat.com/when-in-rome-iii/. But we had saved the best for the last.

On our fourth day we had another typical Italian breakfast of cornetto and caffe and a sweet bread of some sort and set out for the Foro Romano (Roman Forum). Thankfully, luck was on our side and it was a bright and sunny but relatively cool day. Since we were in a laid back state of mind the thirty minute walk from our hotel to the Forum got extended to a three hour stroll dotted with caffe and gelato breaks.

The sprawling ruins of the Foro Romano.

Entering the Forum and walking on the same surface as some of Rome’s high and mighty emperors like Julius Caesar and Nero was an experience that we cherish till this day. To have stood on those ancient cobblestone pathways and the same slabs of marble on which only time had left its mark feels surreal even today. The Forum being thousands and thousands of years old had rendered some parts inaccessible but many of the monuments, temples, shrines and other well preserved antiquities seemed timeless. Some of the artefacts and buildings drew gasps of awe from many a people. The Arch of Titus, the temple of Romolo and the church of Santa Maria were some of the ruins that existed in a much better condition than the others. We took our own sweet time in the vast sprawl of ruins and by the time we had walked up to the Pallatine Hill it was almost dusk. Like the rest of the day we took it easy and soaked in the amazing 360˚ views from the hilltop. We left the Foro Romano using Rome’s oldest thoroughfare the Via Sacra ending up right in front of the Arch of Constantine by the Coloseo.

The Arch of Titus.
The view from the Pallatine Hill.

Betto E Mary
After 70 minutes in public transports and a twenty odd minute walk we reached Betto E Mary. Our first impression from the outside brought us disappointment. The entire trattoria had a deserted look with the chairs upturned on the tables, not a soul around the place. Would it be the second Bourdain visited eatery that we would find closed? But on my wife’s insistence we stepped in to inquire and were relieved to be greeted in broken English by an all in one chef, maître d and usher clad in dishevelled attire and a stained apron with a pen and notepad in a makeshift pocket. We were taken all the way to the back of the trattoria into an open courtyard and seated at a rustic looking table with two benches on either side. I excitedly began looking forward to my meal while my wife expressed her apprehension about the same.

Most people think of pizza or pasta or both when they think of Italian food. While those maybe two of the most popular foods around the world Italian cuisine however, has much more to it. Gelatos, Panini sandwiches, fishes like anchovies, tuna and sardines, a huge variety of sausages and cured meats (think prosciutto), an equally huge variety of cheeses (Mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Fontina etc.), aromatic breads and even the popular risotto are just few of the easily available and widely consumed Italian foods. The story of my last meal in Rome though is of a food which has lost its popularity over the years but remains an integral part of Rome’s peasant style of food.

I discovered these pickled anchovies in one of the many trattorias in Rome.

The reason I write ‘my meal’ is because the wife had chosen not to go for what I had in mind. However, even I had no clue that I had a surprise in store for myself. When the friendly owner arrived and sat down by my side to explain their menu, they didn’t have a formal printed menu card, and how they cooked their dishes. I informed him clearly what I wanted to eat after hearing which he expressed surprise. I still remember him asking me, “My friend why do want to eat the tripes (the cow’s stomach) when I have better things on the menu?” When he saw that I was insistent he countered me with an even more heightened sense of insistence that he would bring me something better than tripes and that is when he surprised me by exclaiming he would get his signature Roma Mix, a platter which would contain not just tripes but also ox tail, veal tail, veal thyroid gland, lamb lungs, heart, liver, kidney, intestines and rectum. All of these he explained further would be grilled and then finished in herbs and sauces. Some of them would be cooked in fragrant rosemary and garlic sauce and some in a rich tomato sauce. And because I ordered the Roma Mix he said he would throw in a small jug of house red wine to go with my platter.

The adventure of the Roma Mix.

I am sure most of you are crunching up your nose in disgust and cringing as you read what I ate for dinner that night but I honestly enjoyed that meal as much as any other memorable meal that I have had in my life. Besides Tony Bourdain wrote in one of his books, “Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” The various textures of the offal and their respective flavours were nothing less than a ride in an amusement park. The tripes were chewy and rubbery having a floral aftertaste, the thyroid was a cross between a liver and a fleshy chunk of meat, the tails were like thin strips of meat on bone, the liver, lungs and kidney had their own distinct crumbly and mineral-y textures, the intestines were again chewy but unlike the tripes not rubbery and the rectum was soft and fleshy almost identical to the texture of a scallop. Only the heart was as close as it could get to being a piece of meat. The two sauces in which he finished the various meats were delicious to say the least.

As we finished our last meal in Rome and commenced our long journey back to our hotel we felt a twang of sorrow in our hearts. Our time in the eternal city of Rome that had given us memories and experiences to last a lifetime was finally over. Early next morning as we bought our cornettos and caffes and hopped on to the train that would take us to Napoli we concluded that Rome is where the heart is.

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WHEN IN ROME III

On our third day in Rome we woke up early and decided to go and join the queue at the Vatican. If you haven’t yet read about our previous two culinary adventures you may read them here http://eatsiprepeat.com/when-in-rome-i/ and here http://eatsiprepeat.com/when-in-rome-ii/ respectively. Enroute to the bus stop we grabbed another typical Italian breakfast of ‘cornetto’ and ‘caffe’. Thankfully, the queue was not a very long one and it seemed to be moving ahead at a relatively fast pace. The St. Mark’s Basilica was a bizarre mix of opulence and tranquillity abuzz with a constant humming sound that one comes to expect in a crowded place. After spending a good two hours looking around at various statues, crypts, sarcophagi, frescoes and tombs we were glad to exit the church to find a fountain gushing with cool and clear water. It was one of those moments when one realises the value of the smaller things of life. After quenching our thirst to our hearts’ desire we decided that the time was just right for a gelato.

When in Rome and if it’s the only thing you’ll eat, although why on Earth would anyone ever want to do that is beyond me, eat your weight in gelato. Most gelaterias have multiple options of cones to choose from but for us on most occasions the humble cup more than served our purpose. In Rome the gelaterias dole out really generous portions at a measly sum of €1. The cup was always so overfull that we could manage to squeeze it only after a relatively fair application of pressure. I could never have enough of the fruity flavours like watermelon, strawberry and fig but the best flavour according to me was definitely the lemon.

Two of my favourite flavours were the fragola (strawberry) and the limone (lemon).

So after a couple of gelatos each we decided on paying a visit to the hallowed Pantheon. Two evenings prior to this we had chanced upon the Pantheon and it was a sight to behold but it was closed at that point of time. This time though, it was morning and the sun was beating down hard which made the Pantheon’s cool interiors a source of immense relief to us. It is the best preserved of Rome’s ancient buildings. We learned this was because the building had been under constant use and still continues to be used as a Catholic church for Sunday masses and rare weddings. The most impressive things about the Pantheon are the oculus at the dome’s apex which is its only source of light and the drainage system below the building that handles all the rain water which the oculus lets in. This architectural marvel speaks volumes of the engineers and architects of ancient Rome.

The famous oculus of the Pantheon
The hallowed Pantheon.

I Porchettoni
By now lunch time was approaching and it also seemed like a good opportunity to use our Roma Travel Pass to get to I Porchettoni. Another of Mr. Anthony Bourdain’s suggestions, this place was situated in one of Rome’s less touristic neighbourhoods which was a bit of a distance away from its ancient centre and famous for its porchetta, one of Italy’s culinary wonders. A deboned whole pig with skin and fat intact is slow roasted on a spit for over eight hours. The result is mind boggling. The owner upon hearing that I was a big fan of Tony Bourdain invited me to sit at the very table that he had taken when he visited I Porchettoni. Although he told me that he offered Tony’s table to all his fans unless it was occupied I was elated to share that very table with my wife. The restaurant was a casual and rustic family run joint and they had been serving the same porchetta recipe for three generations.

Naturally I ordered for a portion of the porchetta and my wife not being a fan of fatty cuts of meats went with a dish of pasta. I was told and remembered from Anthony Bourdain’s show that the porchetta had been roasted overnight and would be served at room temperature with a hunk of fresh and hearty Italian bread. I ordered a Peroni the famous Italian beer to go with my meal. When the plate was set in front of me what stood apart firstly was the aroma of fresh fennel, rosemary and oregano. The next thing that amazed me after I took a bite was the crunch of the skin. It was almost as if I had bitten into a thick piece of potato crisp. And finally the meat itself could not cease to impress me. It was aromatic, tender and most importantly moist. I realized that even though the beer paired really well with the meal it was not really necessary to order one to go with the meat. The friendly owner told me with Italian pride that he sourced all his pork from a particular farm in a village that was an hour’s drive from Rome. There the pigs were treated almost like pets or members of the family and sows and piglets were rarely killed for meat. His team supervised by him slow roasted the pigs in the spit overnight using an age old family recipe. As we finished another memorable meal at Rome and prepared to leave the restaurant he showed me his photograph with the great Tony himself.

A classic Italian combination, porchetta with Peroni.

Tony once said, “Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.” I still wonder sometimes if sitting in a family run joint in a residential neighbourhood of Rome eating a wonderfully succculent pork dish while conversing with the passionate Italian owner made the porchetta taste even better.

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WHEN IN ROME II

By the first morning we had started to get a feel of the eternal city. Having reached Rome the previous afternoon, my wife and I had dined that evening at Trattoria Cacio e Pepe, a household name in Rome famous for their Cacio e Pepe. Cacio e Pepe simply means pepper and cheese. It is one of the simplest of simple pasta dish which comprises of spaghetti, pecorino cheese from Rome and freshly cracked black pepper. You can read more about that experience here: http://eatsiprepeat.com/when-in-rome-i/.

History is to be discovered in every nook and corner of Rome. We had already been to the Spanish Steps and the mighty Pantheon the previous evening and it was all due to an aimless walk. Without a plan and destination in mind we had set about on foot, walking past many beautiful ancient buildings and simply happened to chance upon the Spanish Steps and then the Pantheon. On the first morning we had a rough idea of what we wanted to see on that day and of course what we wanted to eat. A typical Italian breakfast in Rome comprises of a cornetto which is the Italian cousin of the French croissant, only softer and probably less butter-y, a rusk like bread or variations of typical Italian sweet breads and a coffee. My wife not being a big fan of the espresso went with a cappuccino or caffè latte. I on the other hand had the caffè Italiano, a shot of espresso with just a bit of sugar stirred into it to cut the bitterness. That is one of the thing I absolutely love about Italy; simply walk into a cafe and ask for uno caffè (one coffee) and without asking the barista puts a shot of espresso in front of you usually served with a tiny glass of water and a bowl of sugar. After our breakfast we hopped on to a bus that would stop near St. Mark’s Basilica, the seat of the Pope.

The crowd at the St. Marks square scared us off.

Upon reaching Vatican City the snaking queue managed to convince us in no time at all that we had to leave it for another day. We soon learned that it being a Wednesday the Pope himself had made his weekly public appearance on the balcony of St. Mark’s and we had missed that by a whisker. However, we left with no regrets at having missed the Pope given the sheer number of people that had gathered at the square. It was mutually decided that we would perhaps come back another day and gladly made our way to the Vittoriano.

The impressive Vittoriano.

The Vittorianno is a monument dedicated to the first king of Italy, King Vittorio Emanuele II. This monument apart from being interesting also provided us with much needed shelter from the sweltering heat. By the time we stepped outdoors again the sun had become a bit more oppressive but the first sighting of the majestic Coloseo (Colosseum) made it all bearable.

The first sighting of the legendary Colosseum from the top of the Vittoriano.

We wasted no time and made our way towards it. The closer we got the more surreal the immense ancient structure appeared. Thankfully, there was a really short queue which was moving rather swiftly and in a matter of minutes we were inside the very structure where once a lot of blood had flown. The more we saw and heard on our electronic audio guide the more gooseflesh we got. Despite all the brutality and cruelty that had transpired within the confines of the Colosseum, in the end for me personally, it was a dream come true.

Mesmerized and rendered speechless.
Man vs man, man vs animal and even animal vs animal fights were staged in this arena.

Pizzarium Bonci
By now it was rather late in the afternoon and we were ravenous and I still had four more of Mr. Bourdain’s culinary shrines to tick off my list. So for a late lunch we decided to head over to Pizzarium Bonci. One of Italy’s best kept culinary secrets is its takeaway pizza slices. Pop in to a pizzeria that serves pizza slices, order a pizza you like and walk out with it. It’s as simple as that. In Rome however, they do pizza al taglio. The pizza is baked on large rectangular trays and then sold by weight in rectangular slices in a wide variety of toppings. We availed the same bus as the one that took us to the Vatican and after a breezy ride of about twenty minutes we stood right in front of Pizzarium Bonci.

It seemed like we were in pizza wonderland. They had pizza with anchovies, pizza with proscuitto, pizza margherita, pizza with eggplants, pizza with spinach and even pizza with truffles. It would have probably been easier to count the kinds of pizza toppings that they do not serve. The chef patron claimed to have invented over 1500 different pizzas but that is not all. The bacterial culture or starter that he uses in his pizza dough is from a strain that has been preserved with utmost care and is over 200 years old. We caught a glimpse of the man Bonci himself at the back of the open kitchen and he came across more as an artist than a chef.

Pizza wonderland.

Even at 16:00 odd hours in the afternoon which is way past the Italian lunch hour the pizzeria was brimming with people, not just tourists but locals as well. We managed to convey our order of a slice of pizza each with truffles, procuitto, anchovies and spinach. Our pizzas were sliced and weighed right in front of us and served on a parchment paper lined tray. No frills only pizza. While each topping added its own flavour and texture to the pizza the base remained consistently delicious. Crunchy on the exterior and really soft and airy inside but still had that chewy property that lets the base spend those extra few moments in the mouth not as something that is difficult to swallow but as something that makes you enjoy the process of chewing. It was unlike any pizza either of us had ever had anywhere. I could not decide whether I enjoyed the pizza with truffles more or the one with anchovies but in hindsight it seems that the pizza base was what Pizzarium Bonci was all about.

Pizza al taglio at Pizzarium Bonci.

Later that night we made a trip towards a suburb of Rome for another Bourdain food quest but we were ten minutes too late. The place had closed down for the evening thus making it the only place that I could not tick off my list. Perhaps it was for the best. Perhaps the day belonged to Chef Bonci. Whether or not he uses a 200 year old strain I cannot say but the taste of the pizza there will remain with me for life.

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WHEN IN ROME – I

Before setting foot in Rome I had been to Europe a few times in the past. Before Rome happened to me, I had a much stigmatised memory of Europe, cool and windy scenic countryside, picturesque cities with cobblestone pathways and quaint cafes. So when I took the train from Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Aeroporti to Roma Termini, Rome’s central station and finally walked out into the city, I was blown away. I was blown away by the sights, smells and energy of Rome.

We all know about Rome’s rich history, the Empire and its Roman Gods, the Republic and the advent of Christianity, much later there were the fascists and of course who can forget the infamous Silvio Berlusconi. And all that history that was made in between. I had for years had a soft corner for Roman history and architecture. It was always my dream to step on to the Foro di Roma (Roman Forum), the Pallatine Hill, the Pantheon, to see the Fontana di Trevi (the Trevi Fountain), to drink from fountain in front of the Spanish Steps and of course the brutal Coloseo (Colosseum). I had 4 days and 5 nights to soak in the sights and smells of Rome and with my dear wife I lived those few days in a state of mesmerised trance which would intermittently be broken by the odd Bangladeshi ‘dada’ trying to sell us selfie sticks which they pronounced as ‘shelphee ishtik’.

The magnificent Pantheon.
The Pantheon (side view).

Apart from all this of course, I was armed with a bucket list from which I intended to tick off five places that my idol the great Mr. Anthony Bourdain had graced on his many visits to the eternal city. I managed four. No mean feat, given the enormity of Rome.

Cacio e Pepe
My wife and I reached Rome on a sunny September afternoon and for me it was love at first sight. We found our hotel, dropped our bags in the room and stepped out to bask in the glory of Rome. At the turn of almost every corner there seemed to be some slice of history or the other. We walked without any particular destination in mind drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of Rome. The wide boulevards, the narrow little lanes and the cobblestone streets all had some sort of ancient structure or the other. Some were commissioned archaeological dig sites, some were in ruins and some had been morphed into a modern apartment or office building. The historical charm seemed to exist in every little nook and corner.

A drink of water from the fountain at the Spanish Steps.

I however, kept a keen eye on my watch noting that dinner time was rapidly approaching. By this point in time we had been walking aimlessly around the city for almost two hours but now I had a destination in mind and Google maps showed that it was 4.7 kms away from our then location, a good hour to hour and a half’s walk away. So along the ancient Tiber we walked leisurely enjoying the cool evening breeze. When we reached the family run trattoria which was in a residential neighbourhood, we were glad to observe that tourists were conspicuous in their absence. I knew, thanks to Mr. Bourdain of course, that the place shares its name with one of Rome’s favourite pasta dishes, the cacio e pepe.

The trattoria had very limited indoor seating arrangements so tables were arranged on the pavement under huge rectangular garden umbrellas. We seated ourselves and wasted no time in ordering half a litre of their house wine. It was a rustic fruity red wine but well balanced and not too tannic. I had to eat what Mr. Bourdain had and ordered the cacio e pepe. As I sipped on the wine and waited for the spaghetti to arrive on my table I watched the culinary life of the trattoria unfold in front of me. A huge and hearty Italian family meal was underway on one of the tables, a couple much like us seemed to quietly enjoy their pastas on another table, four men were having an animated discussion over their meals on another and waiters waited tables while sipping on some house wine.

Tony Bourdain at Cacio e Pepe, Rome.

When the waiter arrived at the table with the food my attention was totally diverted to what was put in front of me. Spaghetti tossed in some heated butter and olive oil with freshly cracked pepper and pecorino cheese, served warm. For those few moments during my dinner I felt as if I was in an otherworldly plane. It was undoubtedly the simplest pasta dish I had eaten in my life but the impression it made on me is almost indescribable, as Mr. Bourdain very aptly writes in one of his books – “Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.” It was one of those rare occurrences when a meal devoid of any animal protein satiated my hunger completely and that simplest of simple dish of pasta not only filled me up but evoked a warm fuzzy happiness in me.

The simple but delicious Cacio e Pepe.

Italians love eating immense meals and usually order a main course after their pasta which is why our waiter was horrified when we asked for the cheque after the pasta. In reality though, not only was I too full I wanted the taste of that cacio e pepe to remain in my mouth for the rest of the evening. The bite of the al dente pasta, the creaminess of the pecorino Romano cheese and the subtlety of the pepper at the back of the throat had captured my soul. Or had the senses of my soul captured the essence of Rome’s cacio e pepe?

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