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’.
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.
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.
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.
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?