THIS IS PART 2 PLEASE READ PART 1 BELOW FIRST
ITALY - In Rome there is a saying, “Quello che voi siete noi eravamo; quello che noi siamo voi sarete.” “That which you are, we were; that which we are, you will be.”
Rome, where everyone has something to say, even those who are long gone, and mostly about food, rocked my culinary world.
On our first trip to Italy my wife and I decided upon a 10-day trip starting in Rome then on to Capri and back to Rome. Later these journeys grew to at least one month each trip. Many of our meals were planned in advance. We carefully researched restaurants and food destinations so that we would not miss the season’s star foods. From the truffle season in the north, to the small tomato season in south, zucchini flowers of Rome, or the full flavored peppers of Sicily, and all in between. We also studied the wines of each area so we could have the best enhancer to their regional foods, keeping with the philosophy that what grows together should be served together.
Why choose Rome and Capri for our first trip? The Roman emperors had the whole world to play in, yet they spent all of their time in these two places. It seemed to be a good place for a cultural overview. I had arranged for our hotel in Rome through a friend in New York who managed a branch here, he enlisted a driver to pick us up by the name of Dante. Dante was a born philosopher, not unlike any Roman. He was wise, kind, and also patient with my Italian, which returned to me with each day of practical application. On the way to our hotel, Dante took it upon himself to make a side trip up a small mountain. Then suddenly he abruptly stopped the car and asked us to accompany him. We looked around and saw nothing except a huge, wooden door attached to the wall of a home. What was going on? He just motioned for us to follow him to the door as he stood
proudly and asked us to look through the keyhole. There it was, Rome, all of it, in all its glory! Dante who had a smile the width of the Tiber said, “Benvenuti a Roma,” “Welcome, to Rome.”
As my eyes took in the breathtaking Roman view I had a realization that we just went through the keyhole and passed into another level of food adventures.
So many food memories and life long impressions were enhanced in Italy from our many trips, thoughts that still warm our culinary souls. We were spoiled by the quality of vegetables, especially in the Campania region, where all soil is enriched with the minerals of volcanic ash from Mt Vesuvius, making every bite magnified in flavor.
A few of our fondest memories are walking up the mountain side in Capri, when we stopped to catch our breath we saw a little old man in his own backyard vineyard. I asked him about the two grapes he was cultivating. He then smiled and put up a finger indicating that we should wait. We were fixated on him, as we observed him go from grape to grape until he found the perfect samples for us to try. He earnestly awaited our reaction, which was genuinely enthusiastic, and this pleased him very much. This taught us the love and pride that goes into every sip and bite, starting with the growing process.
One night in Capri we wanted to dine in our room and thought a simple Caprese salad would satisfy. I walked to a tiny shop to purchase the necessary ingredients, Buffalo Mozzarella made nearby, basil, tomato, and a small piece of garlic, also freash tiny bits of green chili, with good sea salt, local olive oil and crusty bread. As I reached for a ball of wrapped cheese on the counter a grandmother type shocked me by slapping my hand. I thought I had reached in front of her, or perhaps offended a local custom. She then explained to me that my choice of cheese was wrong as it was made in the morning and she handed me one that was made later in the day. I asked the proprietor where the tomatoes were? He told me to come around the counter and took me to a small room where the shelves were lined with tomatoes that were displayed and cared for like each one was a precious stone. Italians have an incredible love and pride, not just with their cultivating and cooking, but also from being able to offer the best to others.
Rome showed us the delights of Funghi, mushrooms of all kinds. We discovered a wonderful family owned trattoria called, da tonino alla lampada. Which means lamp of Tonino. Tonino was the owner, chef, and resident maestro de funghi, master chef of mushrooms. Lamp is an Italian slang for the lid or the shade of each mushroom. Upon entering what we called “Mushroom Place,” we were blown away by the strong fragrance that filled the room from the baskets of mushrooms on display. Everything from large Funghi Porcini served with pasta, or as a primi course, grilled with pieces of garlic inserted in the lamp of the funghi, with a drizzle of olive oil. There was also Ovalo, a bright orange egg shape mushroom that is usually thinly sliced, served raw with lemon juice and olive oil. Local cepes, black Umbrian truffles, white truffles from Alba and more, all blended together to create the powerful scent.
It was here that Tonino invited me into his kitchen to show me the art of making Roman style artichokes. The chokes are first trimmed then stuffed with garlic and a Roman herb similar to mint is mixed with salt, then they are cooked stem side up in a combination of white wine, lemon halves, and olive oil. When done the artichokes are removed to cool and the liquid is reduced to a syrup and drizzled over this much prized roman delicacy.
There is much more that we learned, so many stories, that every day when my wife and I shop and cook, any given ingredient could spark a memory that brings a smile to our faces.
Seek out the freshest and best quality ingredients available; always remember less in any art, is more. Pass on your love by cooking a dinner for a friend today, and then give them the recipe to cook for others. I always come back to Dante. At the end of our first trip he picked us up to take us to the airport, and the first thing he did, before pulling out of the drive way, was to turn around with his Tiber wide smile and say, “So, did you learn how to eat yet?”
He went on to say, “now you know the Roman secret,” “what is that,” I replied, “everybody dies, but not everybody lives!” Well Dante, the answer to your question is I’m still learning how to eat and live.