A Family Tradition

IMG_0143Today, Sept 21, 2014, we are in Rome following a family tradition created by Jeff and his love for food, Rome and anything Italian. This year we are here with Drew, his lovely fiancé Brooke. Visiting the city, eating gelato and walking until we drop!!

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My Italian Mama (and cooking Muse)

Roma, day six. Today was spent in the kitchen of my new Italian Mama, Daniela del Balzo. And what a lovely kitchen it is:

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Daniela attended Le Cordon Bleu, but most of her cooking skills come from the best source of food knowledge: family. Born in Naples, Daniela learned to cook Neapolitan food from her mother and grandmother, and now leads small group (and today, private!) cooking classes from her home in Rome.  We met for coffee at the market where we (well, she) dreamed up a menu and picked out ingredients. Speaking of dreaming up recipes, I’ll never forget one line of Daniela’s: “In the kitchen, you need fantasy.” Yes, yes, yes.

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Despite the giant meal ahead of me, I got fresh pizza at the market (it was breakfast time after all).

Image As at Campo de Fiori, the saturation of color was intense.

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ImageShopping for ingredients, Daniela chatted with each vendor, one pleasant interaction after the next. We loaded everything into the trunk of her smart car (yes, they have trunks) and wizzed up the side of a mountain to her home. Right away we got busy in the kitchen.

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Our menu? Fritatta di pasta, pork fillete stuffed with prunes soaked in marsala sauce, sautéed peppers with bread crumbs, olives and anchovy, baked ricotta, mini fried pizzas…..oh yeah, and dessert.  Had I even a clue, an inkling, as to how good this would be, I would have stretched out my stomach weeks in advance. Pizza for breakfast was taking up valuable real estate.

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ImageThese pictures hardly do the food justice. Each part of this meal was better than the last, and the only thing that rivaled the food was Daniela herself. This woman made me feel like family from the moment I met her. She is deliciously kind, her spirit is something to savor, and her skills in the kitchen: unmatched. Plus, she never made me feel self-conscious of my amateur-at-best cooking abilities, laughing with me each time I dropped some piece of pasta, cheese, utensil or pepper on the floor. Take a class with her; you will not regret the experience. Here we are at the end of our beautiful day:

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Sad to say: we leave Rome tomorrow. I spend one night in NYC with my mom before she and I hop a flight to Puerto Rico. The adventure continues!

Feast til Sated

Achieved gastronomic bliss in Rome, day five. By the time most people are finishing their workday, I am stuffed, lying in bed in our apartment, unable to move and having no need to do so. I feel more happy, relaxed, and straight-up content than I can remember feeling in quite some time. It starts with pizza for breakfast.

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Caught a glimpse of the guy responsible for my pizza-for-breakfast habit on the street today: Pierluigi Roscioli. I’m fairly certain he’s contemplating cheese, bread, or sauce in this photo:

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So, how did I eat my way to euphoria today? Let me explain.

For well over a year now, I’ve gotten used seeing the back of my Dad’s head, backlit by a Mac, enraptured as he reads the blog of Elizabeth Minchilli. In a very 21st century kind of way, I’m proud to say, he’s actualized that online experience, and I got to tag along.

Elizabeth gave us a food tour of Rome today. Meeting her IRL was a trip, but eating a days worth of food, curated by her, in just a few hours? A bite-by-bite path to my aforementioned feelings of bliss, which, I’m pretty sure, are the point of any good vacation.

Not including coffee, there were eight stops on our food tour. This post merely touches on each one; in this case, photos come closer to doing the experience justice than my descriptions ever could. If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in or on your way to Rome, I enthusiastically recommend including a food tour with Elizabeth in your experience

We started in the market in Campo di Fiori, something I’d describe as a color bomb: 

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The intensity of the colors, especially of the tomatoes, (one of the foods I miss eating most living in NYC, where it’s nearly impossible to find tomatoes this color unless you grow them yourself) stayed with me.

One convenience of Italian markets is most vegetables are prepared for you: chopped, cleaned, pruned, including salad mixes and the veggies necessary for a good minestrone:

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Elizabeth explained the culture of showing loyalty to one stand, as many offer similar produce, the benefits of which were immediately proven by a brief but quintessentially charming interaction at the stand she’d chosen:

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The reds! The greens! The giant smile on my face! This was just the beginning.

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Next we picked up some freshly made bread, still warm from the oven. 

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This type of thin, warm bread is practically the only item you’ll see Italians eating on the go, in the street (it looses a lot of its goodness once it cools). I found evidence of such a snack on our way to the next stop: a cheese shop. 

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Elizabeth picked up four different types of cheese for us, and we headed to a café for aperitifs and an improvised cheese spread:

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Veggies, bread, bitter cocktails and cheese…merely a warm-up for the plate of meats up next.

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The smallest bites on this plate were an Italian version of beef jerky, cut from long fronds that reminded me of the feelers of a lobster or some other crustacean: 

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Sipping wine, Elizabeth educated us on the salami sampling; she also attracted an obvious and sincere familiarity with the Italians who frequent this shop:

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I was so glad to have this marvelous lady as our guide. During a brief stroll to our next location, we pass a mechanic working on one of those cheekily small Italian cars:

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Just when things couldn’t get any tastier, we stop at Beppe. Elizabeth describes Beppe as “an artist whose medium is cheese.” Hell. Yes.  

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Surprisingly, the four rectangular blocks on the left hand side of the plate – yes, the boring looking ones – were the most delicious. Pungent, creamy, and delicate, this plate (and this place!) was not fooling around in the flavor department. Peep the window. 

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Andiamo…

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Giggetto is in the Jewish neighborhood of Rome, once more literally a ghetto and now quite touristy. No matter. As Elizabeth explained, Roman-Jewish recipes come from necessity and limitation. How do you make an artichoke, an item lacking nutritionally and calorically, into something delicious and sustaining? Fry it. 

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Those other items keeping the artichoke company on the plate were actually some of my favorite on the tour: fried zucchini flower, with a shocking stripe of anchovy inside. 

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Following this, we ate the two pasta dishes most typical of Rome, Cacio e Pepe and Bucatini all’amatriciana. They went fast. 

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In my family – pardon my French – we don’t f*ck around when we get around a table.

Dessert came next, coffee and gelato. We thought  (rightly so) that we had been killing the gelato game by frequenting two very legit spots, Gelato del Teatro and Fatamorgana. Elizabeth’s choice was just that much better (although at this point, we’re just splitting gelato hairs). Three flavors (my favorite was the pistachio), real whipped cream, espresso, and well, there you have it: blissful inability to walk. 

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I love this place. 

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Adam & Eve, Peaches & Cheese

Roma, Day 4! Can’t believe I haven’t lived here, always.

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As of today, I throw the concept of traditional breakfast (Roman, American, what have you, whatever) out the window. Flatbread pizza for breakfast is my new normal; a dramatic improvement in lifestyle, if you ask me. The fact that Rome is ruining New York City pizza for me is something I’ll happily remain in denial about for the next three days. (What? Only three more days? What??!! I’m going to live here forever.) Andiamo!

The big event for the day was a guided tour of the Vatican. We took a walking tour through Context Travel, which provided us with the most amazing tour guide ever, Livia. Check out this completely lovely lady:

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The vague Jurassic Park vibes I noticed in Livia’s outfit come from her education background: she has a PhD in archeology. After spending 25 years digging up ruins and studying topography in Ostia, Livia’s teaching position was de-funded when the economy crashed in 2008, and she used her Masters-level knowledge of art history and religion to reinvent her career as a professional tour guide. Yup, I was impressed too.

The amount of knowledge this lady dropped on us over 4+ hours…well, my head’s still spinning trying to absorb it all. Not to mention her warmth and enthusiasm for sharing information. A natural born teacher! We couldn’t have gotten luckier to have her with us as we walked through the Vatican grounds. During the outdoor portion of the tour, she oh-so-casually whipped out a fan. She was born and raised in Rome, after all. These people have style coming out their ears without even trying.

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Honestly, I took some photos at the Vatican but they hardly do the place justice. The Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica were the obvious highlights; the volume of tourists, and their obsession with photographing the art as opposed to just looking at it gave me a lot to ponder re: psychology and technology today. There’s got to be more written about this somewhere, some emerging research, but I found myself wondering what inside the human brain is comforted by the act of taking a photo or video? Faced with the immense, overwhelming beauty of the Vatican, room after room, you have two choices: take it in in the moment and try to enjoy the experience, or grab your camera and shoot your ass off. Most people, without hesitation, did the latter. On a tour, though, which ultimately has a time limit and will move you from room to room rather swiftly, this leaves you viewing most of these incredible (and incredibly detailed) works through the viewer of your iPhone. Modern experience grappling with death? If we capture it, we’ll have it forever so we can’t lose it? A psychology student somewhere, right now, is writing their dissertation about this phenomenon. It was acute today.

But, back to the art and Livia. The juiciest pieces of information she shared today, unsurprisingly, have to do with this most famous panel right here:

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Three things. 1) That red flowing cloth, behind G-d, and his surrounding angels? It’s in the shape of a human brain. It’s there to represent all the wisdom and power of thought endowed to us, passed from G-d to Adam as he receives life. Pretty epic. 2) G-d’s other arm? It’s around Eve. (Obviously, she’s a babe.) So even before Adam was granted human life, Eve was literally already in the picture. Rib, schmib. This leads us to a third factoid I walked away with burned on my brain, to do with this panel also depicting Adam and Eve:

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Michelangelo was a very well-educated man. He read the Kabbalah and the Talmud, which influenced his depiction of the Adam and Eve story most of us know from the Bible. You know, where it’s Eve who gives innocent ole’ Adam the apple and they are both forever stained by sin? Apparently Adam was given a wife before Eve, whom he rejected. She’s depicted here coming back into the story as the snake, tempting both members of the couple into original sin at the same time. A small but significant shift in the story that I found extremely satisfying. Way to go, Michelangelo. Thank you, Livia.

Pizza bookended our tour. Despite spending nearly 5 hours on our feet, we soldiered on to Bonci for a second taste. It did not disappoint.

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This time, I thought I was ordering more roasted yellow peppers and I got a sweet surprise.

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That’s a peach slice! I’m a fiend, know what I mean, peaches and cheese!!!!!!

La Vida Borghese

Rome, day 3, Sunday. Everyone (not us!) spent the morning in church so pizza for breakfast was not an option. Fortunately, we found the one open cafe in our hood, La Rosanna. They had a bunch of vintage keyboards/radios/TVs stacked in the window inside

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Being a pianist, these types of toys fascinate me. Waiting for my cappuccino and cornetto, I also noticed this old photo on the wall:

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The young lady making the whole “I can’t believe you’re taking my picture right now” face on the left? Her vibe was very familiar, reminded me of me. Quick double take, and she’s right behind the counter. Don’t want to be rude so I won’t speculate how many years later. She really looks quite similar!

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Once we’d achieved the base level of caffeine mandatory for walking these streets, we’re off to the piazza di Spagna, at the base of the Spanish steps. Like the Trevi Fountain, this site is mobbed with tourists practically 24/7, like so:

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It actually reminded me quite a bit of Union Square. We busted past most of them, climbed to the church at the top, and took in the incredible view of the city. This pattern is pretty common – the church up high and elevated, the necessity of climbing or looking up before you arrive at some religious space or artifact. Inside churches, your eye is drawn up, and in this case it was a literal climb up to the church that makes the experience of arriving at mass literally elevated. For me, the view was religious.

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This photo doesn’t do it justice! Since we (well, me…) are making comparisons to New York City, our next stop was what some Romans refer to as their Central Park: Villa Borghese. To get there from the Spanish steps, you have to walk down Villa del Corso, which leaves you at the piazza del Popolo. Guess what’s in the center of the piazza? An obelisk.

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We walked up basically the side of a mountain (yeah there were marble steps but it was steeeeep!)  to the Villa Borghese – again, this is Rome’s Central Park. Here’s the same obelisk in the piazza from the top of the park:

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We ended up walking around inside a museum, the Galleria Borghese, two levels of insane sculptures and paintings designed to completely overwhelm your eye and make you feel like you’ve never experienced craftsmanship ever, ever. Two examples of this in particular were sculptures by our main man Bernini: the Rape of Proserpina and Apollo and Daphne. You can’t take photos inside the Galleria, which I actually admire about the place. Despite Proserpina’s compromised position in this sculpture, the anatomy and detail is absolutely breathtaking. When marble looks like flesh, soft and squishy and veiny, hairs all delicate and robes blowing in the breeze, you’re really looking at the work of genius. Just another fingerprint left by Bernini on the city of Rome’s art collection. My favorite piece in the Galleria, however, was this painting by Raffaello, who came just before Bernini in the art history chain:

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The unicorn represents virginity, purity, and the young woman not knowing much about the world….but, that stare! Not unlike the coffee shop owner’s picture this morning (and my own glare in many a photo), she seems to be saying – “I’m not looking at you, I’m looking past you” (and yes, I’m quoting Jay-Z there as well). I dig it/her.

We had a spectacular dinner at a restaurant called Flavio al Velavevodetto. Yapped for a few hours like a couple of old Italian ladies.

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Did I mention Rome is glorious?

Rome is Glorious

Rome is glorious. Despite sitting alone at a computer at the moment, there’s an extremely romantic thing happening: a charming rendition of ‘Hava Nagila’ is wafting in through my apartment window. This is mere accompaniment to the street sounds coming through said window (one of the best parts of this apartment), the kind of ‘noise’ John Cage would have recognized as so much more. Speaking of which, burbles of Italian and natural light woke me up this morning. First thing I did was stick my neck out and turn to the left

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The only reason there’s not an Italian grandma hanging out of one of those windows, hanging that laundry, is because I couldn’t grab the camera in time to capture her. I told you, this place is glorious.

Today, Saturday, started with flatbread pizza. Yeah, we followed it up with cappuccinos and croissants (Italians call them cornetti), and yeah, they kicked the ass of the croissants I’ve been proud to eat from the Italian bakery by my crib in Queens, but there’s just nothing like pizza for breakfast.

Buzzed on dough and caffeine, we walk to Piazza Navona. Something like if Spain, Egypt and Italy spawned a baby with multiple fountains.

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The obelisk (Washington monument-looking thing) in the center was stolen by the Piazza’s architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, from the Egyptians. There are several obelisks by Bernini throughout Rome. Take a closer look at the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, forming the base of the obelisk. This photo only captures due of the Quattro Fiumi!

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Bernini left that gaping hole beneath the obelisk just to freak people out. Can you see the two keys pointing out in either direction at it’s base? That’s the papal calling card. Popes tagged monuments and buildings all over this city with those keys, just so people know hundreds of years later that men who represent G-d on earth are the true bosses. The sun was beating down on us at this point. We briefly shaded ourselves in the Pantheon, and emerged to find Caffe Tazza D’Oro, where we picked up one of these little babies:

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If you’ve ever had a McFlurry, Frappuccino, Parfait, Blizzard, Frosty, etc., I’m with you and I’m so, so, so very sorry. Granita di Caffe con Panna costs about the same, and it’s just so much better. Layers of teeny tiny shaved ice chips soaked in espresso and rich, fluffy cream. It looked prettier when I started, but about halfway through it all melts together and gets really, really good:

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There’s just nothing like it. Not only because it was hot out and three caffeine drinks into the day with only minor dough intake leaves me basically juiced, bouncing off the walls with taste-bud happiness, but because you get to look at lovely stuff like this while you eat it:

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Briefly got entranced by these street tricksters before our next real stop: dinner.

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If you want real Southern Italian food, look no further than Provincial Romana Enoteca. It’s in a pretty great location – check out the window of the joint!

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If you’ve never visited before, it’s probably a little difficult to tell from the photo, but this sweet spot is located right next Trajan’s Forum, a near 2000 year old column engraved with scenes of Roman wars, to your left, as well as the breathtaking Altare della Patria, to your right:

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Yes, I was starving and tired from being on my feet/jolted with caffeine all day, but that Rolls Royce caught my attention, too. A wedding taking place next door completely stole the show and postponed dinner by at least 15 minutes. That Rolls was the getaway car for the newly-weds. Was I a member of the wedding party? Practically. How did I get the video in the following post? I BLENDED IN. Check it out! (Any video shakiness, I blame on caffeine.)

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