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Richard Horan: Notes from Il Campo

It’s carciofi (artichoke) season here in the Eternal City. Everywhere you go, those fat-stemmed, strongly evocative of Bacchus, violet-and-green buds are still-lifing the display tables out in front of every osteria and trattoria from Prati to San Saba. They look good, but personally, they’re not my favorite. I prefer the kind I get in a grocery store back in the States–marinated in olive oil and vinegar with some subtle spices. (Quick note: the artichoke we eat today was derived from a wild variety of thistle found throughout the Mediterranean region from Cairo to Cordoba. They’re mentioned in the Odyssey; later, the Romans domesticated them and called them carduus; hence, cardoons.) The Romans usually cook the smaller, purple poivrade variety of carciofi with its tender cardi (cardoons or leaves). In Rome, they’re served as a contorno (a vegetable side dish) in three ways: carciofi alla romana, carciofi alla padella, or carciofi alla giudia. In the first case, they are stuffed with spices and coated in olive oil, seasoned with salt and garlic and baked in the oven. Meh! For carciofi alla padella, they are cut in half, put in a pan and cooked on top of the stove with white wine, lemon, parsley, salt and sometimes milk. These are often served with pasta. I’ll eat them, but inevitably a few tough and bitter leaves never fail to get stuck in my teeth or throat. The third style, carciofi alla giudia, is quite the treat, at least from the Roman point-of-view. Usually served in threes, the big bulbous heads are deep fried in oil for ten minutes, salted and served with lemon. It’s a bit of a stomach bomb in my book, but the place to go for carciofi alla giudia in Rome is the Jewish Ghetto, which is directly behind the Tempio Maggiore, between the Piazza Venezia and the Isola Tiberina, on the east side of the Tiber. All the Jewish restaurants are located here, along the Via del Portico d’Octavia. The point about the carciofi is this: Roman cuisine, though delicious and unique, is heavy, real heavy.

Now let’s talk about dining out in Rome. Where do you go? How does it work? There are two answers to this question:  an easy one and a hard one. I’ll start with the easy one: When in Rome, eat at home! If you are staying in Rome for any length of time and have access to a kitchen, be aware that you are at ground zero for the world’s best produce, meat, fish, grains, cheeses, wines, etc. It’s all fresh, all grown and produced and raised with exceptional care and pride, and it’s likely from somewhere close by (even the wine). Caveat consumer: unless you are fluent in Italian (and wear clothes that make you look Italian) I would avoid the open-air markets completely. In years past, il mercato was the only act in town, and it was an eminent part of the culture to wade through the stalls, haggle with the vendors, make faces and hand gestures, and come out the other end with a day or two’s worth of food.* No need to do that now. There’s a new kid in town; it’s called a supermarket. The produce they sell there is the same stuff you get outside at the marketplace (don’t let anyone tell you differently), the only difference is the price. You’ll pay a lot less in the supermarket, and you’ll get what you want without having to haggle. And if you like to shop for bargains because that’s in your nature, the supermarkets are usually located right next to one another. My wife and I shop every day and get our dairy, fruits and vegetables from one store, and the canned goods, wines, meats and fish at another. Fantastic quality and really good prices, American style. Of course there are the specialty shops–the biscottifici, pasticcerie, macellerie, ecc. (you can look those words up). These are fun places to go for a singular experience. You’ll pay top dollar–so what–but the fun of it has to be factored in. The sights and smells alone will make your head swim. Of course, after all is said and done, you have to cook the food. Alas, if you like food, but you don’t know how to cook it, this article probably isn’t for you…

As for the second answer–the hard one: Yike!… Where do I start? Perhaps to ease your mind, I will say this: there’s a 95% chance that any restaurant you choose to eat at will serve excellent food. Roman cooks have a world-famous reputation for a reason–they’re very good at what they do. Unfortunately, there are so many other factors involved in dining out in Rome that, as odd as it may sound, the food is the least important element. That said, sine qua non to a dinner out in Rome today is la prenotazione (the reservation). I have been told that this obbligo was not in place pre-pandemic. Certainly, in the past, the serendipitous supper on the streets of Rome was part of the tourist lure. No longer. Sorry. There’s another problem with the prenotazione–you are announcing your tourist-ness. Not that this will automatically mark you as a customer for maltreatment. It just, in general, sets you up as a non-Italian customer. And no matter how you slice it, Italian customers and American customers will be treated differently. If you know an italian, I would have them make the reservation for you, and even better, accompany you to the meal. Trust me, there’s no better way to be assured of a hassle-free meal than to tag along with Italians. It took us dining out with our Italian friends six months after coming to Rome to realize what life was like on the side of the table, so to speak. Another HUGE issue–Lighting! The Italians are nuts about bright lights. I don’t know what this is all about, but it’s ubiquitous, unanimous, unavoidable!. Charming restaurants with beautiful table settings, even with lit candles, under operating-room illumination. My wife and I have given up searching for restaurants without bright lights. You can’t find them; they just don’t exist. We once had dinner at a restaurant where the lights were malfunctioning, oscillating between bright and dull. The waiter apologized. We told him, in Italian, Non lo cambia; meglio: Stick with it. It’s good. I don’t think he got what we meant. Perhaps, and I’m not kidding, this is why you will find even in the heart of winter, people eating outside in their coats and scarves and wool hats. I am not exaggerating when I say there are more diners eating outside on the cobblestones than inside on any given night at any given locale. I have asked around to see if this also is a remnant of the pandemic. Apparently not. Next, and perhaps the most impactful of the various elements involved in a Roman restaurant experience is il cameriero, the waiter. Remember, i camerieri, don’t work for tips. So, once you sit down, they are in control. Very important reality check. I have found that almost from the very start, the quality and character of the waiter is far and away the most important ingredient to an enjoyable meal. Good ones are aware, cordial, fast, and no-nonsense. Bad ones are just the opposite, and worse. Ordering is also a bit of an issue. Actually, it’s a big part of the experience. Never, and I mean never attempt to go rogue i.e., ask for any additions, subtractions, or substitutions. I repeat, never. Taboo! Violations have consequences, if you catch my drift. The meal is served according to the cook’s standards. Period. In Rome, there is one recipe and one recipe only for certain dishes. This is inviolate.  I once was telling my friend Tonino at an outdoor restaurant how I liked to make spaghetti carbonara. When he asked me to describe my formula, I told him: About the second ingredient, he burst out laughing, two ingredients later the laughter had turned to shrieks. Worse yet, the entire restaurant was exploding in laughter. Apparently, the idea of adding cream or garlic or even onions to carbonara is tantamount to adding anchovies to cappuccino. Finally, paying the check… Don’t wait for the check because you will never get it. You simply have to ask for it. And sometimes if you ask for it, you’ll get a nod, but not the check, in which case you simply have to go up to the cashier and pay. No big deal. 

Bonus tip: Don’t spring for a bottle of wine off the wine menu, just ask for una caraffa di vino della casa (a carafe of the house wine). It’s half the price and usually just as good as any on the wine list.

I should probably tell you a little secret about where the Romans like to dine (sotto voce) They don’t eat in Rome. They prefer to dine in the castelli romani (the hillside villages outside of Rome). But I’ll leave that for another rant.

* I lived in Parma 40 years ago. The market in that town was high art!

The author of this Roman gastrophenomena is a novelist and non-fiction writer (Life in the Rainbow, Goose Music, Seeds and Harvest) who lives and teaches in Rome. He is also a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor.

(c) 2023 Richard Horan

Source: BBC

2 comments on “Richard Horan: Notes from Il Campo

  1. Rose Mary Boehm
    March 4, 2023

    Yes to all. Scotty, beam me to Rome, please.

    Liked by 1 person

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