M’s Fall of the Iron Curtain

Roman statue in Rome. This is probably Achilles, a Greek god.

As my time in Rome draws to a close, I realized that I had not visited many of the areas that were once part of the Roman Empire, especially those that were once behind the Iron Curtain. Back in August, I decided to make it the “Fall of the Iron Curtain” and draw back the curtain from the top in Estonia down to Albania. I did not succeed.

If you are a map geek like I am, try looking at Vox’s active map as it shows the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Rome was vast and when I did visit parts of the former Roman empire, I did in a plane ride what would have taken a Roman more than 20 days. That was in modern day Albania. In Roman times, modern day Albania was known as Illyria or Epirus, on the coast of Dalmatia and Macedonia. It was very Greek. One can visit Greek temples in Albania, and it seems like someone invested a lot of money on roads in the area around them.

Map is from Vox.com

One of the reasons why I visited Malta was a curiosity to see the influences of the Roman world. In modern times, it can be hard to recall that the Romans looked up to the Greek empire as an ideal. But, in places like Sicily which was part of Greece (Magna Greca) for hundreds of years, one can see the Greek influence in Italy. Italy has only been a unified country for 150 years. The Roman empire lasted about 900 years.

In places like Tirana, the modern capital of Albania, it is hard to see traces of the Roman empire. Except perhaps in the faces. In Montenegro, it seemed quick obvious that it was once a Roman area.

Statue of Mother Theresa near the airport in Albania.

The town of Budva looks much like towns in certain parts of Italy. In contrast, the people are giants compared to Italians.

But, back to Albania. The people there were not giants. The contrasts of rich and poor were quite apparent in Tirana. There were many non-touristy things about Tirana. But, if one escapes to the sea, then one can see why it is compared to northern Greece. Another odd thing I noticed were the men wearing headbands. Then I realized that they had hair implants. I guess this surgery is very cheap over here. The food was good in Albania. Fresh seafood and surprisingly good sushi. The most striking thing about Albania is that Mother Theresa was from there.

In terms of tourism, Albania has the potential, with Greek temples, good beaches, cheap bus and taxi options from the airport, and some English speakers. BUT, 90 percent of Albanians smoke. This will keep the tourists away.

In conclusion, I did not make it to all 20 (or so) iron curtain countries. Looking at the map, I realize that I have already been to many of the far edges of the Roman empire. More from my adventures next time.

Malta, the Fantastic

One of the things to see in Rome is the keyhole of Malta. Visiting Malta is so much more than that glimpse into the world of the knights of Malta. The tiny central island just off of Sicily is as fantastical as one imagines it to be.

Upper Barakka gardens, Valletta.

I visited on a cold winter day with torrential rains bucketing down like biblical times. Yes, I still loved it.

Photogenic shop in Valletta.

Maybe because of the weather, it was a better experience — free of the millions who flood the island every year searching for Gladiator or Game or Thrones…

Valletta, tourist and native.

We did a food and cultural walking tour. It was a great introduction to Malta.

Lots of streets in Valletta are steep.

The island of Malta has a long history as a embattled island due to its central location in the Mediterranean. To borrow from the Visit Malta site, “the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines” and then the Berbers, Knights of Malta, French, and British all had influences on the island.

Famous harbor seen from the Upper Barrakka gardens.

St. Paul was shipwrecked here in current era 60 (AD). This is a big deal. Christianity is a big part of the island. The Knights of Malta were a Christian order which is considered sovereign, but now they are a Christian humanitarian organization. They have had different names at different times in history but they ruled Malta from the 1500s (when they were given Malta as a territory after fleeing Rhodes after the rise of the Ottoman empire) to the 1800s.

This mall also has subsidized public housing, right downtown, for as little as 30 euro per month.

Valletta has been the capital for 450 years and has a uniform look to it because it was built in three years. The buildings of the old town are all made of the same pale yellow rock that was quarried from the exact place where the buildings were built. In some ways, Valletta reminded me of the towns of Apulia like Lecce, Bari, and Polignano a mare. Maybe that is why I liked it so much. The stone is the same color as the stone used in Jerusalem.

Another instagrammable shop and remnant of the British influence.

Malta had a capital before Valletta was chosen. The old capital goes back 4,000 years and is located about 20 minutes drive from Valletta. Mdina, not to be confused with Medina, is the old capital and right outside its gate is Rabat, not to be confused with Rabat.

Gate of Mdina, the former capital.
Mdina is crushingly quaint.
The eight pointed star is symbolic for the eight “langhe” or rulers of Malta.
Mdina is a perfectly preserved walled city.
Mdina has a few pops of color other than the sandstone color of the native rock.

The language of Malta, like the people and culture, is also a mix. It has many words that are the same in Italian but I did not understand Maltese at all. No matter as they speak English as well.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the church in Valletta.

Another reason to go to Malta is to see a Caravaggio painting. The church is also beautiful but to be in front of a Caravaggio is a special moment. This brings a visit to Malta full circle. Many consider Caravaggio to be the first cinematographer for his use of dramatic light and shadow. Malta, with its dramatic history, seems most famous now as a movie location.

The Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour

Sandwich “lunch” stop. The drink was also traditional.

I rarely go on food tours because I prefer to wander around on my own. But the tour I took in Malta was an example of why one should take a food tour.

The tour is not just food. This is the view from the upper gardens where the tour guide explains a whole lot including which films were filmed here.

In Valletta, I joined a tour with the Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour, found by my friend on TripAdvisor. This tour was great. Not just food, but culture, history, and movie locations.

The guide spoke excellent English (it’s one of the languages of Malta) and used a micrphone/headset system so you could always hear her.

It was good value for money, the walking was not too strenuous, and guide was great (guides must be licensed in Malta so they have to know their stuff).

Fried ravioli.

The cost is about $43 per person and for that you get four food and culture stops and three hours of information about Malta.

Horse meat stew.

The guide will ask you to pre-select if you want to try the horse meat.

Cheese and salami plate.

The amounts of food are not overly huge but enough that you will not need to eat lunch.

Coffee stop at a traditional bakery.

At the final stop, you get free beer, an appetizer slate, and a small main dish.

Dessert at the “dinner” stop.

Conveniently, the tour ends in a food hall so you can keep eating if you are still hungry or just want to sit for a while.

The Original Confetti

The English word confetti comes from the Italian word for an almond confectionary. This candy is from the town of Sulmona in Abruzzo, with a tradition stretching back more than three hundred years.

Paper confetti is called “coriandoli” in Italian. And just to be even more confusing the Italian for cilantro is “coriandolo” so a single confetti. In the renaissance, the confetti used for celebrations was coriander seeds in small pieces of paper used as a breath freshener. The almonds coated in sugar were also part of the celebration. At some point these all got mixed up.

The town of Sulmona is a pretty mountain town. But the main reason to visit is to buy almond confectionary (the confetti) and saffron.

Wine Tours Rome – in the Countryside of Rome

Wonderful wine tasting tour and experience! Sally and Guido and lovely hosts and easy going. They make you feel like friends that they are showing around their magical valley of demi-umbria (the area was part of Umbria at one point). Just 40 minutes by local train outside of the mega-metropolis of Rome, is this secret otherworld of vineyards and olive trees. Book for Sally and Guido for a countryside experience to see how sweet life can be.

Guido speaks excellent English and is engaging to talk to.

Sally and Guido pick you up from the local station and drive you around the countryside, max eight people or maybe ten? One can, of course, drive oneself, but then the designated driver would be… that just wouldn’t be fair! So, get picked up at 10 am at the station, taken for a fun jaunt from vista to vista on the way to a vineyard.

The view from their home.

At the vineyard, you go on a tour of processing, bottling, and aging cellars, before tasting three wines. Guido speaks excellent English and will translate and explain everything. The wine maker, presents all three wines but then leaves you to enjoy while Sally fills up your glasses (no small sip here! If you want/need a full glass to evaluate the wine, you get it!). There is a bit of bread and local olive oil to line your stomach, and so that the wine doesn’t go strait to your head. Then, you have an opportunity to buy the wine, and not just the types that you tried. The wines are very different and some are made from local grapes that you will never have heard of… Even wine nerds will discover new things.

Wine being made…

The wine is well priced at eight to 10 euro per bottle. For DOC! It’s kind of ridiculous how inexpensive it is to buy really good wine. The vineyard does ship (although not to the US yet) but it’s better to take it there and schelp it with you. You will thank yourself later. I bought four bottles of the yellow label wine because it was so zesty and fruity.  A lovely white.

Then, another jaunt through a magical Tuscan/Umbrian/Roman landscape and you arrive at their home for two more wines and delicious local dairy and sausage. Oh, and bread. Yum. Yum. Yum.

As a bonus, we got locally made chocolate.

To contact them, go to Wine Tours Rome or email them at info@winetoursrome.com. Sally and Guido also conduct cooking classes through their company, Convivio, and they have a B&B where you can stay while taking classes. The cost of the half day wine tasting is 79 euro (discount for groups so we paid 75). They also do tours in the countryside and olive oil tasting. Because they have these two companies, it can be a little confusing to find them on Google or TripAdvisor. I will be going again because I want to see the little villages and visit the linen workshop in demi-Umbria, the secret valley of Lazio.

The creamy cheese on the right is called Robiola. It was like butter and ricotta combined.

PS. Yes, Sally and Guido know Johnny Madge and their tours are in the same magical valley.

Italy Is a Film Set

The movies have influenced pop culture so much that when people think of Italy (which is gorgeous to visit on its own merits), people want to visit the towns where films made them famous or were imagined. So which of those places do I hear about most? Italy has a famous film pedigree from long before Under the Tuscan Sun (Fellini, Leone, etc.). But, in more modern times with the acceleration of social media, the obsession with overall mystique about Italy and “the sweet life” is here to stay. Here are some of the films and locations that you may want to visit, not including Italian films.

An enchanted April if every there was one.

La Dolce Vita, Rome, and more specifically, the Trevi Fountain. Anita Ekberg famously so bought in to the idea of the sweet life that she moved to Italy after frolicking in the movie. (This movie introduced the word “paparazzi” to the English language).

Roman Holiday. This film may also make you want to visit Rome. Rome houses Cinecitta, the Pinewood Studios or Hollywood of Italy. A place where one can visit many places and times all in one filming location (and some of the set pieces may actually be real!). At almost any time, there are films being filmed in Rome. Even during the pandemic, the Gucci film was on location in down town Rome.

The Godfather, Taormina, 100 miles east of Palermo, the capital of Sicily.

While this looks like Tuscany, it is actually just outside Rome.

Room With a View, Florence, Hotel degli Orafi was the set for the “pensione” with the view.

Gladiator, in Tuscany Val d’Orcia. The soundtrack and the scenes of the protagonist longing for elysium (paradise) so he could reunite with his family, is some of the most haunting and beautiful cinematography out there. I often want to add Lisa Gerrard’s score to my Instagram posts but I don’t want to add a sad note to the beauty I see.

Tea with Mussolini, filmed in Florence and San Gimignano.

Enchanted April, filmed at Castello Brown in Portofino, on the Ligurian Coast north of the Cinque Terre. This is where the author stayed in the 1920s.

Under the Tuscan Sun, Cortona, but filmed in Villa Laura. This film seems to be the end-all of wistful movies about Italy.

Eat, Pray, Love. Rome and Naples. This book and movie had the added bonus that it was non-fiction so it made la dolce vita seem even more attainable.

The view from bed in Positano.

But, there are other places that could be on a movie pilgrimage. In Positano, one can stay in the hotel (Albergo California) which stood in for an apartment (perhaps even the room!) where the heroine in Under the Tuscan Sun met her romantic interest, Marcello. In Verona, one can visit Juliet’s house! Also, many a James Bond movie and Mission Impossible have had scenes in Italy. Not to forget, Indiana Jones, and now that I think of it, so many more.

The Amalfi Coast, one of the most magical locations, is a popular film location.

All over Italy, there are villages that seem like movie sets. For example, near Rome, is a town called Sermoneta (named after money because it cost so much to buy the town) which is a perfectly preserved medieval town.

To read other lists of movies, read this article. Or this one about films set in Italy. I also found this article useful.

I am sure that I will go to many of these places in the future. It is hard to not trip over them as it seems like most of Italy is a movie set.

The Artichoke King

Trimmed artichokes ready for purchase.

As it is once again artichoke season, I have been thinking about them again. There is more to this thistle than one would think. There was once an artichoke mafia and the head of that was called the “The Artichoke King.” This was way back in 1920 in America. The mayor of New York, at the time, La Guardia (that guy who got an airport named after him) took a hard stance against the mafia. In his words: “A racketeer in artichokes is no different than a racketeer in slot machines.”

In Italy, the artichokes are sold with the stem, which is also edible.

The artichoke even inspired poetry. In this poem by Pablo Neruda of which I quote a short bit:

Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

There are many different types of artichokes.

The artichoke was also considered an aphrodisiac for many centuries. Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.

Cardi, or cardoons, can be grown in the dark, making them white.

The artichoke is related to the cardoon, the artichoke thistle, which is part of the sunflower family.

A “Jewish style” artichoke is a fried artichoke.

I had a realization last winter — the microwave is an excellent steamer. I discovered this after I had heard about this from some cooking show or another. Previously (and perhaps because I had a mother who did not own a microwave) steaming artichokes involved that weird satellite dish steamer, scalding steam, and balancing the atomically hot metal thingy with heavy artichokes. Now, I simply wash and steam (I like to let my artichokes have a good drink of water when I bring them home so that the leaves plump up). Then into the microwave for about five minutes per artichoke depending on the size.

These mini artichokes fit in a muffin tin.

Today, there is no longer an artichoke mafia but the artichoke type most commonly sold in the US, are the kind with the hairy heart. I wish they would switch to the kind that has an edible heart.

Parmesan, More Than A Cheese

These balls of cheese weigh more than 90 pounds.

Parmigiano-Reggiano is more than a cheese. No Italian refers to it as a cheese. They call it by its name.

Getting weighed and squeezed into shape.
Inside the metal girdle is a plastic cartouche with all the markings.

To be the real deal, it can only be produced in a few areas around Parma, Reggio, Modena, and Bologna. You can read about the consortium that controls it here.

But, the other very similar cheese that you find around there is also good. It’s called Grano Padano and in a way, it’s better on pasta. Leave the real deal for eating on its own.

Brine bath.

Going on a parmesan factory tour is a study in alchemy. How milk (from two different milkings) can, with a few ingredients, and many turns of the wheel, be turned into something that plays a symphony on your tastebuds, is pure magic.

The professor demonstrates how to test the cheese.

We went on a tour at the Red Cow creamery in Reggio Emilia. Our guide was a wise professor. He had been making parmesan for more than 60 years, and he still got equally excited about it every day. The tour cost 5 euro per person and was conducted in Italian. At the end of the tour, the professor had us try different ages of Parmesan. Wowza.

It has lots of stamps of origin but it probably sounded wrong and so has been scarred to mark that it is not for export.

By the time we got to the factory (10ish), the parmesan was already at the “getting swung in clothe stage. We saw a lot of balls of white curds being transferred from one cloth to another and rocked back and forth by two guys. Then we saw where the girdle with the shape and writing is applied. Then the salt baths. Finally we were in the aging room.

So old that only presidents’ eat them. Next to it an “AB” one that will not be exported.

We saw parmesan so old and crystalized that only presidents get to eat them. We also saw parmesan wheels that had scoring around indicating that they were not perfect but still saleable. Then we saw those with “AA” stamped on them. These are the perfect ones that have been x-rayed. These are only ones that get exported.

Yes, we had to wear hairnets, shoe nets, and net robes to protect the parmesan.

These cheeses have 30 percent protein and no lactose.

In the old days, parmesan and other hard cheeses were the “meat” for many Italians.

Balsamico, A Sweet and Sour Dowry

Italians love food. It is an integral part of their family structure. This is evident in the story of balsamic vinegar. In Emilia Romagna, Italy, balsamic vinegar started out as a daughter’s dowry. No gold, no houses, just the sweet product of 25 years of nurturing. This is no longer the case, but in some families, the balsamic production continues. Some also make it when they have a son.

Traditionally, when a baby girl was born, her father would make a “mother” barrel of balsamic vinegar. There is sometimes a misconception that the grapes used to make balsamic are left over from making wine. Not so. The grapes are crushed into a “must” just like in wine making, but then, a mother yeast (like sourdough starter) is added to the mother barrel. From this mother barrel, a “battery” of progressively smaller barrels are filled.

Normally, one should wait till the daughter got married, or 25 years to started imbibing in the balsamic. If the woman got married before she turned 25, she could decide to leave the battery in her paternal home or take it to her new home. On the old battery frames, one can still see the name of the girl painted on the frame, as these are passed down through generations.

So you aren’t supposed to eat the balsamic before 25 years. But, this rarely happened. Also, the balsamic evaporates. To fill up the evaporated balsamic, the smallest barrel in the battery is filled from the next big one and so on. The largest of the battery barrels is then filled from the mother barrel. Which is itself filled with fresh grape must.

The ladder up to the first floor of La Vecchia Dispensa’s tower is almost vertical.

This is how one gets “100 year old” balsamic vinegar (where a percentage of the balsamic is from a barrel made 100 years ago). I tried it and it was too musty for me. The barrels used can be old whisky casks and the barrels can be made from many types of wood. The bunghole of the barrel is loosely covered with a stone and/or a lid with a doily. The acid from the balsamic eats away at the stones so it’s cool to see how strong those bacteria really are.

Now, to what it’s called. In Europe and Italy, one must call real balsamic, “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” — if it’s from Modena which is one of the few places where the real stuff comes from. The bottles are distinctive so that it’s hard to copy. There are many fakes. Most of what is sold is fake. The real stuff will not be sour and bite you when you try it. It won’t make you gag. The real stuff is subtle and sweet. With a slight tang. It will be complex. It’s also not impossibly expensive. 25 euro for a small bottle. But that’s the kind that one sips on a spoon or drizzles on a piece of parmesano reggiano.

One can still see graffiti from prisoners from when this was a jail.

Most of the acetaia (ah-chey-tie-ah) will sell salad vinegar products that you will like. Real aceto balsamico is not for salad. That’s how you can make it last a long time. Salad dressings are better with apple cider or red wine vinegar. Balsamic is too strong. Also, all those thick balsamic sauces in squeeze bottles are not made with the real deal.

Going for a tasting at a real acetaia is eye opening. It really is. We went to three. La Vecchia Dispensa is fantastic as a destination. Great tour, tasting, and shop. It’s in a fancy building and the tower is medieval (it was a jail/dungeon before), in the picturesque Castelvetro (one can also go on the less expensive tour that does not include climbing up into the claustrophobic medieval castle tower). The tour guide also speaks English, well.

At Acetaia San Matteo, you get a family feel and the son-in-law who shows you around is enthusiastic but doesn’t speak English. It’s marvelous but almost has a Swiss chalet feel. We also went to the a place that claims to be the oldest (they claim that their family has been selling it for 400 years) but the museum is now in a new, from 2017, farmstead. Also, their vinegar wasn’t tasty. And the place had a slight theme park feel. Too touristy. Enough about them. Go to Castelvetro and La Vecchia Dispensa.

When we were in the tower for our tour with La Vecchia Dispensa, we could see the photos of the families who maintain their balsamic there. It’s a heartwarming idea of familial love.

Oddly, or perhaps not, most of these places also sell jams and other products.

There is a lot more to aceto balsamico than I imagined. It was also a delight to go to the acetaia with a balsamic fanatic. When we got to the San Matteo location, my Italian wasn’t up to explaining things so I just blurted out “we are balsamic fanatics!” We were welcomed with a big grin.

Cook Italy – Food Tour in Bologna

Bologna’s streets will make it hard to move on.

Do you know someone who is so extremely picky? As in, never satisfied? Oh, maybe YOU are that friend.

If you are one of those people who has such high standards for everything and never quite finds things up to scratch, then Carmelita of Cook Italy is the guide for you.

She will talk a lot about tortellini.

We booked her for a food tour. I mentioned some of the places earlier. We met at an excellent pastry shop where I am glad that I got a good breakfast.

Carmelita then showed us the formerly great, the famous, the touristy, and the abominably disgraced. She then showed us the still great shops and vendors downtown. Along the way, we had a snack stop and the history of why Bologna, “La Grasso” is translated too literally — the nickname refers to the bounty that is Bologna.

[A note about bologna, boloney — mortadella. It is a whole separate food product in Italy. It can be eaten sliced, cubed, and in a meat pate like a smear. There are required amounts of lardons per product and, of course, there are standards. People eat it like proscuitto. Yes, just like having slices of proscuitto on a charcuterie board… that’s how they eat mortadella.]

Bologna is a bountiful foodie city with warm red brick porticoes, shopping opportunities galore, and enough foodie gems for a month of feasts. One of the best things about the tour was being taken to the “horse” emporium.

This shop is a knife shop but so much more.

Carmelita ended our tour at an enoteca who kindly stored our wine while we went to Carmelita’s newest “project” – a new gelateria called Sablé. Check it out!

The pastry chef who owns Sable.

Carmelita also offers cooking classes. I found her through a friend, even though I see that she is famous on TripAdvisor. For a food tour, this was the least amount of food that we ate but the pace was very nice for the more mature traveler. It was a relaxed tour. Carmelita is very communicative and will send all kinds of recommendations even after the tour. A tour with Cook Italy is a gently paced tour.

But Carmelita’s standards and critique of the gastronomy scene is fierce and pointed. Carmelita is passionate about those she disdains and even more passionate about those whom she admires. If you want that style of guide, then she is for you.

Those hams are all the same because of special selection.

Here are some of Cook Italy’s recommendations:

Best aperitivo

Gamberini via Ugo Bassi
I Conoscenti via Mazzini
Stefano Cardi same street

Best gelato

Sablè  – in a Class of its own
Cremeria Santo Stefano – via Santo Stefano
Cremeria Cavour – in Piazza Cavour

Best little cakes  

Pasticceria mignon

Regina de Quadri – via Castiglione
La Borbonica  – via Riva Reno
Stefano Cardi as before
Gamberini as before

Inside Enoteca Italiana

As my friend commented, we had the least amount of food on this food tour. But, we did stop for a quick snack, and then for the light lunch. Also, a balsamic tasting. For three hours, the tour cost 280 euro for the group.

Carmelita will also come after you after the tour to write reviews. Beware. In the nicest way, but you are forewarned.

Bologna the Bountiful

Bologna is called “La grassa” or “the fat” city. The correct translation should be “the bountiful” as the fat represents richness. I learned this when on a food tour with Cook Italy.

The plaque explaining where the salami makers created “the fat” myth about Bologna.

The origin of the name comes from Bologna’s production of bologna, or as they call it here, mortadella. To be a protected status mortadella, there is a required number of fat squares in each.

Rich delicious mortadella.

Normally, to preserve meat, before refrigeration, is to salt, dry, or cover with fat. Bologna invented the boiling of this meat product and the city became famous for it. Hence why in the United States, mortadella is called bologna or boloney.

Bologna is also famous for its covered sidewalks, over 70 kilometers of them. Also, the red brick. But, mostly, Bologna is famous for being a foodie city. The city anchors the food valley (which is also motor valley) of Emilia Romagna.

Bountiful Bologna is often overlooked by tourists. That’s kind of nice. There are many foreigners in Bologna because Bologna has the oldest (still functioning) university in the world (started in 1088). True, the center of the town is a bit crowded but slip down a side street and you can soon imagine your own medieval scholarly wanderings. Or just shop.

So next time someone calls Bologna fat, you know that it’s bountiful. Enjoy it for yourself. More later about where to eat, shop, and stay in bountiful Bologna.

The Fifth of the Four Roman Pasta Sauces

Just as Roman cuisine is famous for using the “quinto quarto” (fifth quarter) of the animal, Rome famous for four pasta sauces — with one that is made from the part of the animal that no one wants to mention — the fifth quarter. Or is it the opposite?

In most restaurants, you order your pasta dish by the sauce as there are traditionally certain pastas for certain sauces. In a few, by the shape of the pasta, although most places will have already decided which pasta they are cooking that day. I find that many restaurants use the large tubular pasta as it fills the plate better. There are officially 350 shapes of pasta but many have different regional names and new shapes are being invented constantly. Italians will tell you that the pasta should fit the sauce so that the sauce sticks to the pasta. Some Romans will tell you that only certain sauces go with certain types of pasta.

A basic thing about Roman cooking. It’s simple with few ingredients and use the best quality that you can afford. Also, almost no garlic or chili. The Italians are sensitive to regional names so even describing something as “like bacon” can be controversial.

Cacio e pepe spaghetti

Cacio e Pepe (catch-ee-oh-eh-peh-pa): Basically it’s called “cheese and black pepper” and that’s what it is. Usually a long string-like pasta like spaghetti although traditionally, tonnarelli (a rougher hand cut “square” long pasta) is used. Spaghetti means “strings.” The cheese used is Roman Pecorino, the sheep’s milk version similar in hardness and age to Parmesan (which comes from Parma), and pepper. One makes the sauce by using hot water that the pasta has been cooked in. There is no cream added. It’s a very simple sauce.

Spaghetti alla carbonara (although the pasta may have been a slightly thicker kind).

Carbonara (cARR-boh-nar-ah): This is the one with the famous story about how the American GIs missed eggs and bacon and so this pasta sauce was made to cater to them. Not true but a nice story. This sauce involves pork jowl, guanciale, fried to bacon bits (they will tell you not to use bacon — but if that’s all you have…), grated pecorino, and an egg yolk. The result is a thick golden sauce.

Tonnarelli in gricia sauce (you can see how the pasta is square).

Gricia (gree-CH-ah): Is basically carbonara without the raw egg yolk. If you like bacon bits but don’t want the cloying creaminess of the carbonara, this is the one for you. It’s often used with tubular pasta like rigatoni.

Tonnarelli amatriciana.

Amatriciana (ah-mah-TREE-chee-ah-na): If you like the pork jowl bacon, you like the Pecorino, but you don’t like the egg yolk, and you wish they’d add some tomato sauce, then get the amatriciana. It’s called that because the pork comes from Amatrice, a town in northern Lazio (the region where Rome is located, south of the famous Tuscany).

And the fifth… is hard to find these days and never on the English language version of the menu (some traditional Roman restaurants will have a printed menu in English for the foreigners and a hand written on for the locals). It’s a dish called “rigatoni alla pajata” and is rigatoni with veal’s intestines (or bowel, as they will say here). It’s that particular part of the intestine from newborn calves who have only had milk. When the calf is slaughtered, the undigested milk is still in the intestine and it looks a bit like a creamy sausage.

None of these are my favorite pasta sauces. I like spaghetti alle vongole/spaghetti con le vongole (spaghetti with clams) and aglio e olio (garlic and oil) with chili flakes, a dish so simple that it’s almost never on the menu in restaurants. Apparently, it’s a drunk food that people make when they come back from being out on the town. Both of these dishes are from Naples. Many of the Italian immigrants to the United States were from Naples so the American idea of Italian food is often shaped by that. This is evident in the New York style pizza which is most like a Neopolitan pizza.

Oh, I also like penne with canned/preserved tuna or salmon. It’s one of the most common things to get in a Roman cafeteria. It’s easy to make and all the ingredients are already in the pantry.