Monday, May 23, 2011

A Sicilian Pasticceria in Rome

I take the train a lot. It's a relaxing way to travel and frankly airport security procedures are starting to weigh heavily on me. With the train you show up fifteen minutes in advance of departure time and off you go. I can easily metro my way over to the station but usually my husband drives me there and then picks me up when I return. Traffic is always a mess right around the station so yesterday I decided to save my husband a little bit of aggravation by walking a block away from the station.
I parked myself on the corner of Via Volturno & Via Solferino, just in front of the Caffe Giuliani.

The display of cannoli in the window was enough to draw me into the pasticceria. I ordered myself a coffee and a cannoli: they're small and I like that. Perfect for a mid-afternoon indulgence.
But it doesn't end there. There's a whole row of glass cases displaying other tempting pastries, and the aroma of chocolate about the place made it hard to step out the door and into our car, with cannoli in hand for my husband.
I think this will be my new pick up point at Termini, making train travel all the more appealing.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trains and Dining and Great Things Gone By

I'm sitting on the Frecciarossa three and a half hour high speed train from Milan to Rome. It's great: I've got free wifi, a plug outlet for my computer, all the techie things we now look for in train and air travel.
And my lunch? I just ate a hard-boiled egg I pocketed from the hotel breakfast buffet and I also have some fruit, yogurt and a few beverages to tide me over until I arrive in Rome.
My meal reminds me of a story covered just two days ago on Italian television about London's Kings Cross to Leeds full dining car service. On May 20th the East Coast main line railway dinner service came to an end. There's something imminently sad and nostalgic about seeing the disappearance of railway dining. It's another form of slow food that you hate to see go.
Instead we have roll-away carts with soft drinks, potato chips, candy bars and occasionally some not-so-fresh sandwiches on sale. My train goes on to Naples after Rome so instead of a roll-away food cart an entrepreneurial Neapolitan man is selling homemade panini and water out of a water bucket.

It's great to get a lot of work and extra reading done on the train, but honestly I'd prefer to mosey up to a dining car for a full dinner service.
My brother-in-law is a train fanatic so when we were in California in January we trained our way up to Sacramento to visit the state capital's train museum. It might not be the first place that comes to your mind to visit when you're in California but it's well worth the visit. There's a whole slice of American history within the museum, but what I was most drawn to was the history of American railway dining. Railway dining was an event in and of itself, replete with great food, waiters, a la carte menus, and cutlery and dinnerware featuring the insignia of each line.
The charming guide we had dates back to the days of railway car dining and enthusiastically showed us all the menus and dinnerware of the various lines.

Here is a sampling of what you would have found in some of the West Coast's railway dining cars.
The cover of the San Francisco Overland Limited menu featured a detailed pen and ink drawing of its train. The line's cutlery was exquisitely and intricately designed.

The Mimbreno china could be found exclusively on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Dining Car No. 1474. The dining car was named Cochiti, after a 1,000 year old Indian pueblo in New Mexico. The car was later used as a restaurant in Tea, South Dakota.

This delicate, flower-painted dinnerware was featured on the California Limited. Of note are some of the appetizing, and exotic, menu choices: Green Turtle a l'Anglaise, Larded Tenderloin of Beef, Perigueux and Sweetbread Cutlet.

The healthy adage, "eat an apple a day", was artistically conveyed on the Southern and Northern Pacific Railway plates.

Although cooking space was tight on-board, the railway kitchens were probably no smaller than many restaurant kitchens.

Although the days of fine dining on trains have mostly come and gone I thought it might be nice to capture the moment by owning some of the old dinnerware and cutlery. It is available, not inexpensively, through antique dealers buying and selling on-line. "The Official Guide to Railroad Dining Car China", by Douglas W. McIntyre, will tell you everything you need to know on the subject. Careful though: this out of print book, published in 1990, currently sells for about $150.00, used.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Let me digress from food for a moment...

I met Karen almost a year ago, on-line at first. We both belong to AWAR, a club for American women in Rome. Although there aren't many events I participate in with this group it does have one great thing: a list serve. For those of you who don't know what a list serve is, it's a way to put a question or comment out to a closed group and receive input back. It's a great thing. Especially if you live overseas and have questions about your new environment: restaurant advice, housing, local events and so forth.
Karen is a loquacious, curious and sometimes quirky American woman (married to a lovely Japanese man) living in Rome now for almost a year. She posted so frequently on our AWAR list serve that I eventually teased her about being a list serve spammer. Her insights and curiosity about everything Italian have made me notice things I'd never taken the time to contemplate.
Karen is now part of a monthly cooking group I run and I've gotten to know her quite well. She is a warm and insightful person and her posts to our list serve are often thoughtful and touching, like this one posted for mother's day, which she has allowed me to share with you:

Most of the time, the news is just terrible.

And New Yorkers are thought of as a pretty tough bunch, their thoughts concentrated on making it in a crowded, pushy, fast-paced, competitive place.

But this spring, all of New York has been watching the webcam of a Washington Square nest of a red-tailed hawk couple, named Violet and Bobby. The city (with untold watchers around the world) has been waiting for their eggs to hatch, watching the parents dutifully incubate and turn the eggs. They waited, and waited, and were collectively grieved when on Tuesday the eggs were termed by the experts to be duds.

But then, the unexpected happened....and all of NY has rejoiced! A baby hawk, the rather unattractive ornithological term for which is eyeass, emerged on Friday! Siblings are expected momentarily!

A happy Mother's Day for Violet! And just think of how this avian maternity and this little bit of new life has brought pleasure and smiles to millions!

I hope you human moms have a good Mother's Day, too!

You can read about Violet and Bobby and see pictures here.

(I love the fact that the parks department has stopped poisoning rats in the square so that the babies will have healthy food! And that the strawberry festival planned for the square will have signs up asking people to keep the noise down to be less stressful for the newborns and their parents! What a town!)

So that's Karen. I read her post first thing this mother's day and it started my day off just right. I've been rejoicing motherhood, birth and renewal for the last few weeks of our marvelous Roman spring. Births have been happening everywhere around me and here are some pictures I have captured that celebrate what mothers everywhere, of all species, bring into the world.

These six baby birds were born two days ago on my terrace; right next to my cooking group as we sat and dined...

These two kittens are part of a large litter; the mother is breast feeding her own, plus kittens from another litter who lost their mother.

Baby lambs are everywhere on our hillsides this spring:

A brown and white, spindly legged baby donkey with its mother.

Baby Alfredo was born ten days ago to a dear friend and his wife. Newborns aren't always beautiful but this baby boy is exquisite.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

You say "all'amatriciana", and I say "alla matriciana"...

Amatriciana or matriciana, the sauce is still the same: rich,spicy, with crunchy bits of guanciale. The name varies based on who is trying to lay claim to this pasta sauce's origins. The sauce is supposedly named after the town of Amatrice in the Appenine hills to the North East of Rome. Whether true or not, this sauce has become one of the signature dishes of Roman culinary tradition.
I know it must seem that I'm using guanciale for just about everything these days and it's probably true. But it's just so good and flavor-enhancing in many savory dishes. It gives a certain oomph to otherwise bland vegetables and provides smoky, crunchy flavor to pasta sauces. So it's true, I am using it a lot.

To prepare the sauce correctly (and it will make all the difference to the successful outcome of the sauce to use the right ingredients) you need:
  • Fresh or canned, peeled tomatoes, 500 grams
  • Guanciale, 150 grams, finely cubed (or cut into thin, inch long strips)
  • One peperoncino (red chili pepper), minced
  • One medium onion, thinly sliced
  • Bucatini or spaghetti, 500 grams
  • Pecorino Romano cheese, about 75 grams, grated

  • Cook the guanciale in a heavy-weight frying pan over a very low flame until the guanciale starts to become golden and crispy.
  • Add the sliced onion and minced red pepper and cook until the onion is soft and translucent.
  • Add the tomatoes and cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens.

  • While the sauce is cooking put the pasta into boiling, salted water and cook until al dente. The original recipe calls for bucatini, a long, hollow pasta. I find it too unwieldy and always end up with sauce on my clothes so I opt for the more manageable alternative: spaghetti.

  • Once the pasta is cooked, drain and add to your pasta sauce.
  • Toss well and serve with grated Pecorino Romano cheese.