I’m six months into my stint as a gastronome in Italy, and five study trips down. All of this immersion in the world of high-quality foods (and questioning what “quality” even means) has spoiled me, in a way: I’m no longer intrigued by how cheese is made (I’ve memorized the steps) or engrossed in the process of curing meat (I already had an exam on that). I would worry about what an intolerable food snob I’d be when I return to the States in two months, except for the fact that I have been literally dreaming about Hot Diggity hot dogs, the KoJa lady, and my favorite booth at Sandy’s Restaurant, the Greek diner my aunt and I haunt on Saturday afternoons. That said, this week’s study trip to Lazio, the region Rome calls home, freshened my outlook on the final stretch of my expathood. Here are some highlights:
Rome isn’t known for its pizza; Naples is the birthplace of the margherita and marinara pies. But Stefano Callegari, the pizzaiolo behind 00100, Sforno, and the new-ish Tonda, is shaking up that reputation, marrying a Neapolitan approach to dough blistering (he uses Naples-made wood-burning brick ovens) with toppings that evoke classic Roman dishes. On our second Roman night, we ate at Tonda, the two-year-old pizzeria that combines the best elements from 00100 and Sforno. Its menu boasts Sforno’s famous cacio e pepe pizza—a pillowy ode to the pecorino-and-cracked-black-pepper-topped Roman pasta—and 00100’s supplì all’amatriciana, which fuses guanciale-spiked tomato sauce into a Roman-style arancino, i.e. a breaded, fried risotto ball. The cacio e pepe pie is an innovation: Callegari sprinkles ice chips on the dough before baking to keep it moist, then peels it out of the oven a mid-bake to dust on pecorino romano and black pepper. The cheese fuses with the moist dough to make for a soft, tooth-sinking layer above the crunchy crust. My favorite pie, though, was the patate e pancetta, a mozzarella-draped pizza topped with crispy pancetta and potatoes that were mashed-potato soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside. This is hangover pizza.
The morning after our slice orgy at Tonda, we headed over to the coastal town of Anzio to learn about (and of course sample) the Tellina del litorale romano, that is, a teeny tiny sweet mollusc. These purple-shelled, triangular clams have hunkered down in the fine sands of the Roman coast (from Anzio to Passoscuro) since ancient times, and they are fished with handmade rakes (either attached to the fishing boats or wielded by hand) that coax them out of the sand. Chosen as a traditional product to be safeguarded by the Slow Food Presidia project, the tellina, by default, must be fished sustainably: since these bivalves spend their whole lives in one patch of sand, fishermen must self-regulate their raking to ensure that telline will be around for future seasons. Dished up with spaghetti, aglio e olio (garlic and oil), the delicate telline make for a sweeter (albeit also more time-consuming) take on spaghetti alle vongole.
On Thursday, we drove through the Castelli Romani area just southeast of Rome for an afternoon in the town of Frascati, the home of the eponymous white wine and the antiche osterie that pour it. These osterie are also known as fraschette and originally were backwards B.Y.O. joints—they supplied the wine, you brought your own food. Fraschette have been around since Medieval times, and represented a place for the middle class to hang out around an ever-flowing wine cask and plates of homemade food all afternoon. Nowadays, there are only four true fraschette left in the town of Frascati; two serve only wine, and two have added a menu of simple Roman dishes to their alcoholic offerings. We lunched at Osteria San Gaetano, one of the osterie that also dishes up salumi platters, wedges of pecorino romano, and thinly sliced porchetta, that rolled-and-spiced pork roast that Lazio serves best.
Before bidding arrivederci to Rome, we popped into Panificio Bonci for a chat with the city’s other pizza kingpin and TV personality Gabriele Bonci, and a sampling of his bread and pizza a taglio (rectangular slices). The Pizzarium owner and innovator of all things carbohydrate opened this all-natural bakery just last fall after several years of plotting and a lifetime of dreaming about the magic of yeasted dough. Bonci told us that when he was five, he watched his mother kneading dough for Easter pizza and leaving it covered with a kitchen towel by the heater while the family attended mass. When they returned, Bonci couldn’t believe the miracle of the dough doubling in size and stayed up all night thinking about it. This is a man in a committed relationship with bread. At Panificio Bonci, he has taken this relationship a step further, using only alternative grains from small producers and cultivating a respect for the soil and territory in his business practices. Bonci’s breads aren’t like any others I’ve tasted in these past six months—first of all, he uses grains like rye that are absent in Italian cuisine, secondly, he adds products like raw pollen collected by bees in Rome and dried apples and pears to some of his loaves. And the pizza a taglio—unph. Callegari might have the toppings business under lock in Rome, but Bonci knows his dough. Most pizza a taglio is little more than a giant rectangular pan filled with bready dough, topped with sub-par ingredients. At Bonci, the dough isn’t squished into pans but shaped free-form, allowing for crunchy edges and bottoms. With toppings like paper-thin slices of zucchini, smoked mozzarella, and top-notch anchovies, Bonci does right by square pizza.