Friday, 7 January 2011

Goats Do Rome

There are three things you need to take with you on a trip to Rome:

1)    Sunglasses
2)    Flat shoes
3)    Expandable trousers

Sadly, I only remembered the second one.

Remember Asterix in Rome? Or just as colourful, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix? One of those tasks included finishing a meal by Mannenkenpix, the Belgian. Wikipedia sums it up nicely: ‘Mannenkenpix is famous for cooking gigantic meals for the Titans - the task was to eat one of his massive three-course meals "down to the last crumb". Obelix devours a boar with fries, a flock of geese, several sheep, an omelette made with eight dozen eggs, a whole school of fish, an ox, a cow and calf ("because to separate ze family...zat would not be right!"), a huge mound of caviar (with a single piece of toast), a camel, ("and before we start on the main course") an elephant stuffed with olives. Later on, the chef leaves the kitchen crying as everything in his kitchen was eaten, but a slightly disappointed Obelix believes that the huge meals were only appetisers.’

That, more or less, is how it feels to me to eat a good Italian meal. Even the antipasti or primi piatti are enough to finish me off. I wonder how Italians do it. What sort of training do they have to do to enable them to swallow and keep down those lavish feasts? Just one look down a central Corsi in Rome will show you that most Romans are not portly or of generous stature. Think cohorts of Donatella Versaces in drainpipe jeans.

The first thing you notice in Rome is the smell. Not an unpleasant one at all, just the aroma of a sunblushed city, a mix of burnished leather, sandalwood and ancient stone, mingled with wafts of designer perfume. In London, you can sense the smell of frenetic industry and daily commerce; in Rome your nostrils are bathed in an indolent and enticing, sensual warmth. 

Spot the four different birds!

This two-day trip was a mixture of business and pleasure. Not being sure who might read this; that’s all I should say. The idea was we could do a bit of sightseeing the six of us together in the day, or on our own. But each evening we would meet and go for a meal.

We arrived late-ish on a Friday night at Fiumcino airport. A man bearing our name on a plaque ushered us into his Merc and into the burnished  city, just as dusk was falling. The car glided so smoothly, it was as though its innards were powered by the finest olive oil.

Hugs in the foyer with our friends and then we clipped along the cobbles down the hill towards the Spanish steps.

Early evening on a Friday night in the capital: in London there’d be a squeal of raucous girls on a hen night, a little bit of jostling for space with strangers on Oxford Street, the pinstriped flash of a City Boy’s trouser leg as he strides through the melee to hail a taxi. Here on the Spanish steps, it was as though someone had stopped the clock. The Beautiful Things draped their olive flesh nonchalantly on cubes of smooth travertine and marble. I haven’t sensed so much indolence since I deconstructed Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus at University

Whereas in England, there’d be ‘yoofs’ ogling the windows of Ann Summers, here in Rome I saw school parties, together with their teachers, discussing the aesthetic merits of the La Perla lingerie display on Via dei Condutti. Even the Chanel window even had something quintessentially Italian about it.

You lookin' at me?

We had a beautiful meal at Babette on Via Margutta. I can’t remember a great deal, other than we had a wonderful time and I apparently laughed too much. Too loudly. Oh dear.

The next day, we joined the ‘gang’ for a spot of sightseeing:

Gladiators.... READY!
The Pantheon: Roman temple of all the gods

And then we slipped away; and using our foodie iPhone apps, found our way to La Rosetta which was typically, quietly tucked away on a side street off a touristy square. The descriptive was ‘solo pesce’ and as an ardent pescetarian, this was right up my errr… corsa.

La Rosetta: named after one of my favourite goats. Of course
The place was chirping with locals, their ‘pico-poco’ Italian consonants and animated tones peppered the warm air. The first thing that impressed was the restaurant’s cleanliness and simple style. The next was the chic steel handbag hook I was offered to hang my Prada bag (well, when in Rome, darling!) out of harm’s way. It’s the little things….

I glanced over at the table of locals. Some had plates of oysters and were mid-suckle, others dipped ladles into vast buckets of soup bristling with lobster and crustacea. When in doubt, have a little taste of everything, so we convinced ourselves into the menu pranza a kind of tasting menu.

As expected, the wine list was superb. I love my reds, but a red in the day always turns me into Wee Willy Winkie so we opted for a bottle of 2008 Voglar Sauvignon Blanc from the Alto Adige.

Which turned out to be a superb choice. I’m no wine expert but I sure appreciate a good bicchere di vino. One sip of this straw-coloured elixir took me right back to my year in and around Lake Constance and in particular the great wines I tried in Austria and Southern Germany. This Sauv Blanc by winemaker Peter Dipoli  in Cortaccia had the tropical high, full notes of a southern German white, perfectly balanced by an artful blend of body and acidity. So it had complexity - a hint of orange peel and white flowers - kept in check by a steely, ‘classical’ structure. If this wine were a lover, it would be sharp-witted, artfully experienced, generous in his favours, fatally attractive but sadly, always in control.

Oh yes, the food! First, some oysters and then Fritturina di Delizie di Mare e fili di zucchine con riduzione al Merlot. The zucchine and polpetti were masterfully seasoned. A savoury version of petits-fours.

Then a delicate portion of spaghetti vongole, the like of which could only have been prepared by an Italian, in Italy. The clams themselves were bonsai style: tiny replicas of their sometimes flabby counterparts. Yes, more like cute vongolette really.

Look! With free finger!

Next (and my sides were feeling a bit tense by now) a fillet of Rombo glassato allo zafferano e rosmarino; a surprisingly endearing fish dish to the ears and on paper but a little lacking in pizzazz. Basically this was a slim fillet of turbot glazed in a carbonara-esque sauce with a hint of Marigold Bouillon and a sweet langoustine tail in tempura batter resting on top. After enjoying the Sauvignon Blanc on a largely empty stomach, this marine arrangement reminded me of a scene from Bikini Bottom.

Not being a dessert person, I scanned the menu for cheeses but there were none on this menu pranza. Without further ado, before I could utter an objection, a cheeky tiramisu was placed before me. Naah, I won’t eat this, I said to myself. I never eat desserts. Such a waste of calories when I could imbibe them instead. But then I looked again. It was dowsed with bitter black chocolate sprinkles. I like bitter but I don’t like sweet. It looked so small yet inviting. I tried a smidgeon on my spoon… It looked like an angel’s breast; so soft and tempting.

And before I knew it, I’d polished off the whole thing.

We finally left, replete and happy after some complimentary glasses of homemade limoncello.

All was fine until we had to do the same again later that evening. This time our host had found an even more special restaurant, a cult hideaway off the Piazza del Popolo, Osteria Sant’Ana. It was like a gastronomic crypt where guests were preserved and fortified by wine and heartily authentic food; the dense walls plastered with photos of celebs enjoying fine food and Roman hospitality. Once again we found waiters who ‘waited’ in the form of professionally attending our table. They walked with purpose; nothing escaped their gaze and nothing was too much trouble. These ones were just as efficient but more friendly than the ones at La Rosetta.

Oh, the food, the food! Our host had organised a veritable banquet! Even Obelix would have felt mildly sated by the piles of food that were placed on our table. I, however, had fallen even before the antipasti. That angel’s breast tiramisu had finished me off. I felt sick as a dog. My co-diners said I looked very pale and asked why I was so quiet. In my head I’d worked out the fastest route to the toilet. I’d already planned to take a serviette in case I didn’t make it. Putting anything else in my stomach was out of the question.

But I knew these lovely people well enough. There was no one to impress in our party. So I asked the friendly waiter for some grappa. He obliged.  And with every sip of this wondrous, health-giving liquor, the nausea ebbed away. By the end of the gargantuan meal, I was back to my old self. I hadn’t eaten a morsel but that didn’t matter. Before we left, I made the acquaintance of a pretty Swiss female undertaker; I nattered in German about my love of goats, Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs and Der Bodensee. We promised mutual visits. The grappa had triumphed. You get the picture.

We traipsed upstairs into the open and I suggested a wander around the city. By chance, we caught the end of a pop concert in one of the city’s beautiful piazzi and before everyone could slink off to bed I dragged them all to a late night jazz bar where I celebrated my convalescence with yet more fine grappa.

The next day was a Sunday. The grappa saw to it that I hadn’t even a trace of a hangover but missing out on a meal last night made the hunger pangs more rapid and violent. We packed our bags, left them in reception and wandered down to the city to enjoy a last bout of sightseeing and dining. We did plenty of the former. And by the time the old tummy really began to rumble, we tried, in vain, to find a decent restaurant that was open on a Sunday.

We traipsed and wandered and rambled and tramped.

My,  how we traipsed....

Tourists spilled out of restaurants at every turn. I looked longingly at diners’ plates as we weaved along the pavements. I scrutinised the plates of these fortunate souls. But to me, every dish showed signs of being nothing more than a hideous stir-through sauce; a vile, hastily added Dolmio creation from a jar. Or, shudder, deep crust pizzas! Even the pasta looked mass-made. In desperation we found our way to La Rosetta but it was closed on a Sunday. Darn it! This was our final hour or so in Rome and I wanted special food, something authentic and handcrafted.

The longer we walked, the more I daydreamed about Roman armies marching on their stomachs. Who could starve in Rome, I wondered? It seemed absurd but it seemed to be happening to me. The hunger made me feel so mad and angry that I wanted to punch the man’s accordeon as he squeezed out his jolly ditty. I wanted to slash the old man’s gas balloons as he stood and smiled at the children. Oh yes, I could have just kicked that lady’s dachsund into touch…

Eventually, we found our way to Babette, the first restaurant we’d dined in on Friday night and thank heavens, we took the last table available. Divine! Homemade pasta, imaginative use of fennel and courgette in a salad and a robust wine list.

Food at last and rather pretty at that

Anatole Broyard described Rome as ‘a poem pressed into service as a city.’ So, as we left the fragrant city of marble, only good and fine memories of this poem remained: the unexpected blaze of late October sun glancing off burnished travertine, the smiles of Roman waiting staff, a sip of healing grappa, the heady sights, sounds and flavours of such a historically and culturally rich city. My senses were stimulated, intoxicated and yet contented. And with it, my imagination.

To me, Rome is the closest I’ve come to a city of poetry. And as Pulitzer prizewinner Carl Sandburg put it, ‘poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes.’