Thursday, March 22, 2007
Eternal Treasure: La Cucina Romana
I suppose it's rude to stare rabidly at someone else's food, especially when your own plate is full of something warm, something equally delicious. But, was it? This was my quandary. What was that luscious looking pasta in Fiore's dish? Oh, how I wished I had ordered that!
“Would you like to taste this?” Fiore asked me, holding the dish up and extending it toward me. We had bumped into Fiore and her companion Romeo, Franco's work colleague, while wandering around Rome one Saturday evening last year. Inviting us to join them for dinner, they had brought us to a small restaurant that specializes in La Cucina Romana, near Piazza Navona.
“Oh yes,” I said, and immediately speared a small portion onto my fork. A moment later my quandary was no more. Whatever this was, it was one of the best things I'd ever tasted.
“What is that?” I asked.
La Cucina Romana
This cuisine has long been the food that is the basic daily menu of people living in Rome and its surrounding area. It is often defined by its ancient lineage reaching back to Imperial times, and for the use of fresh ingredients, based on the seasons. The latter, however, is true of most of the cuisine of Italy today, certainly throughout the south.
What is most particular about La Cucina Romana, in my experience, is the wide variety of dishes. Equally striking is the exquisite simplicity of the creations, as you will see in the recipe for Gricia below. Much of the credit for the ingenuity of many of these dishes, it seems, does not go to the citydwellers themselves. It belongs instead to the extremely poor shepherds and peasants who over the centuries lived in the farflung rural expanses surrounding Rome, the region known as Latium, according to Italian Cooking & Living (a sister magazine to the renown La Cucina Italiana).
The list of alla romana specialties is, of course, lengthy. The information website for the Italian Trade Commission, offers a comprehensive overview. It notes, in particular, the superior level of Latium's gardeners “who raise the tastiest of peas, zucchini and fava beans, specialize in artichokes tender enough to eat raw, or to fry in the style of Rome's Jewish ghetto as carciofi alla giudia.”
Also highlighted are two dishes that feature prominently on many Roman restaurant menus, spaghetti alla carbonara and bucatini all'amatriciana. You may notice here that the precise Roman provenance of these dishes is also contested.
Franco's Gricia (for four people)
1 lb. rigatoni
1 large onion
2 garlic cloves
½ lb. bacon (fresh – not cured, nor smoked, etc.)
1 cup olive oil
½ cup Pecorino Romano grated
1 tsp. fresh ground pepper
Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a full boil in a large pot.
Meanwhile, thinly slice the bacon (1” x 1/4” x 1/10th”), put the oil into a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the bacon. Cook one minute, then turn the heat to low and continue cooking – only until soft. Keep hot but bacon should not be crisp!*
Meanwhile, finely grate the Pecorino Romano – set aside.
Finely mince garlic cloves. Slice onion – very thin.
When pasta water is boiling, add half a fist (2 tbsps) coarse salt, add pasta and stir slightly. Cook according to package directions (stir pasta as needed to make sure it does not stick together).
Remove bacon, but not oil, from sauté pan and set bacon aside. Increase heat to medium high and add minced garlic and sliced onion. Cook the garlic and onion for one minute then lower the heat and continue cooking a little longer until soft. Absolutely do not brown!*
Drain pasta. Add to garlic and onion in sauté pan, along with the bacon and pepper.
Serve immediately, with the grated Pecorino.
*Emphatic emphasis Franco's
Special note: Some may note that in the photo above, we have used Pennoni Rigati, instead of Rigatoni (what we had in the cupboard), as a fortuitous example of possible large pasta substitutions.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato