Friday, July 22, 2011

Roman Pizza and Cooking Like an Italian

When we arrived at our apartment rental in Rome and the caretaker was showing us around, she opened up the doors to the private patio and the first thing I saw was a small lemon tree sagging under the weight of numerous large yellowish lemons. Even though we were so pleased to be in an apartment instead of a hotel room, with a closet and shower that you can actually stand in, and a sofa and a dining room table, the thing I got most excited about was the prospect of being able to pick a lemon from that tree and make something to eat with it.

However, we didn’t actually get around to making dinner until our last day. And in between, we enjoyed some delicious pizza which is not to be overlooked. We were fortunately to eat at Dar Poeta
in the Trastevere, known by many to make the best pizza in Rome. We shared a “superbufala” which was fresh mozzarella, artichokes, olives, and tomato sauce on the puffiest, crispiest, lightest pizza crust. Their menu brags about how you won’t leave feeling full or heavy because their crust is so good, and I concur!

We also had good pizza at Taverna Parione. One was tomato sauce and mozzarella with sausage and the largest capers I’ve ever seen. The other was a white pizza with sausage, four types of mushrooms, mozzarella, and a salad of very lightly dressed arugula greens right on top. This made for a delicious combination, in a preparation I wouldn’t have thought of at home. Salad and pizza, of course! Salad on pizza, who knew?!

But enough with our pizzerias, as good as they were. I am pretty sure that I have never picked anything and made it into a meal. We have a fig tree in our yard which I cultivate every year for jam, and I have picked berries for jams and tomatoes for salads. I remember growing zucchini when I was younger, and the thrill of picking it when ripe after watching it grow for weeks, but then I didn’t have any responsibility for its preparation. Picking this lemon and putting it in my pasta was really a different kind of experience for me.

We were staying in Rome for 4 nights and knew that making a farm-fresh dinner had to part of our Italian vacation memory. We didn’t actually get around to it until our final night, what for all the exhaustion and timing of sightseeing. But when our pace slowed down slightly and we stumbled upon the market on our way to the Pantheon, but realized we did in fact have time to buy produce and take it back to the flat and still have time to sightsee, then we knew we were finally out of vacation mode and soaking up life in Rome.

I had read about agretti in a blog about a year ago and that was the first I’d heard of it. I hadn’t really been following the blog-o-sphere while I was travelling, but I just happened to see this post about agretti again (and how rare and wonderful it is!) So I felt tickled by fate when the very next day we saw agretti both at the market and in the grocery store. Of course we had to try it. On the morning of our market excursion, we found the agretti first and the stall owner shoved an enormous handful in a bag for me. Next, we found some cherry tomatoes on-the-vine, and some cipollini onions. Making the pasta decision was probably the hardest. They all look so good! I wanted one that would complement the agretti both in color and and shape. We decided on papardelle-like long flat wide noodles, flavored with porcini mushrooms and making the noodles a soft brown. A final stop for some pecorino cheese and we were on our way.

The preparation was really very simple (as it probably always should be when your ingredients on their own are fresh and delicious). I sliced the onions into wedges and trimmed the agretti. Next time, I will chop it more, or remove more of the main stem… it was delicious and the stems are not tough, but freeing individual fronds from their base would have mixed them more evenly into the pasta and given a more distributed taste sensation. I sautéed the two together in generous olive oil (happily a staple in the apartment, along with salt and pepper.) Agretti is salty on its own – if you get a chance to try some raw, you will be amazed! It is also crisp and much more firm than you would expect from its willowy appearance, and is to be cooked for 8-10 minutes which is why I put it right in with the onions.

Meanwhile, I boiled the salted pasta water, and when the vegetables were done, removed them from the pan and added quartered tomatoes to sauté while the pasta was boiling. Next came the lemon –although the rind was only pale yellow, and had some scars and lumps, when I cut into it, the flesh was the most juicy, seed-free pulp and the entire room immediately smelled of fresh lemon. I used juice from about half squeezed all over the vegetable mix. The tomatoes and pasta were done at about the same time, so I could combine them with the agretti and onions, plus some fresh black pepper, a little more lemon and lots of finely grated fresh cheese. Stir it all together and dive in.
Our favorite pasta of the entire trip.

This was such a fabulous meal to have saved for our last night in Italy. The most work was washing the pasta pan afterwards. We enjoyed it with a bottle of 2007 Chianti reserve and finished with some Perugian dark chocolate with orange. What a sweet taste of la dolce vita this all left on our palette!

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