hoever used to be in Italian restaurants and kitchens, I wish she (or, okay, he) were still there.
Recently. we took a little gita from Rome toward Viterbo. As it turned out, the show-offy place we had chosen for lunch in the town of Capranica was closed. A stroke of backhanded good luck, actually, because almost next door was a trattoria where it seemed everyone in the small town had gathered for lunch. behind the ancient From beaded curtains of the entrance, the smell of summer porcini wafted out into the street.
This sweet place reminded me of my early days in Italy; straw chairs all around,and on the walls photos of the local soccer team. Beside them were framed poems and sayings about friendship and food. Everyone naturally looked up as we entered and were shown our table by the one elderly owner, also waiter, and brother-in-law to the cook.
We were Martians, after all, visitors from the outside world, subjects for discussion for at least the next few minutes. And then everyone went back the real excitement of the day: home made pappardelle with a wild boar scent, juniper, and a side dish of a trifolato of porcini, so fragrant we couldn’t understand why everyone tasting this manna looked so blasé, as if to say: “Ho hum, another perfect lunch from the lady in the kitchen.”
I them sked myself the obvious question, Why weren’t there more of these lovely mammas or nonnas or papas plying their aromatic trade in Rome? Why did we now have to trek out of the city to stumble onto family establishments with plain, fresh, beautifully prepared food made from local products? When had lab-enhanced truffle oil come to dominate so many mushroom dishes. Whenm had salads come to taste the same?
In fairness, Filettaro in Largo de’ Librari off via de’ Giubbonari makes a perfect salt cod in perfect golden batter. The place has somehow held its ground over the decades. (I was first introduced to its fried cod, fried zucchine, and a salad of puntarelle nearly 40 years ago.) This, to me, was Roman food. The tough cookie in the kitchen turned out so many dishes a night that you’d think there were three of her.
Absolutely every bite of anything you ordered there was as fresh and down-home as it gets. Their anchovies on bread with butter still stand up to any peasant dish in the world—yes, I said peasant. Peasant is as worthy a word as it gets, because to me it’s the what I call the frou-frou dishes and Italy’s penchant for creative movement that has undermined the once- sacred art of la cucina romana, ruining tested recipes in the name of making them more innovative.
It’s harder and harder to find that little osterie of the heart: the one we all knew and loved so long ago. It fact, it may be an exercise in nostalgia alone.
Rome’s tourist proliferation — the city gets some 10 million visitors a year, up 20 percent since 1990 — has left deep traces. Vacations are shorter and anything but leisurely. Fewer care if the clams in spaghetti alle vongole have the requisite two black horns or that spaghetti alla carbonaracontains its share of cream.
From the window of our central Rome apartment, I often see people carrying pizza take-out boxes or plastic cartons of eat-and-walk (or sit) foods.
At lthe trendy trattoria al 31, cutting to the chase is all the rage. They serve two perfect, fatty abbacchio alla scottadito chops minus the traditional backdrop — syrupy squiggles made with a reduction of balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice. Or maybe they use passion fruit. Whatever.
Though I love to look, these days I prefer staying home with my pasta alla romana (fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil, parmesan shavings, a touch of lemon or mint and lots of good olive oil). I’ve lost interest in takunbg chances on the newest place.\, never mind its porcini gelato!
I don’t want new. I don’t want cucina creative. I scowl at complicated dishes. So no truffle oil.. please. Just give me mamma in the kitchen cutting golden tagliatelle by hand. Let her toss them in butter and grace them with a few slices real porcini.
If not that, let her (or nonno, nonna, zio or papa) make and serve aglio, olio, pepperoncino on perfectly cooked spaghetti. No porcini gelato needed.