I just returned from a trip to Rome. While there, I was asked by my friends what I miss most of Rome. Of course what one misses the most is the city itself. Anybody who has walked around, and gotten lost into, the side streets around via del Corso or Trastevere, especially in the late afternoon, when everything is bathed in an odd yellowish light, knows what I am talking about. One thing I don’t miss is Roman traditional food. Roman cuisine is one of the worst of Italy’s and a lot of its delicacies gross me out. One famous dish for example, la pajata, has been (and probably still is) illegal since the emergence of mad cow disease, because it’s made from veal intestines, including digestive juices. The matter of its legality has preoccupied Rome’s mayor to no end, and he has threatened “eat-ins” of pajata as acts of civil disobedience.
Back to the things I miss, in random order:
- Milk. Milk in Italy tastes markedly different from American milk. It also expires in just four-five days, meaning that probably it is subject to a milder pasteurization. It might also have to do with what the cows eat. (Here, Clover milk is the one that tastes closest to Italian milk.)
- Cappuccino. There is probably a connection to the previous point, but not only. When espresso drinks became popular in America in the 1990s, it was common to steam milk until you would have hot milk at the bottom, and a thick, dry foam at the top. Then the cappuccino would be hot milk with espresso topped with thick dry foam. While things have improved, even the coffee shops in San Francisco and New York that are most OCD (and slow) about the way they make their drinks do not quite replicate the uniformly frothy mix that is prepared effortlessly (and quickly) by any barista in Rome. And the thing is, if a Roman can do something quickly, it really can’t be that hard.
- Pizza a taglio. Although I am not a fan of Roman-style pizza (which has a thin, almost crispy, pie), Rome is the undisputed capital of pizza-by-the-slice. In Italy, pizza-by-the-slice is cooked in large rectangular trays, in electric ovens, and it is sold only to take away, either in stand-alone shops or in bakeries. It is considered a completely distinct foodstuff from the round pizza cooked in a wood-fire oven and made for sit-down consumption. One Roman specialty is pizza with potatoes, which sounds strange until you try it. But it’s also very good to just have pizza bianca, that is pizza with no topping; both the top and the bottom are cooked to an almost crisp, while the inside is soft, so it is easy to cut transversely and to fill with cured meats.
- Fette biscottate. This is a bit harder to explain.
It’s sort of packaged pre-toasted white bread. I know it doesn’t sound appetizing, but it’s a perfect base (way tastier than actual toast) on which to spread butter and jam. While Gentilini brand (the traditional Roman brand) cookies can be found in San Francisco, I have never found their fette biscottate.
- Cutting remarks. Roman humor is not particularly sophisticated, but it has an undisputed specialty: the cutting remark. Roman traffic, obviously, provokes a lot of road rage, and so the road is an ideal place for this genre. A couple of examples I remember (second-hand or third-hand, they are probably apocryphal, but they are representative): a large woman is crossing the street slowly, the light changes and she is stopping traffic; from a car: “Ah balena, aridacce Pinocchio” (“You whale, spit out Pinocchio”). A cautious driver stops at a yellow light, and is not moving promptly when the light turns green again; from the car behind “E annamo, che i colori so’ finiti.” (“Let’s go, there are no more colors.”)
- Nativity scenes. A socially acceptable way for grown men to play with dolls, and to make not just a doll-house, but a doll-city, nativity scenes can grow beautifully huge.
In the weeks before Christmas, most hardware stores in Italy will sell the human and animal characters, the buildings, including windmills with turning blades, fountains with running water, trees, and so on.
- Italian TV. Where else can you get something like this?