Notes on life and food in Italy from a Canadian in Rome.
This post was originally published on January 25, 2017 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
After the first bite comes the disappointment. There is a moment, maybe a second or two after you’ve just twirled up that first forkful of pasta and popped it into your mouth, when you realize it: This is not good. This is a mistake, a complete waste of carbohydrates.
That’s what I thought as I stared down at the plate of cacio e pepe sitting in front of me on the starched white table cloth, a pile of ever-so-slightly overcooked noodles surrounded by a pool of watery, greasy sauce – unappetizing to look at, even less appetizing to eat. It tasted like butter, which had absolutely no business showing up in this particular pasta. What it didn’t taste like was cheese, which was odd, considering that cacio e pepe’s whole reason for existing is cheese. When a pasta with a sauce that is supposed to be made entirely from cheese and pepper tastes like neither cheese nor pepper, there is a problem.
I probably should have sent it back to the kitchen. Instead, I asked for a bowl of grated pecorino, dumped the entire thing over the pasta and ate my way through about half of it before reaching the buttery lake of disappointment at the bottom and calling it quits. It wasn’t the first time this had happened – there’s a cozy-looking restaurant a short walk from my apartment that’s guilty of serving me a cacio e pepe that tasted like nothing but butter – and it probably won’t be the last. It’s not as though I have anything against butter in general; true, I do have a somewhat complicated relationship with it, raving about buttery cakes and salted butter caramel and then flat-out rejecting a piece of bread with even the tiniest swipe of butter on it, but I know it has its place.
The classic Roman pastas, though, are not the place for butter, which doesn’t even really make an appearance in Roman culinary history. The amatriciana and gricia rely exclusively on porky guanciale for fat. The carbonara throws in an egg or two and a healthy grating of pecorino cheese for creaminess, and then the cacio e pepe takes away everything but the cheese and still ends up with the creamiest sauce imaginable. When cacio e pepe is done right, it’s the ultimate comfort food. It’s exactly what you want to eat on a rainy day or a cold day or the kind of day where nothing much is going according to plan: cheese, and copious amounts of carbohydrates. Sharp, salty, liquified cheese wrapped around strands of fresh pasta.
And I don’t know about you, but when I eat something that’s simultaneously so indulgent and so dead simple, I want it to be right. That’s why I get so worked up about a buttery cacio e pepe – it’s not just about disliking the ingredient, it’s about cutting corners and cutting back on quality ingredients and, on top of that, always feeling the need to add something gratuitous into an overwhelmingly simple recipe with years and years of tradition behind it. When a restaurant slips butter into a cacio e pepe, they’re doing it because it lets them get away with using just a little bit less of that comparatively expensive Pecorino Romano cheese in each portion. They’re doing it because the sauce stays creamier and more liquid for longer rather than drying out and seizing up if the plates sit around for too long before making their way out to the table. Cacio e pepe exists in that very narrow space between a watery disaster and a solid, congealed block; butter makes that space just a little bit wider. Unfortunately, it also changes the flavour, cutting back on the sharp cheesiness and adding a generic buttery richness.
Thankfully, there are countless places in Rome that serve a solid, butter-free cacio e pepe. I’ve homed in on a few in my own neighbourhood, I’ve latched onto friends’ favourites and turned them into my own, and I’ve trekked across the city to try various glowing recommendations for myself. But sometimes, cacio e pepe feels more like the kind of dish I want to cook at home, in my pajamas, so that I can sneak pinches of grated cheese beforehand and then collapse onto the couch in a kind of cheese-and-carb-induced coma afterwards. And at home, I can guarantee myself that there will be no butter in my cacio e pepe.
After the first bite comes the disappointment. There is a moment, maybe a second or two after you’ve just twirled up that first forkful of pasta and popped it into your mouth, when you realize it: This is not good. This is a mistake, a complete waste of carbohydrates. Read more…
This post was originally published on November 20, 2016 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
I love a good market. This is not the same thing as saying that I love grocery shopping, because I generally don’t, particularly when it involves a rainy morning and an armload of too-heavy, clunky, very-nearly-waterlogged bags that I have to carry back to the apartment while juggling an umbrella. But markets in general are something I’ve always found fascinating and invigorating, particularly when I’m travelling and am free to browse my way through the stalls and buy frivolous things like slim wedges of strange cheeses and little jars of exotic jams without actually having to think about what to buy for dinner.
And so I seek out markets whenever I find myself in a new place, and then I visit them with the kind of intensity and studied concentration that I rarely – if ever – dedicate to any other kind of attraction. In the average museum or gallery, my usual expression is one of mild, obligated interest constantly on the verge of melting into total boredom. In the average market, I’m the perfect picture of rapt attention, camera constantly at the ready. I find markets inspiring.
Out of all the markets I’ve seen so far, the daily market in Ortigia stands out as one of my favourites. It’s fairly small, just a single street with one end pointed towards the sea and the other butting up against the ruins of an ancient temple, but it compensates by being wonderfully boisterous (although not quite to the degree of Naples, which takes market chaos to a whole new level) and incredibly colourful. I could tell you more about the market, about the giant baskets of deep red sun-dried tomatoes and the heat pushing its way through the striped umbrellas or about the sounds of swordfish fillets being smacked down on metal counters and vendors shouting in Sicilian, but instead I’m going to leave you with these photos from August, which I hope capture just a fraction of the riot of colours that make up the market and the contrasting calm of the nearby streets.
Out of all the markets I’ve seen so far, the daily market in Ortigia stands out as one of my favourites. It’s fairly small, just a single street with one end pointed towards the sea and the other butting up against the ruins of an ancient temple, but it compensates by being wonderfully boisterous and incredibly colourful. Read more…
This post was originally published on November 27, 2016 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
On a still, muggy morning in the first week of August, we crammed the car with bags and suitcases and set off down the autostrada, direction South, just as the sun pushed its way over the horizon.
We had somewhere in the vicinity of nine and a half hours on the road ahead of us – more if we factored in all the inevitable Autogrill coffee stops and greasy panini wolfed down in parking lots and that hour we spent stopped, bumper-to-bumper, just outside of Salerno – an entire day where we would do nothing but watch the scenery evolve as we inched our way down the map. Out of Lazio and through Campania (Vesuvius looming on the horizon, fresh mozzarella di bufala for sale outside gas stations), through a tiny slice of Basilicata (tree-covered mountains, feeling of wilderness) and into the depths of Calabria (indecipherable accents, intensely spicy salami for sale in the Autogrill), all the way down to the town of Villa San Giovanni where ferries leave day and night to cross the Straight of Messina over to Sicily.
The line to get onto the ferry, accessible only after zig-zagging through the entire town, took many, many times longer than the actual crossing, which was so short that there was barely time to get out of the car, file up towards one of the passenger decks and catch a glimpse of Messina’s sun-baked tangle of concrete looming up directly in front of the boat before turning around and heading down to the car.
And then we were on land again, back on the road, curving our way down the coast towards Siracusa past the combination of gorgeous towns, decrepit 1970s concrete developments, glimpses of ridiculously blue waters and sweeping views of grim industrial complexes that, packed together like this, could only mean one thing: Sicily.
That’s the thing about so much of Sicily: It’s incongruent. It’s confusing. It’s the beautiful layered on top of the ugly; the sublimely stunning next to the stunningly unsightly. If you’re not careful, if you go in without knowing what to expect, it will give you whiplash.
Our arrival in Siracusa felt like a study in stark contrasts. To get to its beautiful historic centre, Ortigia, isolated on its own little island, we had to penetrate the urban sprawl surrounding it, navigating through narrow, cracked streets and nonsensical traffic circles with exits protruding at strange angles, all clogged with heavy traffic. The buildings all looked dusty and dated – not dated enough to be historic or even old, just dated, the worst of the mafia’s control over the building industry left to age poorly under the harsh Sicilian sun – and there was nothing about the place that would convince you that it was actually one of the most well-known, sought-out parts of Sicily. And then, suddenly, you’re hurtling over a low-slung bridge, fishing boats are bobbing on either side of you and the briny sea air is coming in through the windows, and there it is: Ortigia. The historical centre of the city, the part that makes up for everything else surrounding it, the part that makes you go, oh, I get it as you take in the soft textures and graceful decay that make up the city.
We stayed for a week, renting an apartment on the top floor of a building just a few metres away from the sea. From the terrace, I could look out over the jagged orange-tiled rooftops until they met up with deep blues of the Mediterranean, and I could also look down into the narrow street below, a quiet street, the kind that gets more old women dragging market carts as traffic than scooters or cars. Across from the apartment there was an abandoned building, centuries old and sprouting greenery from odd places, missing all of its floors inside and the railing from its balcony but still somehow looking graceful. Next door to it – those Sicilian contrasts at work again – was a luxury boutique hotel, windows gleaming, stone scrubbed until it looked uncomfortably new.
Every morning – early, before sunrise, before the heat and humidity could build themselves into something intolerable – I ran a couple of loops around the island, passing the sleek row of massive yachts docked in front of a stretch of swanky bars, then, a few metres later, the rough jumble of wooden fishing boats and ropes and nets; a bunch of guys yelling in Sicilian and selling seafood out of plastic buckets on the sidewalk. By the time I reached the apartment again, the sun was pushing its way over the horizon and flooding everything with gold. Later, showered and famished, I’d head out again; a couple of passes through the city’s small but vibrant outdoor market (because I visit markets the way an art lover might visit an important museum), then off to a nearby bar to sit in the shade with a coffee, a still-warm brioche and a glass full of icy, slushy almond granita while the city woke up around me.
And then the day would progress, and, because August in Sicily is no joke at all, there were really only two options: Find an air conditioner and stay under it for as long as possible, or decamp to the beach. Because we did not drive nine and a half hours to sit under an air conditioner, the beach won easily. Our friends – a handful of Sicilians and a couple of Romans, all very well-versed on the beaches of this particular corner of Sicily – took care of the details; the booking of fleets of lounge chairs and umbrellas as close to the sea as possible during a time of the year when everyone in Sicily wants to be as close to the sea as possible.
Although the coast near Siracusa is dotted with beaches – perfectly acceptable beaches; nice water, nice facilities, nothing wrong at all – we somehow found ourselves driving for the better part of an hour each day to get to the beach, a spot that ended up being so far-flung that it felt like we dropped off the map entirely. Leaving Siracusa, after the tangle of traffic and too many roundabouts, after the city eased into low-slung concrete-heavy outskirts and then faded away entirely, there was the autostrada, which amounted to less of a freeway than a poorly-paved strip of increasingly large potholes and the occasional skeletal-looking abandoned toll both. Leaving the autostrada, the road swerved down towards the town of Pachino, dusty, strangely empty and almost incomprehensibly ugly, and then cut through a long stretch of agricultural land, parched fields and metal-framed greenhouses (for those famous Pachino tomatoes) whipping past the windows and old farm outbuildings dotting the horizon. Nothing about the area inspired confidence, nothing suggested that a beach worthy of an hour’s drive was lurking just over the horizon.
But just as I thought we were thoroughly lost or destined for disappointment, the car made a series of sharp turns that took us farther and farther away from the main road; past towering fences spray painted with faded little arrows, onto a sandy lane barely wide enough for a single car (giant prickly pear cactuses closing in on either side) and into a makeshift parking compound manned by a very chubby child authoritatively wearing a very fat money belt. And then, trudging over a searingly hot sand dune: paradise.
The scene felt like a mirage – golden sand, a few neat rows of lounge chairs with thatched-roof umbrellas, a bar, hammocks… and the most alluringly transparent blue-green sea, the kind of water that compels a person to spend hours on the road. The southernmost tip of Sicily, where you can gaze out over the Mediterranean and imagine Africa just over the horizon. The extreme south.
And as I stood there with my feet in that incredibly transparently water, taking the scene in, I couldn’t help but wonder if the whole thing seemed that much better not despite its surroundings but – at least in part – because of them. That the beach seemed more exotic, more appealing, after navigating through sun-baked nothingness, that Ortigia seemed that much more spectacular and that much more relaxing because you had to break through a layer of cement and confusion to get to it. The beautiful parts of Sicily would be beautiful on their own, but against their worn, broken backdrop they stand out just a little bit more. Extreme south, extreme contrast.
On a still, muggy morning in the first week of August, we crammed the car with bags and suitcases and set off down the autostrada, direction South, just as the sun pushed its way over the horizon. Read more…
This post was originally published on August 3, 2016 as part of a previous version of Verbalized. I've archived most of those posts but have kept a few favourites, particularly those about travel.
How do you fill the empty space that inevitably takes over the days after the best week ever is over and done with? You can mope around the apartment, hot and dark with all the shutters closed against the force of the summer sun. You can throw yourself back into cooking and trips to the market, optimistically try out new recipes, then regret turning on the oven. And you can sit in front of the computer and scroll through your photos from that week over and over again, soaking up the colours and the light and the memories while trying to hold on to how it all felt.
* * *
The best week ever happened to be the one leading up to my thirtieth birthday. It also happened to be spent on a friend’s boat at the Isole Pontine, an archipelago of little islands off the southern coast of Lazio. The weeks beforehand had been steeped in a potent mix of excitement, introspection and insecurity (there is nothing quite like standing on the edge of a new decade to trigger feelings of insecurity), and stepping onto the boat on the first night felt like permission to relax, to push real life to the side for just long enough.
It was, as far as experiences go, close to perfection.
Ponza, Palmarola and Ventotene, the three main islands making up the Isole Pontine, are like little jewels in the sea. From a distance they look hostile and imposing, all cliffs and sharp points and unwelcoming wildness. Coming in closer, the islands reveal themselves as a patchwork of plunging chalk-white rock faces and rust-coloured arches topped off with scrubby greenery, the entire coastline dotted with the dark entrances to sea caves. The water changes abruptly and transforms itself into shades of sapphire and emerald and straight-up transparent turquoise – the kind that looks like it came right out a glossy, oversaturated travel magazine – and quickly seduces you into throwing yourself in. People are powerless against this water. I certainly was.
Not everyone takes well to a week on the sea in a relatively small, constantly bobbing and lurching space, but I loved being on a boat for such an extended time. I loved falling asleep to the gentle smacking sound of waves against the bottom of the boat, waking up to see fiery sunlight beginning to pour in through the portholes, feeling the floor shifting and bouncing under my feet as I showered. I loved spending each day sun-screen-slicked and salt-encrusted, my hair wild and my face bare. I spent hours just staring at the water, at the other boats swaying together at the dock every evening, at the way the sunsets somehow seemed amplified when seen from the water. I felt calm.
One morning, towards the end of the week, a storm rolled in. I stood on the prow of the boat as it pulled hard against its lines, watching the waves chop at the small boats rushing to cross the harbour, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should feel nervous, or seasick, or at least vaguely anxious – but instead I was invigorated. By late afternoon the clouds had cleared away enough to walk into town and up the streets zig-zagging into the hills (dodging the occasional rain shower), and the sunset was spectacular.
The Isole Pontine feel like they’re made for watching the sun rise and set. The towns on Ponza and Ventotene (Palmarola is uninhabited) practically glow in the morning and evening, their sun-baked walls absorbing the light and throwing it back with a kind of extra-concentrated intensity that gradually fades into the softest of pastel tones. In the morning, the towns are quiet – a few fishermen by their boats on the dock, a few old men already gossiping in a piazza. Evenings are exuberant, restaurants filling up, glasses clinking, boats docking for the day, the smell of fish – fresh and fried – carrying on the breeze. Everything feels gold-edged and lemon-tinged, like it’s almost too good to be true.
On our last evening I welcomed in my thirties with a dinner on the back deck of the boat; chairs and friends squeezed around a table just a bit too small for all the food on it. There was cheese, to start, then dishes of intensely-flavoured vegetables, and there was an octopus, perfectly tender and just slightly spicy. There was wine – quite a bit of wine – and then, when I could hardly even think about eating anything else, a cake with “buon compleanno” scrawled across the top in chocolate. It was exactly the right way to end one decade and start off another.
It was, as far as experiences go, close to perfection.
Ponza, Palmarola and Ventotene, the three main islands making up the Isole Pontine, are like little jewels in the sea. From a distance they look hostile and imposing, all cliffs and sharp points and unwelcoming wildness. Coming in closer, the islands reveal themselves as a patchwork of plunging chalk-white rock faces and rust-coloured arches topped off with scrubby greenery, the entire coastline dotted with the dark entrances to sea caves. The water changes abruptly and transforms itself into shades of sapphire and emerald and straight-up transparent turquoise – the kind that looks like it came right out a glossy, oversaturated travel magazine – and quickly seduces you into throwing yourself in. People are powerless against this water. I certainly was. Read more…