Monday, December 17, 2007

Ah, Rome: Part 2

Le Mani in Pasta
Via Dei Genovesi, 37
00153 Roma (RM), Italy
+39 06 5816017

You may recall that I traveled to the fair city of Rome last month and did some serious eating and drinking while I was there. The world class art and architecture was inspiring of course, but the food was the organizing force behind our trip.

We had decided to go to Rome in the early summer, so this left four months lead time to plan, obsess, and plan and obsess some more about where we would eat during those eight days. As the time for the trip neared, I became noticeably less crazed—less hell-bent on finding “perfect places” to have meals and just content that we could use the information I already had to discover little gems along the way. And find them we did! The most exciting find was a small restaurant in Trastevere that I had read about a couple months prior in a blog I found by googling “favorite restaurant in Rome”. I am so grateful that I paid attention to the blogger who expounded upon the virtues of Le Mani in Pasta. It is a small, unassuming restaurant half way down an alley, with a tiny kitchen that is visible through a wall of glass.

We were only two days into our Roman meals at this point, but we were both already feeling the full weight of eating pasta twice a day. I am helpless in the face of truly wonderful tagliatelle, and almost weak in the knees at an exceptional stuffed tortelli. We were delighted to find that Le Mani in Pasta actually specializes in seafood as well as pasta and we had a lovely, balanced meal of simply prepared, exquisitely fresh, fish. We started out with a dish that I was hesitant to order at first, but am SO GLAD that I did. The sea bass carpaccio with shaved black truffles, lightly dressed with lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, was one of the more refreshing and original dishes I can remember having this year. The fish is very mild, but with a slight briny flavor that is offset beautifully by the paper thin earthy black truffles. It was the height of truffle season so we were fortunate to have them in a few dishes (mostly pasta dishes), but this was far and away the most simple and surprising incarnation. The fresh lemon juice squeezed on top of the dish was a great counterpoint to the truffles as well, as was the creamy butter that we smeared on the thin toast that came with the carpaccio.

We followed this with another great dish, though it did not have the jaw-dropping effect of the first. The fresh spaghetti with prawns and Manila clams in a saffron tomato broth was delicious. It had the right balance of brininess and warm spices and was topped with a cured fish roe called bottarga that added to the depth of flavor.

We followed it with one of the simplest dishes of the week, but certainly one of best—flattened squid, langoustines, and pawns all grilled with olive oil and served with a wedge of lemon and flat-leaf parsley. It was absolutely exactly what I wanted.

In fact, we were so taken with our meal that I decided to make reservations for a few days later to ensure that we would be able to have the seabass carpaccio again. I will try to have a favorite dish as many times as possible if I feel that my chances to experience it are running out. Actually, I think I showed great restraint in only returning once. Our second visit was just as great as the first. We started with the carpaccio, but upon seeing what our Italian neighbors ordered, I wished I had tried the fish antipasti, which looked like a sashimi plate with a radicchio salad in the center—incredibly colorful! We then had simple grilled turbot (a Mediterranean white fish) served with lemon and a radicchio and arugula salad.

This time, we saved room for their apple crepes with a caramel sauce and mascarpone gelato. They were delicious, but somehow they were not as exciting as the main courses—the dessert felt more complicated and fussy somehow. I did manage to finish every bite as I have a weak spot for caramel in any form and this caramel had a deep amber flavor that permeated the light and airy crepes. As the waiter handed us the bill and gave me kisses on both cheeks (we were now “regulars” after coming twice in one week), I realized just how sad I would be to leave Rome. We should all be so lucky to have such a neighborhood restaurant.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Ah, Rome: Part 1

We spent eight full days in that magnificent, overwhelming, frustrating, epic city and I must confess that I am still quite smitten. Granted, I am not as head over heels as I was when I first spent significant time there at the young age of 23, but I am still amazed by the energy, the people, the architecture and finally, the food of Rome.

We had a very different approach to our visit than many people (including me!) often have when they venture overseas. I think so often we are crazed with the manic desire to see, absorb, and consume as much as we possibly can before returning to our “normal” lives. In that process, figuring out what it means to live like a native becomes more and more elusive. This time, I decided that it would be different. After many years in New York, I was getting weary of the city and needed a break. I realized in hindsight, that Rome might have not been the most ideal choice, but we decided to do whatever we could to change the pace of our lives while we were there.

We rented the apartment of a friend (who is lucky enough to live in Brooklyn half the year and Rome for the remainder) and would wake up blissfully late around 10 a.m., meander around the house like lazy cats before gathering our things and heading out around 11. We would then walk two blocks to the venerable Castroni’s, which has been in business since 1932 and where they serve a smorgasbord of food from around the world. They are particularly well-known for their incredible selection of candy and for their thick, creamy cappuccinos. We would order one each and one of their beautiful pastries covered in powered sugar and I somehow felt by donning these powdered sugar and foam mustaches that we were in for a great day.

At that point, we would wander around, maybe into a church and then seek out our lunch restaurant, where we would proceed to have a three course meal. Upon finishing we usually walked around some more, perhaps saw some incredible art, and then went home to rest before setting out for our second three course meal of the day. I won’t lie to you, it was hard work, but those of us devoted to relaxing, eating an inordinate amount of amazing food, and drinking more than a bottle of wine a day are more than up for the challenge. I will leave you with a couple images from our time in Rome and promise to write in more detail about the outstanding food we had while we were there, but for now, I will throw down the gauntlet and challenge all of you to eat two separate three course meals in one day and not worry too much about all of the things you are not seeing or experiencing and instead just focus on the plate in front of you!