Blu Aubergine Blog

HOLIDAYS: Carnevale a Roma

Today is Fat Tuesday, or Martedi Grasso, in Italian. And while Venice is famous worldwide for its traditional pre-Lenten celebration, 18th Century masked balls and all -- well, Rome has left most of its traditions in the past, save, of course, for the edible ones. Romans love their food, and what would Carnevale time be in Rome without its fried sweet treats?

They go by many names around the Italian peninsula, but in Rome, they're called frappe: strips of dough, deep fried, and dusted with powdered sugar. The best bakeries have so much turnover that you can manage to get the frappe still warm, when the sugar melts a bit to form an impromptu glaze. Eating them right out of the paper bag is what it's all about. Another Carnevale time treat is the castagnola, basically what Americans call a "munchkin" or donut hole. In Italy, Dunkin Donuts evaporated when the man running the franchise, er, took the money and ran. So no "munchkins" here. These treats are known as castagnole because they're about the size of a chestnut, or castagna. (And they definitely pre-date Dunkin!). They too are fried balls of dough covered in sugar, with a soft cake center. And they're delicious. But to my mind, the frappe are 'where it's at.' Light, crisp, ethereal. And it seems wherever I lived in Rome, I had great versions nearby. All my years in Largo Arenula, I had jonly to trot down Via Giubbonari, to hit either (or both) Roscioli, and/or the Forno in Campo dei Fiori. With all the time I spent at Stardust in Trastevere, we were just a case of the munchies away from Forno Renella on Via del Moro, famous all over the city for the noteworthy crust on its filone, its loaves of almost-charred bread.  Their frappe were thick and crunchy.

And there was that one month, that one random, in-transition month I spent on Via della Luce, on the quieter side of Trastevere, before my apartment in the Ghetto was ready for me...that month during February and March, juuuust about the time of Carnevale, when I lived across the street from the Biscottificio Innocenti. This cookie factory taunted me day and night with the wafting scent of its treats baking inside, its treats including seasonal goodies, its treats that...well, they were for sale to the public. And who better to share the love and to support the enterprise than neighbors?!

Ah, Carnevale. Carnevale in Rome: lots of memories. There were some great costume parties, because this is the time of year that Italians really get into "fancy dress," as the Brits call it. Halloween is still a relatively new holiday for Italians, and they're convinced that it's only for dressing as ghosts, witches, and scary monsters. So carnevale always brought out the variety and creativity of dressing up, even in adults. The standard masked and wigged revelers influenced by Venice still exist, sure. But I remember a particularly fun and pretty wild party at Supper Club, near the Pantheon, one year. And I also remember a great party at my friends' place near chiesa nuova -- they'd just moved in, Monica and Lorraine, and so the apartment was fairly furniture-free and just begging for a christening-of-sorts -- so the party was last-minute. Which meant we all had to throw together last-minute costumes. 

My roommate Leah was Miss America, my friend Elizabeth threw on a biker jacket and lots of small black leather items and a blonde wig: biker chick. And I was able to make a fairly convincing Native American getup with brown and tan leather pieces -- threw on some turquoise jewelry and braided my hair and via! Pocahontas. My friend Gareth had the hilarious last-minute idea of coming as Lee Marvin. He simply wore a suit and used a bit of scotch tape to tape up his nose to look like Marvin's. That was a big hit. So was the fact that one of the hostesses of the party was, at that time, dating an Italian guy who was a mime in Piazza Navona. As in, that was his job. He came to the party when he got off work, and everyone complimented him on his very convincing costume. He was confused. We loved it -- and it was a great party!

Buon Carnevale a Tutti! Happy Carnevale, Carnival, Mardi Gras...whatever you're celebrating tonight!