Blu Aubergine Blog

QUICK BITE: Pizza a Taglio a Roscioli

Ah, pizza. Real Italian pizza. There are several ways to enjoy pizza, particularly in Rome. I adore pizza bianca, but that's for another time. Probably the way I eat pizza in Italy most frequently, and the easiest and quickest way to enjoy this Italian fast food, is pizza a taglio: pizza by the slice. Or, technically, by cut.

The Italian way to cut slices of pizza is not from a round pie, but rather from a long, rectangular slab of pizza, either made in a sheet pan tray, or cooked directly on the oven floor and hand-rolled out to a very oblong disc or an approximation of a rectangle. 

And it's often cut with scissors. That's right. It makes sense when you think about it. You point out how large or small a piece you'd like, and they literally cut you a piece to measure. It is then weighed and you pay by weight, so that pizzas that are loaded with lots of toppings, ranging from tuna and artichokes with mayo to chile pepper-parsley hot sauce to sausage and potatoes and porcini mushrooms...the more that is loaded on there, the more you pay per piece.

Giusto, no?

But what most expert chefs -- and eaters -- know is that often times, the simplest iteration of something, the purest form of the ideal, is the best. Roscioli  is a family-run business that's been around for decades. They've run what used to be a simple alimentari (specialty food store) since back in the '90s, when theirs was simply my local shop (that happened to carry Philadelphia cream cheese when none of the grocery stores did) -- an old reliable, if you will. With the new millenium, they ended up closing for a spell and completely remodeling to convert this into an upscale gastronomic temple to meats, cheeses, smoked fish, oils and vinegars...with an excellent restaurant and wine cellar added in for good measure.

Their bread bakery is down the street from their 'headquarters' and main restaurant (they've now expanded to include a local pizzeria nearby, and it seems they're always moving on to a new venture). This bread bakery is always busy and they have a great selection of classic Italian biscotti and pastries as well as their renowned bread and pizze (that's plural for pizza, kids). Their selection varies form day to day, but it's always delicious, and they always have the basics, which to me -- here, at least -- are the best. That's right, a simple pizza margherita ("plain" in American parlance), and in Rome what's referred to as pizza rossa ("red pizza") -- otherwise known as alla marinara, hold the oregano -- just tomato sauce, no cheese. The simplest of the simple. And in this case, the pizza dough and the tomato sauce are the only two ingredients you have. So they'd better be stellar.

Here you can see the specimen: a very thin, crackly crust. Blistered bubbles in the surface of the pizza dough itself, owing to extremely high temperatures of the pizza oven. Just a slick of tomato sauce and a brushing of olive oil to make the overall presentation glisten (one of my sayings regarding good food's appearance: it really shouldn't be matte). A sprinkling of Italian sea salt. And when you bite into the pizza, it needs some chew. Real, authentic, delicious pizza needs gluten to get that chewiness activated in the dough. And that's it. It couldn't really be more simple, though from the end result that's available out there, you'd think it would be one of the Italian (or otherwise) kitchen's greatest challenges. Roscioli rises to it, as do several other spots around Rome. I was just lucky enough to have Roscioli be my local. And I was also lucky enough to call Rome home, where a walk along the Tiber, pizza rossa in hand, is all in an afternoon.

SEASONAL INGREDIENT: Capers

Capers are a curious little flower bud. Their briny touch of heat adds an interesting hit of flavor to sauces, salads, and main courses to which they're added. Caper bushes grow in harsh, semi-arid environments in Morocco, southeastern Spain, Italy, throughout the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Australia.

The plant thrives in intense daylight and temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade in the summer -- though it doesn't do so well in cold and frost. Once it takes hold it acts much like a weed, growing through the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, creeping over ancient walls in Rome, and snaking between cobblestones and fortifications in Marrakesh and Damascus.

The caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to classical Latin capparis, which was borrowed from the Greek kápparis -- the origin of which, much like the plant itself, is unknown but most likely Asian. A different theory traces kápparis to the name of the island of Cyprus (Kýpros), where capers grow abundantly. The Sicilian islands of Salina and Pantelleria are justly famous for their capers in salt. There, rustic, often unpaved roads are lined with makeshift (and sometimes not-so-makeshift) stands selling local capers, often manned by a young boy who picked the capers himself.

The island of Salina is the perfect place for every step in the caper production process, since the salt, too, often comes from the island's own salt flats (hence the island's name). It's the good fortune of nature that capers pair so well with the fruits of these islands: seafood from the surrounding Mediterranean, as well as vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers for which the cuisine of Sicily is renowned.

The caper buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and roughly the size of a kernel of corn. They're plucked from the bush at the bud's base, then placed in a jar and brined in sea salt, or pickled in a salt-and-vinegar solution, and then eventually drained.

Here, we're picking the little guys from a couple of bushes in the walled back yard of the B&B my friends Monica and Marcello run in the Salento region of southern Puglia, Italy. It was June and every day when we awoke, new buds were ready to be picked and put in a small jar, sotto sale("under salt"), as the Italians say. This way they're perfectly preserved for future use -- though it's best to know a little in advance when you're going to need them for cooking, as they do well with several soakings in water to remove the powerful saline intensity they pick up from the salt. 

Harvesting capers can be a labor-intensive, arduous process on a larger scale, since they're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine. It's all done by hand, which is what makes them a pricey comestible. The smallest, called nonpareil, are the most prized of the bunch, and the most frequently used in cooking. Mustard oil (known as glucocapparin) in the capers is released from each bud, which accounts for the bite capers have. When this oil is released, the enzymatic reaction forms rutin, resulting in the crystallized white spots you often find on the surface of the bud.

If left to flower and come to fruit, caper berries are created, which are almost a cross between a traditional caper (bud) and an olive, with lots of tiny, crunchy seeds inside. The caper berries are usually pickled and are often served in Southern Italian and Greek aperitivi and mezze -- perfect pop-in-your-mouth cocktail snacks that, much like briny olives, help to fill the tummy while working up a thirst.

Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They're used in everything from salads and pasta salads to meat dishes, fish preparations, and pasta sauces. Two of the most famous uses for capers are in chicken piccata and pasta alla puttanesca.

 

The latter, of course, is famously named supposedly because it was a pasta dish that was relatively easy for Neapolitan prostitutes ("puttane") to prepare for their clients...(yes, everything -- everything -- in Italy seems to come with a side of pasta!)...the thought being that every single Italian pantry contains, at the very least, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, and dried pasta. Whether this is true or not is a different story, but I've always loved this culinary origin tale, mostly because it paints the working girl-client relationship as more than just a business transaction, but as one during which they actually break bread, share pasta, have a few laughs, maybe a glass of wine.

Which leads me to this fun fact about capers: in Biblical times, the caper berry was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The Hebrew wordabiyyonah (אֲבִיּוֹנָה) for caperberry is quite closely linked to the Hebrew root אבה, which means "desire" (the word even occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes). Ancient desire, the Wailing Wall, gorgeous Sicilian islands, friendly prostitutes in Naples...as it turns out, the little caper is a mighty flower bud, finding itself in places sacred and profane, arid and lush, throughout history. Something to chew on.    

RECIPE: Lenticchie e Salsiccia

It's a classic central Italian pairing: Lenticchie e SalsicciaLentils and sausage. It reminds me of trips out to Umbria, usually in the fall or winter, and sometimes early spring. We'd spend a Sunday afternoon in Orvieto, enjoying the gorgeous churches and small shops, as well as some surprisingly sophisticated restaurants, in this hill town an hour outside of Rome. Or, we'd head out for a weekend in the country to a friend's house on the Tuscan-Umbrian border, just taking in the view and building fires and looking up at the stars after a full-table feast of simple, local fare. Or we'd visit friends in Citta' di Castello, not far from Lake Trasimeno, sharing a lunch al fresco with lots of local, juicy, dark Sagrantino di Montefalco wine.

Umbria is Italy's only landlocked region that doesn't share a border with another country. Its name echoes ombra, the Italian word for "shadow" -- and it seems to have always been in the shadow of its better-known neighbors, like Tuscany and Lazio. But the region has so much going for it, including the beautiful topography and a history as rich as its cuisine. One of its famous local foods is the Umbrian lentil, which is tawny brown and roughly the size of the tiny green French Puy lentil. Umbrian lentils are often featured in local dishes, and are a great foil for the rich game featured so prominently in this region.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention another great Umbrian contribution to Italian cuisine, which is the concept of the norcineria. There's no direct translation for the word, but it's basically a 'meat emporium,' including and especially pork products, fresh and cured. Norcia is a town in the province of Perugia in Southeast Umbria, nestled between Spoleto and Ascoli Piceno (in the Le Marche region). 

The town is famous for its meat emporiums, and so this kind of shop all over central Italy has taken on the moniker norcineria. I did once make it to "ground zero" in Norcia on a trip to my ex's childhood home near Ascoli Piceno, and we picked up some delicious pancetta and a few other items to cook for dinner at his mother's house. But the important thing is not procuring these meats in Norcia itself, but rather the significance of the quality norcineria, wherever you may find one. I often went to the Norcineria Viola in Rome's Campo de' Fiori, as it was close to home and they had a great selection, offered up assaggi (samples), and the owners were a hoot. 

If you're lucky enough to be cooking the following recipe in Italy, a norcineria would be the prime spot to pick up some delicious, house-made sausages. And if you don't have a go-to 'meat emporium' -- well, a butcher (preferably Italian) or Italian specialty store would be second-best. But anywhere you trust the sausage makers qualifies; the quality is key. And a tip: generally speaking, though Tuscany is the next region over, this dish does not use Tuscan-style sausages, which contain fennel seed. Try and use sausages without that anise flavor...if you're sticking to tradition, that is.

LENTICCHIE E SALSICCIA

4 TBS. olive oil

1/2 large onion, finely chopped

3 carrots, chopped into small dice (1/8 inch)

1 celery stalk, chopped into small dice 

2 cloves garlic

3 cups Umbrian lentils (or Puy lentils), washed and sorted through to clean

2 sprigs rosemary

8 Italian sausage links, sliced in half lengthwise

1/3 cup hearty Italian red wine, Sagrantino if possible

1/2 cup water

Flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped

Salt + pepper to taste

For the lentils:

- Warm the oil over medium heat in a wide saucepan with some depth (and one with a fitted lid). Add the garlic cloves and infuse the olive oil for a minute or so. 

- Add the chopped carrots, celery, and onion, and cook to soften, about 4 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and cook another minute. 

- Add the lentils, stir well, and cover with cold water until submerged and with a bit of water above the lentils. Bring to a boil, add a couple of small sprigs of rosemary, and cover. Turn down the heat to low and let simmer for 30 minutes or so, until the lentils are cooked through and most of the liquid is absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

*Lentils can be cooked in advance to this point*

- When the lentils are almost ready, or you're reheating them, heat a grill pan or a frying pan over medium-high heat, and add enough olive oil to just cover the bottom of the pan. - Brown the sausages on both sides, making sure not to crowd the pan (we want them seared, not steamed).

- When sausages are fully browned, toss in the red wine and the water and let the liquid cook down and bubble up for a few minutes. Then cover, an cook for another 10 minutes or so.

- Plate the warm lentils on a serving platter, and then place the sausages on top of the bed of lentils. You can either use the wine gravy as is, or add a spoonful of a dijon mustard and whisk that into the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.

- Pour the sauce over the sausages and lentils, and sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Buon appetito!

La Fiorentina

Yeah, I like vegetables. Sure, a good salad can be fab. And fresh seafood is one of my top gustatory pleasures, especially in warm weather. But what food really hits the spot, scratches an itch, makes me go ahhh? (Well, yes, chocolate...but that's for another time). For me, it's a primal thing. A visceral thing. And when I get that craving, I need it: meat. Specifically, beef. A wonderful, toothsome-but-tender steak. And the granddaddy of them all -- I don't care who you are, or where you're from -- is the bistecca alla fiorentina.

Now, I lived in Rome for a long time. And there are Tuscan restaurants in the country's capital city, for sure. But there's something about actually being in Tuscany that speaks to the overall experience of sinking one's teeth into this beautiful hunk of meat. I've enjoyed the bistecca alla fiorentina  in its city of origin, at some famous old-school trattorie in Florence ("fiorentina" means Florentine, for the uninitiated) -- which is great. There, you're surrounded by like-minded eaters, feasting on roasted rosemary potatoes, perhaps some wilted spinach sauteed in garlic and olive oil (another Florentine staple), and washing it all down with a nice Chianti. A recent trip to the outskirts of Florence had me enjoying just that, with the fiorentina artfully presented to us as the photo here shows, almost as if we were guests at a regal banquet: gorgeous, ruby-red beef sliced from the bone...bone included, of course!

But I've also enjoyed the bistecca in the countryside of Tuscany, sitting in the patio of a roadside trattoria in Chianti, hidden from view of passers-by. For a few lucky locals and my friends and I, the high flames of the outdoor grill licked the meat and singed its outer crust. Its only seasoning? A few twists of cracked pepper and sea salt, a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of that opaque Tuscan olive oil, in all its tannic, electric-green glory. Or in the outdoor patio restaurant of our agriturismo, overlooking hills where the very beef we're eating has been raised. 

Here it's served with a green peppercorn and rosemary-infused olive oil drizzle, and it's amazing, lip-smackingly tasty, particularly with another classical accompaniment: fagioli all'uccelletto ("bird style" cannellini beans, cooked with tomatoes and sage). Is it sweeter outside of the city, eaten closer to the Val di Chiana where the Chianina beef -- the beautiful bovine breed that makes the fiorentina what it is -- comes from? Sometimes it feels that way. But whether in the urban setting of Florence or the hills of Tuscany...well, either way, you're pretty close to paradiso!

Call it an Italian Porterhouse or T-bone, containing both the fillet and the controfiletto  -- the tenderloin and the short loin -- but the bistecca alla fiorentina must be about 3 fingers thick, and it must be cooked only to rare or medium rare, otherwise the consistency is ruined (let's not speak of the integrity of the beef itself). It requires no seasonings other than salt and pepper -- preferably a flaky sea salt with some texture. Then dress with great-quality olive oil and a squeeze of lemon to cut the richness of it all. Basta. That's all. When enjoying a great piece of meat, you need no more than the basics to really, profoundly scratch that itch, that carnal craving. Just add fire.

Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me...Hungry

It's one of the most amazing structures on the planet, in my opinion: the Pantheon. It's regal, majestic. It's still the largest dome in Rome, because even the greatest architectural minds of the Renaissance couldn't figure out how to create a dome for St. Peter's that bested the Pantheon's -- a milennium and a half later. And don't even get me started on the gorgeous marble surrounding you upon entering. The strange thing about the dome here? The oculus, or "eye" in the center. That's right, to put it simply: there's a hole in the roof! This helped the dome remain structurally sound for so many centuries, but that means that when it rains, it indeed pours -- right inside the Pantheon itself. There are drains built into the floors for this, of course, but the Pantheon caretakers put up velvet ropes around the perimeter of the slippery marble area that gets wet below the 8-meter-wide oculus.

I lived down the street from the Pantheon for 7 years. So when I hear the sound of rain hitting pavement, my thoughts veer towards the piazza del Pantheon, the public echo chamber of cobblestones and scurrying tourists with umbrellas under the cover of darkness. Rome is magically lit at night, and the Pantheon becomes a towering structure of columns and dome that seems to glow from within, especially when viewed through waterlogged-weary eyes. And the sound of water pouring through that oculus. 

It makes me think of one cozy place at the corner of one edge of the piazza, away from the hustle of McDonald's (sadly, yes, this piazza had one at the time) and the overpriced formality of La Rosetta. Armando al Pantheon, a restaurant that's been around for eons, has the lived-in warmth of the best kind of old-school Italian trattoria. I've ducked in here many times, closing and shaking my umbrella, breathing in the heady scent of truffles in-season, or the Italian 'trifecta' aroma of garlic and tomatoes cooking in olive oil.

The menu doesn't disappoint, featuring all kinds of Roman staples (artichokes, puntarelle, bruschette, and soups) to start, as well as traditional primi -- tomato-based (amatriciana, arrabbiata) and cheese-spiked (carbonara, cacio e pepe, alla gricia). The main courses are Roman comfort food: veal roast and baked chicken and roasted lamb, stewed oxtail and Roman tripe and sauteed lamb "bits and bops" (as my Brit friends would say) with artichokes -- classic coratella. An older signore who owns a nearby antiques shop told my friend he's been going to Armando several days a week for lunch for the last 25 years. Local Romans have been coming here since it opened in 1961.

And I remember a wonderful lunch I shared here with my parents and older brother one rainy early October afternoon. There was an older gentleman seated at a table near us, smartly dressed in a 3-piece tailored wool suit, the kind that strikes a balance between classic Italian tailored and tweedy professorial. He couldn't have been taller than my 5'6" mother, and just as slight. He ate by himself, and every server knew him by name. My father was transfixed by this Italian gentleman quietly consuming plate after plate of homestyle Roman wonderfulness. He went through various salumi with bread, a plate of Roman artichokes, a main course of baby lamb with vegetables and potatoes. Red wine, ovviamente. Every time another course came out, my Dad kept exclaiming, "Wow! Where does he put it all?!?" Then a mixed salad. Then the server made the mistake of bringing him an espresso. "Ma non mi ha portato il dolce!" the gentleman said -- but you haven't brought me my dessert! The server was all apologies and swiftly served him a plate of profiteroles, cream-filled choux pastry bathed in chocolate sauce. Now that's what you call a lunch, alla romana. At the foot of a structure built in 27 BC. Rain be damned.

Side note: In life, there are few coincidences. I lived down the street from the original Pantheon for 7 years, and for 4 years, I lived down the street from Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda, at The University of Virginia. Long an admirer of classical architecture and Palladian design, Jefferson built the Rotunda to honor the Pantheon and the Palladian design principles that were based on this classic structure. They're separated by more than 1800 years, but both boast their own classical beauty. I love them both.