Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mangiare al Mare!

There's nothing that captures the essence of the estate romana (Roman summer) like eating a seafood meal at the beach. Rome is only 22 kilometers (about 15 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it an easy day trip in a car or even on a scooter. If you're free, it's great to go midweek for lunch, when it's less crowded, or on the weekend mid-afternoon to stay for aperitivi, sunset, and a seafood dinner. Dining alfresco while looking at the water really heightens the enjoyment of a great meal of antipasto, pasta, frutti di mare, and pesce. Along the coast near Rome, the beaches of Ostia, Torvaianica, and Fregene are filled with locals coming to enjoy the sun, the sea, the sand, and the foods of summer. Popular dishes include antipasti like alici marinati (marinated fresh anchovies), and polpo con patate (octopus and potato salad), dressed in extra virgin olive oil with a spritz of lemon. These dishes are perfect with a crisp white wine or even a glass of prosecco, as is customary as an aperitivo in Italy. 

After the antipasto, moving on to a primo piatto featuring local ingredients is a must. The classics? Either spaghetti con le vongole veraci (spaghetti with tiny clams in a garlic, olive oil, and white wine sauce), or pasta allo scoglio (a mix of shellfish, shrimp, calamari -- whatever is local and fresh -- with tomatoes, olive oil, parsley, garlic, and a splash of white wine). 
In Lazio and south, oversized paccheri are often featured with shellfish -- we enjoyed this one particular version with shrimp, cherry tomatoes, and arugula. No matter which pasta you choose, these dishes are made to then "fare una scarpetta," using some crusty bread to sop up all the delicious sauce. The go-to main dish along the coastline, the dish by which you can judge a restaurant's seafood chops, is the fritto misto, or mixed fish fry.
Here, pieces of calamari, baby fish fried whole, and shrimp so tender and delicate you eat the shell and the legs along with everything else -- are dusted lightly with flour, tossed in the fryer (olive oil gives the seafood great flavor and crispness), and gently sprinkled with sea salt. A squeeze of lemon at your discretion. When it's not done properly, it's very average, but when it's prepared well, it's the essence of the mare mediterraneo: the perfect Italian summer meal.

Allora, tutti al mare!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

EAT, PLAY, LOVE, Part 2: Cake & Compleanni

The first thing I ever cooked for Patrick was a birthday cake. We'd only met a few weeks earlier, in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome. My friend Elizabeth came to me one day in May '99 and said, "I met your future boyfriend today" (which still makes me chuckle) -- he owned the Lavarapido, where she'd gone to do her laundry because it was one of few places in the city with dryers. Patrick was the owner: an American, she'd said, my age, cute, and very nice. And then one lazy Sunday afternoon at Stardust, the bar that would become our second home in Rome, I showed up for brunch and there he was outside the bar, sitting on a bench against an ivy-covered stone wall. He was wearing a blue t-shirt: I remember because it matched his eyes. (Blue still makes me think of Patrick). He was cute, yes -- but more importantly, he was incredibly sweet, with an infectious, full-body laugh. We instantly hit it off over our capacity for snark and jokey, sarcastic comments made at the expense of our new mutual friend Martin, the American bartender at Stardust who served us our drinks and lots of conversation to go with them. It was all in good fun, and it didn't take us long to assemble the beginnings of what would become our group of expats and colorful Italians that eventually formed our famiglia romana -- our Roman family

And so I found myself baking Patrick a birthday cake on June 10th,1999. I'd found a shop down the street from my apartment off the Campo de' Fiori that sold some specialty items from the U.S., including Betty Crocker cake mix and Philadelphia cream cheese. I wanted to make a retro, all-American cake of the kind my mother made for my birthdays in grade school: chocolate cake with cream cheese icing. Martin was having a gathering at his place in honor of Patrick's 27th birthday. But sadly, by the time 9:00 rolled around and I arrived proudly with cake in hand, Patrick had gone home. Seems he'd had a little too much to drink and had to call it a night before the sun went down. I remember being disappointed -- but it was just like Patrick to pull out all the stops, as early as possible, and occasionally burn out before the party got started!
Patrick in June 1999
A few weeks later, I hosted my first real dinner party in Rome (shades of many future nights to come). I'd invited Martin and Elizabeth, my English friend Monica and my Italian friend Federico, and Patrick. This was the summer before I started culinary school, and so while I enjoyed cooking, I was by no means yet a professional. (I hadn't even figured out how to work the oven in my apartment. It gave off a terrible odor every time I turned it on, and I found out the night of my dinner party that I needed to manually light the pilot I'd basically been gassing everything I'd baked!) Anyway, that evening, I served a salad and a pasta, and had made a flourless chocolate cake, from scratch, for dessert. I served it with fresh local strawberries from the nearby hill town of Nemi, and a sprinkling of powdered sugar. Or so I thought. I'd been running low on powdered sugar, so had picked up another pouch of it-- same brand, almost same packaging. After sprinkling a few slices of cake with the sugar I had on hand, I started on the new pouch. 
I served all the cake slices at one time, with a sweep of the wrist and a "buon appetito!" to all of my guests. We tasted the cake -- always a crowd-pleaser -- and everyone noted how delicious it was. But some guests said, "you know, this is interesting, it's really coming alive in my mouth." I thought it was a slightly strange descriptive for the dessert, but shrugged it off. And after a few more bites, Patrick said, "it's kind of like Pop Rocks. Don't get me wrong, it's tasty, but this cake is...frizzante," a word used to describe fizzy water, meaning sparkling or carbonated. At which point a light bulb went on in Martin's head, and he pulled me into the kitchen. "Show me the sugar you sprinkled on this cake," he said, and when I did, his eyebrows raised: "this is bicarbonato: it's baking soda!" We immediately broke out into hysterics, Martin falling against the kitchen door, hand covering his mouth, cackling. I was doubled over, holding my stomach in happy pain. "Why don't you sprinkle some baking soda on it?" became a running joke at my expense in Rome. And, I was 0 for 2 on cakes.

View of Trastevere
Fast-forward to the summer of 2003. It was the hottest summer anyone could remember, when people were literally dropping from the heat all over southern Europe. I was the executive chef of a place called Ristorante Cibus, in the same Trastevere neighborhood where we passed so many of our days and nights in Rome. Patrick and I had become pretty inseparable, and now I was working full-time in our "hood." He used to come visit me at the restaurant, passing through the air conditioned dining room back into the kitchen, where it was always 10 degrees hotter than anywhere else, with 8 burners, 2 ovens, and one huge hot water boiler for pasta -- all of which were constantly going during the 9-10 hours of our prep and dinner service. "Oh wow, it's hot in here!" is what he (and everyone) said upon entering the kitchen, as if it was some revelation to me, standing there melting! Sometimes Patrick would bring me an icy granita to help me cool off. Sometimes he'd show up when we were wrapping things up, after a night where I'd been sweating my butt off and he'd been cooling his off in a chair sipping Jack-and-Cokes next door. For his birthday that year, we decided that our group of friends would celebrate with a dinner at Cibus, and I would prepare a special menu for the group, as well as a very special gourmet birthday cake.
Patrick shared a birthday with our friend Caroline, and both were present to celebrate that summer. The meal itself consisted of what was surely a pasta dish and probably a beef fillet for the main course. I don't remember the details. But I definitely remember that I made a baked chocolate mousse cake with chocolate buttercream and ganache. And that cake? A winner! It was rich and chocolaty and light as air. It seemed the third time was a charm indeed.

This year on June 10th, I did not bake Patrick a birthday cake. I went out and bought the cream cheese and powdered sugar, got the hand mixer from a friend here in Rome, and tried to find chocolate cake mix -- just for old time's sake, and for our friend Caroline, who was back in Rome this year and spent her birthday with us, with our extended famiglia romana. But I couldn't bring myself to actually make the cake. Patrick would have been 39 years old on June 10th this year. Instead, he is forever 38 and 1/2. Patrick was born 3 months and 24 days before I was born, but now I'm older than he is, and I can't get my head around that concept.

This year on June 10th, instead of baking Patrick a birthday cake, we gathered our "Roman family" from near and far, to celebrate Patrick's life. Roman style.

We returned to Trastevere, our neighborhood full of wonderful memories. Stardust no longer exists, and though Patrick's laundromat is still there, sign and all, he sold it when he left Rome in '05 and it's now shuttered. But still, this will always be our neighborhood. So, we found a beautiful apartment around the corner from those spots. And we came together, from Rome, from all over Italy and Europe, from Malta, from the United States. We drank to Patrick's full life, we exchanged stories and memories, we saw videos and photos of those golden years in Rome that Patrick felt were some of the best of his life. We ate at one of our favorite neighborhood trattorias, we toasted to his life, we sang, we cried, but most of all we laughed, remembering Patrick's full-body guffaw and his capacity to laugh about everything, even in the face of tragedy. He was able to see the good in everyone and everything, which is what made Patrick so sweet, so refreshingly optimistic, and so beloved by so many.
At Alle Fratte
Erica, Patrick's older sister, with me

In the whirlwind and haze of that Roman evening, which for me was surreal, I did notice something. Many people wore white, the complete opposite of the traditional black that signifies mourning, and a color that celebrates light and life. But more interesting still: even more people wore blue -- unwittingly, I think, but it was Patrick's color, and it was so fitting. He was the one thing so obviously missing from a birthday party he would have LOVED. But there we were, friends and family, gathered together to eat, drink, and celebrate the life of our lovely Patrick, dressed in colors of light and summer and Patrick's pool-blue eyes. He had, once again, pulled out all the stops and left the party early, way too early. But we celebrated on into the night, and to sunrise, in his honor.

Patrick on his 30th Birthday in Rome (with a cake his Mom made and is presenting to him)
We love you, Patrick, and miss you terribly. Auguri, auguri, auguri, from your Famiglia Romana...