Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fabulous Dining in Rome's Jewish Quarter

Nonna Betta logo features a scroll
 made of pasta and rolling pins
The Jewish Quarter of Rome is an area that I have always enjoyed and in which I spend a lot of time whenever I am in Rome. Located across the Tiber in Trastevere, some of Rome’s best restaurants are found in this area.  Rome’s Jewish quarter once contained one of the oldest Jewish Ghettos in the world, having been constructed only 40 years after the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, which was the oldest. For more than 300 years, beginning in 1555 with the construction of the walled city, until 1848 when it was abolished and the walls destroyed, the Ghetto was home to Rome’s sizable Jewish population as well as the oldest synagogue of Europe. A beautiful orthodox temple in which men and women worship separately, sadly today the temple is continuously guarded by armed police.

Artichokes alla Giudea or Jewish style.
From a culinary perspective, it has been argued that the most authentic Roman cuisine is found in Jewish Roman cooking. Roman Jews are credited with preserving, within the walled city, recipes that date back 1500 years. Today, the great culinary traditions of Rome are best savored in the Jewish Quarter, which is lined with wonderful restaurants that cater to visitors and locals alike.
Squash blossoms filled with mozzarella
 and anchovy and deep fried.
A seasonal specialty that absolutely is not to be missed is the artichoke.  Roman artichokes differ from American varieties because they do not have a coarse beard at the center and they are so tender they can be eaten raw. Common preparations include steamed with fresh mint; finely sliced, raw, dipped in vinaigrette; or my favorite, alla Giudea or Jewish style, where trimmed artichokes are flattened into a flower shape and deep fried so that stem and tender leaves are eaten all together.  I can think of nothing more satisfying, as the textures and flavors of this dish cover all bases: crunchy outer leaves; a tender center; the sweetness of the young artichoke and the salt of the preparation.  My husband and I resolved to eat sensibly and got one order to share but upon seeing it arrive at our table, we immediately felt compelled to order another….and another!

Delicious pasta cacio e pepe e cicoria
from Nonna Betta restaurant.
Another seasonal specialty not to be missed is the squash blossom, classically prepared by stuffing it with mozzarella and anchovy, dipping in a flour pastel and deep frying. The use of squash blossoms is very common in Italian cooking and can be found in pasta, risotto, even pizza. Dinner one night was at the famous Roman pizzeria Ai Marmi, where my husband and I enjoyed a novel twist on the classic recipe--pizza with squash blossoms, mozzarella and anchovy topping.
Puntarelle alla Romana servered with
grilled scamorza or smoked mozzarella
 from Nonna Betta.
This time of year you can also find “puntarelle alla Romana” tender chicory shoots that have been crisped and curled in cold water and served with anchovy vinaigrette.  A favorite Roman vegetable, cicoria or chicory is also very commonly throughout Italy.  I enjoy cicoria in just about everything but I especially appreciate when it is steamed and graces the classic pasta cacio e pepe dish-- the oldest of Roman pasta recipes, made simply with cacio sheep cheese, butter and black pepper.

These delicious dishes are found in restaurants throughout Rome and the Jewish Quarter, but two in particular stand out for me and are consistently excellent.  Nonna Betta, which translates as “grandmother Betta” is charming, well managed and has great kosher Roman Jewish cuisine. Nonna Betta actually was the grandmother of the owner and matriarch of a family who has lived in the Jewish quarter for many generations.   

The chef at Giardino Romano
enjoys late night people watching
while preparing artichokes
for the following day.
Next door to Nonna Betta is Giardino Romano. Despite the proximity of the two restaurants the menus are very different and I would recommend trying both. Giardino Romano is Jewish but not strictly kosher and has other classic Roman dishes containing ham products, such as pasta alla carbonara and all’amatriciana, as well as shell fish, trippa (tripe), and abbacchio or lamb. Of interest at Giardino Roman is the charming indoor dining room which has been built around the preserved ruins of a 16th century building.  I have attached a photo of the chef at Giardino Romano, sitting late at night at one of the outdoor tables, trimming artichokes in preparation for the following day. The scene was so delightful, and the chef extremely gracious to allow me to photograph him.

A gorgeous sidewalk display
greets visitors at Giardino Romano.
Join me later as we explore the International Film Festival of Rome, and then make our way to Sicily. 

Until then,
Ciao a presto!

Friday, November 16, 2012

....A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Sicily

For some time now we have been sharing our mutual appreciation for all things Sicilian.  This week I am traveling to my home in Sicily, and along the way I’ve made a detour to my other childhood home-- the ever-beautiful city of Rome. I hope you will indulge me as I stray a bit from our agreed upon subject, and wax eloquent about the amazing food of Rome and the hypnotic magic of this romantic city.

View from our hotel located near Trastevere
Some years ago, while wandering through the neighborhood of Trastevere my husband and I stumbled into paradise in the form a little restaurant. Trattoria Da Augusto has been making stomachs rumble since 1954 and has been the source of many memorable meals for us these past several years.
Musicians play in Piazza
Santa Maria in Trastevere
I would put this experience high on my list of things to do in Rome.  Imagine that upon arriving in Rome earlier today, we stopped at our hotel simply to drop off our bags and immediately made our way--with much anticipation--across the Tiber River to Trastevere.  The two hour wait for Da Augusto to open was but a small sacrifice compared to the great reward of the meal that was to come. While waiting, we stopped at coffee bar at the Piazza at Santa Maria in Trastevere (scene of Woody Allen’s latest film To Rome With Love) where we indulged in a refreshing glass of freshly squeezed orange juice –the mid morning drink of preference among the locals.

Michael in front of
Trattoria Da Augusto
 Da Augusto gives new meaning to the notion of a family run business. This unpretentious little “hole in the wall” which caters to locals and the occasional lucky tourist who happens to get lost in Trastevere, employs the entire family and is run much like a family dining room.  The menu is whatever they are cooking that day. Don’t even ask to see a written menu because there is none… well not exactly—there is a flimsy xeroxed piece of paper, that is never used and which I took home with me as a souvenir!  
Behind Michael is the restaurant's owner
taking everyone's order without notes!
When enteringDa Augusto, the owner, a handsome, no-nonsense quintessentially Roman woman, orders you to take a seat and tells you what you will be eating that day from her kitchen. Her directness (which includes addressing everyone in the familiar “tu” instead of the formal “lei”) is unexpected, being used to the formality of most Italians.  Sprinting through the restaurant to take orders (all in her head) and give people their tabs (written on the paper liners of the tablecloths) she does not stop for chit-chat and does not entertain many questions. Once when ordering wine and water at lunch, for example, we asked (unsuccessfully) for two glasses each, which we did not get; one glass per person for whatever you may be drinking is the rule and dont even consider complaining! (My husband likens the experience to the hilarious Seinfeld episode of the “soup nazi"!)  But the owner is just one of the reasons why we keep coming back.

A very happy Michael
 enjoys Pasta all'amtriciana.
Those of you who have spent time in Rome understand that Romans are among the warmest people in the world, but not exactly shy. Romans from Trastevere (the oldest community in Rome), even less so. The folklore of Trastevere paints a picture of people who are earthy, loud, boisterous, proud and alive in every sense of the word.  

To illustrate this point, on the cover of the menu at Da Augusto is an Italian Popeye comic strip in which Popeye  orders spaghetti with spinach. The restaurant owner, a Roman, brings him another dish and says: “We don’t have time to waste; if you want to eat, eat this, otherwise nothing!”  In a nutshell that sums up the charm of Trastevere …and Da Augusto.

I found this outside another Trastevere restaurant.
It reads in Roman dialect:
"to eat well, you have to be patient and wait....dont annoy me!
Da Augusto’s kitchen is a miniscule room with a cut-out window open to the dining room, through which food is passed. The food is seasonal and depends entirely on what is available that day at market. Two of the owner’s sister’s cook and from that tiny space emerges some of the most mouth-watering authentic roman food you will ever eat. Today our meal began with pasta with ceci or chickpeas for me and pasta all’amatriciana, a tomato and pancetta based sauce for my husband—both of which are Roman dishes from antiquity.  We continued with a second course of baccala’ or salt cod in onions and olives and tomatoes for me, and agnello alla cacciatora, lamb with a vinegar-based sauce, for my husband.  Contorni or side dishes consisted of my favorite oven-roasted potatoes and a delightful seasonal salad of “puntarelle alla romana” a kind of Italian chicory whose tender shoots are crisped and curled in ice water, then served raw with a vinaigrette made with anchovies and garlic slices. Our wine was local from the Castelli region of Rome.

Lunch at Da Augusto filled our stomachs and our souls and, despite a 9-hour flight and 6-hour time change, we floated back to our hotel with the euphoria of pilgrims who had reached the promised land.  If you are passing through Rome, allow yourself to be swept away by this experience—you won’t be disappointed.

Ciao a presto!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sicily's Legendary Breads: Pane Cunzatu and the Sicilian Sandwich

Bread baked in a traditional Sicilian oven.
There is a snippet of a poem that lingers in my memory from a long forgotten author. It begins, “a mother is like warm bread.” The imagery of bread as sacrosanct, (and indeed the comparison of bread to mother—the most revered of Sicilian symbols) has inspired Sicily from revolutions to poetry.  But whatever the nuances of this important staple of the Sicilian diet, the fact remains that Sicilian wheat, and therefore Sicilian bread, is unmatched in the world.

Since  antiquity, Sicily was considered the bread basket of the Roman Empire because of its abundant and high quality wheat fields. Following the devastation of the Black Plague and political turmoil of the 14th and 15th centuries, wheat production all but ceased, making a comeback during the reign of the Spanish kings.  

Pane cunzatu
But external pressures and internal policies hindered wheat production so dramatically that farmers were unable to continue growing it, resulting in the great famine of the 1600’s.  A well documented event, the famine led to riots in the streets of Palermo.  (Those of you who have read the classic novel I Promessi Sposi will recognize these riots:  the bread crisis in Palermo was part of the same crisis that causes the rebellion in Milano.)  A quote in Mary Simeti’s book Pomp and Sustenance captures the sentiment of the populace in 1774:  “People of Palermo, put an end at once to your patience: you have suffered too long. White bread we demand, white bread.” This call to action unintentionally reveals the high standard of the Sicilian diet in antiquity.  In most of Europe, refined white bread was a perogative of the rich.

Pane squaratu--sicilian boiled bread.
Sicilian wheat,Triticum durum, commonly called durum wheat,  produces a hard golden colored berry, which is ground into conmeal-like texture known as semola. Semola is used to make pasta, but it may also be ground a second time, (rimacinato) to make bread flour.  Sicilian bread is made simply with rimacinato, water, salt and yeast, and does not use any kind of shortening. Durum wheat is high in gluten;  in the absence of oil or lard the proteins bind together in long chains.  The result is a distinctive chewiness similar to that found in pasta. Often fired in wood-burning ovens with special woods or almond shells, the resulting bread has a brown outer crustiness and strong, course, chewy yellowish crumb making it unique in look and flavor.

(It is interesting that this robust, yellow bread exists only in the countryside.  The city folk of Palermo and Catania eat a bread made with common wheat flour, not rimanciato, and shortened with lard or vegetable shortening to make a puffy, delicate white crumb and a flaky crust.  And in the region of Puglia, not far from Sicily in geography or culture, the bread is identical to that of bread of the Sicilian countryside or campagna.) In addition to wood baked bread a tradition exists of boiling bread before baking it, called pane squaratu. Laced with anise seed and made with  its distinctive four rosettes, it is one of my favorites and is often found in abundance around the pasqual holidays.

Pane cunzatu against a Sicilian loaf .
One of the favorite ways  Sicilians enjoy bread is known in dialect as pane cunzatu (loosely translates to seasoned bread).  Once found only in family kitchens, pane cunzatu is now available in many Sicilian bakeries.  While this preparation is best with Sicilian bread, I invite you to try it with any hearty bread fresh out of the oven.

You will need a freshly baked, still warm loaf of crusty bread;  high quality extra virgin olive oil; grated pecorino cheese; pomidorini or cherry tomatoes cut in half and lightly salted; a handful of fresh basil leaves and dried Italian oregano and ground black pepper to taste.

Cut the warm bread in half lengthwise and drizzled both halves with olive oil. Distribute the tomatoes on one side of the bread and sprinkle it with oregano to taste, black pepper, and abundant pecorino cheese. Distribute basil leaved on the tomatoes and close the two sides of the loaf, as if in a sandwich, pressing the bread to release and amalgamate the flavors.  Cut in thick slices and serve. Pane cunzatu is often used in parties and gatherings as an appetizer or light but rustic meal.  While the classic pane cunzatu is made with the simple ingredients listed above, I sometimes enjoy adding anchovy bits to this delicious preparation.

There are other ways  that Sicilians savor this delicious bread. Children are given slices of bread lightly drizzled with red wine and sprinkled with sugar (a practice I still enjoy occassionally even as an adult!)  Often bread is eaten with grilled or fried vegetables. On occasion, I fry eggplant and place it in sliced bread with basil and fresh fior di latte mozzarella. The result is a meal that happily overwhelms the senses! 

Ciao a presto!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Black Madonna of Tindari and the Art of Emanuele Crialese

The Black Madonna of Tindari Sicily.
On the northern coast of Sicily, along the Palermo - Messina highway, lies Tindari, a Greek settlement founded in the fourth century BC. Perched high in the mountains overlooking a beautiful harbor, is a sanctuary that houses a sacred statue of Sicily’s Black Madonna. 

The origins of the Black  Madonna of Tindari are unknown, but the statue is believed to be of Byzantine origin, likely smuggled out of Constantinople in the eighth and ninth centuries. Legend tells us that the ship it was carried on encountered a storm at sea  and was forced to seek refuge in the port of Tindari. When the ship tried to set sail following the storm it could not be moved until the statue was removed and taken to shore.  Miracles are attributed to the Black Madonna and to this day it holds a special place in the hearts of many Sicilians. The Latin words “nigro sum sed formosa” (black I am, but beautiful) are inscribed at her alter and the hauntingly beautiful face of the Madonna and her child Jesus are simply unforgettable. 
View of the bay at Tindari.

The image of the black Madonna appears not only in art history but in depth psychology as well. The image is deeply mystical in nature and its symbolism is rooted in the psyche’s connectedness to the earth and to matter (also read as “mater” or “mother”).   

These mysterious statues of the Virgin Mary, which are found throughout Europe, are not ethnically black, and many believe they are later representation of the goddesses Isis and Demeter whose cults were wide-spread in antiquity throughout the Mediterranean.

The image of the black Madonna also appears in the cinematic art of Italian film director Emanuele Crialese, whose deeply moving film Terraferma, was featured in this season’s line-up at the  San Diego Italian Film Festival (here

Timnit T in the role of Sara.
Terraferma is the story of people willing to risk everything in search of a better life.  Infinitely complex in its imagery and symbolism, the story unfolds with simplicity and directness—a style of storytelling reminiscent of Sicilian oral traditions, most notably the Sicilian marionette theater, l’Opera dei Pupi.  Not coincidentally, one of the movie’s central characters Ernesto, played by Sicilian actor Mimmo Cuticchio, is in real life a puppeteer with the Opera Dei Pupi.

Another view of the Black Madonna.

The story takes place on the island of Linosa, part of the Pelagie islands of southwestern Sicily. Small and economically insignificant, these islands have been placed in the eye of an international storm in recent years, which has divided the European community. An Italian outpost in the heart of the Mediterranean--a mere 100 kilometers from Tunisia--Linosa and its neighbor Lampedusa, are the first waypoint for many illegal immigrants from Africa making their way north to Europe in search of a better life. 

Terraferma, which means “dry land” is the story of a family struggling against the turmoil of a changing world, to uphold a culture and life that can no longer support them. The elderly Ernesto and his grandson Filippo, desperately defend their trade as fishermen, denying their own growing recognition that the sea can no longer support them. But the winds of change are undeniable. The island’s economic situation grows dimmer, as the dying fishing economy gives rise to mindless tourism that cares little for the island, but seeks only to exploit it.
While fishing, Ernesto and Filippo encounter refugees at sea in peril of drowning. New edicts handed down from European lawmakers forbid them to give aid to boat people and Ernesto and Filippo are faced with the unthinkable choice of either allowing them to die unaided, or to face criminal charges by taking them on board.  The “law of the sea” and their own unhesitating sense of right and wrong prevail and they help the drowning refugees.
Among those saved, are an adolescent boy and his pregnant mother, Sara, poignantly played by the beautiful Timnit T, who in real life was a refugee herself from Ethiopia, and who Crialese met in a refugee camp while filming in Lampedusa.  Ernesto and Filippo bring Sara to their home where she gives birth to a baby girl with the help of Ernesto’s daughter in law, Giulietta.
Donatella Finocchiara as Giulietta

The character of Sara is a kind of shadow sister to the story’s main character, Giulietta, played by the Donatella Finocchiaro.   Giulietta has lost everything to the sea—her husband a fisherman, was killed 3 years earlier and she despairs at ever being able to create a life for herself and her twenty-year old son Filippo.  She dreams of leaving Linosa and migrating north to western Sicily where they can find work and begin to rebuild their lives. 
When Sara enters her life, a frightened Giulietta is forced to examine her own life and aspirations through the plight of this tragic figure. Although she would like to rid herself of the burden the unwelcomed visitor has placed on her, she finds herself unable to simply turn away. Eventually Giulietta comes to understand that by saving Sara, she is in fact saving herself.
The Madonna of Trapani, the Great Mother archetype
Strong and wise, but deeply human and vulnerable, Giulietta embodies the archetype of the Great Mother—she is the symbol of the Virgin Mary firmly planted in wisdom and compassion. Her ability to act humanely despite paralyzing fear, suggests a union of opposites and symbolizes the mitigating role that the feminine must play if there is to be wholeness and healing in the world.

In contrast to Giulietta, the character of Sara embodies the Black Madonna, an archetypal image that Crialese, who is of Sicilian origin, would be familiar with. Sara’s haunting face and infinitely compassionate eyes have seen great suffering. Yet despite her anguish, her character is nurturing, gentle, forgiving; she is of the earth, rooted in her physical being like the Black Madonna of Tindari. Giulietta and Sara are mirror images of one another—one ascending toward the heavens, the other rooted in the earth and together, they bring healing to the world.
Emanuele Crialese

Crialese’s Black Madonna is archetypal because she transcends the personal hell of her life’s journey --not by giving up-- but by embracing life fully in all its sorrows and its joys. Sara symbolically jumps into the hell fire of life trying to save herself and her son, just as she literally jumps into the roiling waters of the Mediterranean without a life preserver, in an ultimate act of baptism and salvation. Crialese’s message is quintessentially Sicilian—to live is to embrace life fully with all its joys and sorrows.

Thanks for reading and … Ciao a presto!