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!

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