The hedges have not been clipped for awhile in this small garden at the edge of the Villa Borgehese in Rome. Grass does its best to cover a narrow walkway, while the sky above unfurls grey clouds and grey light like an old sheet stretched between the sun and earth. We walk through marble and nature fashioned in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries for Cardinal Scipione Borghese, Prince Marcantonio Borghese, and then the citizens of Rome.
Of course, I’m thinking about Edward Gorey as I look at another urn slowly aging on a pedestal in a very old city; as Gorey must have thought about Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Illustrations de Antichita Romanae and Lord Byron’s Rome in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!
The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,
Lone mother of dead empires! and control
In their shut breasts their petty misery.
What are our woes and sufferance? Come and see
The cypress, hear the owl, and plod your way
O’er steps of broken thrones and temples, Ye!
Whose agonies are evils of a day –
A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.
Gorey captured the Romantic love of nature and cut stone, transferring it into an uncanny world of clean black and white lines, hauntings and urns coated with a Victorian sensibility. usually filled with only one or two figures gliding through the atmosphere, guests who arrive unexpectedly, may never leave or disappear just as suddenly.
Which surprisingly or not brings me to the classic dish of Rome–Cacio e Pepe. I’ve been thinking about it for days; the taste of each helping haunting me like a guest who has decided to lean against an urn and watch me. A dish so featured as the taste of Rome that to not eat while in Rome would be like asking, “I’m sorry, were there ruins for me to see in Rome?”
We look into the Roman Forum including the Santa Francesca Romana as the afternoon slips away and time shadows closer to restaurants opening for dinner. This is a good slant of light to look at the Cacio e Pepe recipe. It’s been a long day of walking along ancient roads stopping at the remains of columns, houses, temples and contemplating past, present and future. We’re hungry. We’ll start with the sauce and Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Butter and Parmesan Cheese sauce in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.
The basic white sauce of butter and Parmesan has, for generations, eclipsed all others among families of northern Italy as the favorite way of seasoning pasta. The sauce is produced by the heat of the pasta itself as it melts the raw cheese and butter, and by the care with which the pasta is tossed to fuse both ingredients to itself and to each other. It is perhaps the best sauce for developing and mastering the skill of tossing, which is essential to the success of any pasta dish.
1 pound pasta, 1 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, 4 tablespoon choicest quality butter (191-92)
The Larousse Gastronomique refers to Parmesan as, This famous cheese, which keeps for a very long time, is made in Lombardy and in the Romagna under various names. Parmesan is made with skimmed milk. Parmigiano-Reggiano hails from Reggio Emilia in northeast Italy.
Okay, that’s the cheese, but what about pasta. Noodles moved into the Mediterranean world from Asia possibly aa early as the 11th and 12th century, allowing the traditional foods of the region, especially in Italy, to adhere to the noodles creating wonderful tasting dishes emphasizing remarkable sauces. Certainly by the late 14th century pasta had arrived, when Giovanni Boccaccio writes in his The Decameron of a gourmand’s holiday, as quoted by Harold McGee in his On Food and Cooking:
In a country called Bengodi . . . there was a mountain made entirely of grated Parmesan cheese, on which lived people who did nothing but make macaroni and ravioli and cook them in capon broth. And nearby ran a rivulet of white wine whose better was never drunk . . . . (Day 8, Tale 3)
Of course, besides the noodles, this is also about skill. Marcella Hazan emphasizes how crucial it is to master tossing paste, but what is that? Leave it to Jamie Oliver to show us how to be a tosser.
Right, so time to eat. I found my favorite Cacio e Pepe at a restaurant near our hotel in the San Paolo region of Rome–Loste Ria on Via Silvio D’Amico. Advertising itself as serving “cucina romana,” I looked on their board, found my destination, and ordered Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe.
Of course, I also order a bottle of wine, but unlike Boccaccio’s fantasy I go for the noble Nero d’Avola grape from Sicily. The dark fruit, spice and tobacco of the Cusumano 2015 will contrast well with the rich butter, cheese and pepper of the pasta sauce creating quite a journey for my palette.
My family and I chat, drink, and soon enough the Cacio e Pepe appears.
The pasta is served in a parmigiano-reggiano bowl making for an attractive and tasty display. Look at the glistening golden sauce, the freshly ground pepper. I twirl the tonnarelli on the fork, sauce dripping from the noodles, and loop into my mouth. So, so buttery, creamy and yes cheesey. The pepper give the entire taste a bite, and I slowly chew, enjoying each second of the noodles in my mouth. As I make my way through the bowl, pausing for a glass of wine, a grunt or sigh to Gabriela and Demian, I also think about this day in Rome, walking through the Villa Borghese, marble everywhere, urns and statues at each turn, and believe I could live in this ancient city, walking its streets and eating at wonderful cafes like Loste Ria and ordering bowl after bowl of Cacio e Pepe.
When it’s all eaten and done, I order an espresso and a grappa–eating, living, smiling. Buon appetito!