Sunday, June 30, 2013

Twilight in Trastevere - Part II

We last left Part I of Twilight in Trastevere on the following thought …

With our taste buds now cleansed or possibly better said, thoroughly confused, we moved on to our fourth foodie rendezvous.  It turned out to be a picnic in front of a legendary delicatessen run by the Polica family since 1900, who pride themselves on selling the finest of meats, cheeses and local wines.

And now to continue at the deli … 

Twilight in Trastevere - Part II

Limited space inside Antica Caciara, located on Via di San Francesco a Ripa, meant that after a brief tour inside, bathed in the combined aromas of fresh ricotta, fragrant hams, bread, baccalĂ , cheeses and topped off with the pungent smell of Sicilian alichi (anchovies), we’d returned to the street to enjoy samples of their meat and cheese products.  This would, however, not be before Anna quizzed us on what we thought the names of two particular products dangling from the ceiling might be.  We hadn’t the slightest notion.  I recall having a taste of something similar looking in Calitri once served from the back of a mobile kitchen parked at an intersection during the evening passeggiata (stroll).  They were greyish, utter shaped, with flat sides like the sides of a saddlebag.  They looked good, were well salted and came with a chunk of lemon and besides, they were selling like hotcakes.  One bite, however, was enough to forever turn me away from what I soon learned was the solid fat of a pig’s cheek!  Well that’s what we had dangling there, one among many exotic ceiling suspensions, at the Antica Caciara deli.  

There was, however, one other mystery item yet unidentified.  They hung like small salamis in string nettings, their surfaces pocked by the threads to form small squares resembling the checkered surfaces of hand grenades.  After sufficient quizzing for a translation of the name scrawled on an adjacent card, Anna informed us that the deciphered meaning for these dangling darlings was “Grandfather’s Balls”!  Ouch.  If these were indeed grandfather’s balls I thought those cheeky pig jowls would be better served if called “Grandmother’s Breasts”!  Why not keep it all in the family?  With obvious relief, we never sampled either of these fleshy stalactites.  Instead, we snacked on pecorino cheese speckled with black truffles and thinly sliced, lightly smoked Hungarian salami while standing outside amongst parked Fiats and Puntos.  As advertised, this was, after all, a walking tour and besides, they’d said to wear comfortable shoes.  There hadn’t, however, been any mentioned of the family jewels!
By then, in the last shadows of dusk, the night had come alive.  Trastevere was stirring with the renewed nocturnal bustle of street life.  Couples walked arm-in-arm while our troop of twelve played follow-the-leader.  Distracted by then, I’d lost track of the street names and turns.  I do recall a brief stop at Via della Cisterna, a watering hole of sorts, where the still functioning ancient Roman waterworks fed a masonry cask by the side of the street to overflowing.  Water poured from its spout for anyone willing enough to indulge.  

Forno La Renella is located on Via del Moro.  We entered through a back alley door and immediately descended, ducking low under squat doorframes, into its basement.  Here was a scene right out of the movie “Moonstruck” - all that was missing was a one handed Nicholas Cage!  They made bread here, 2600 loaves a day we were told, in an oven that had been running since 1860 (older then Italy itself) using hazelnut shells as fuel to satisfy its veracious appetite.   Bags of “0” ferina flour were stacked like sandbags along the corridors; a fine white powder escaped from the kneading caresses of the bread-maker covering every surface.  The transformation complete, boxes and boxes of finished loafs, nose-in, waited their turn to emerge from this hot hellhole to points throughout the city.  Mixing machines, big enough to put “Cuisinart” to shame evidently lessened the workload these days.  

Upstairs, we received the sacrament of pizza!  This award-winning pizzeria daily produced 130 pounds of the bubbly pies sold by the slice and priced according to weight.  That’s a lot of slices!  It can get busy there and when big crowds gather you’ll need to get a ticket from a machine just like at a supermarket deli at home.  A slate plaque on the wall cataloged the various types of pizza offerings priced by the kilo.  Why not go all out and get yourself a kilo, all 2.2 pounds of it!  It was interesting to watch as menacing looking scissors clipped pieces of pizza to order.  All you needed to do was indicate, in whatever sign language or hand semaphore that worked for you, where to start cutting.  We sampled a few of the day’s fare, both the red and white variety, and they were spectacular.  Their secret apparently lies in the crust and fresh ingredients.  If you are not willing to die, don’t come here because the pizzas are to die for, that is, unless you succumb first to heat stroke downstairs!

The cool night air was refreshing as we moved on from the forni (furnaces) of La Renella.  Very close to Piazza Santa Maria we entered Piazza Sant'Appollonia to arrive at Osteria der Belli.  This turned out to be a much appreciated breather along our route of march.  We’d arrived at a restaurant operated by four Sardinian brothers (two of them cooked, one was in charge of the restaurant floor, the other remained a silent partner) dedicated to serving the finest in Sardinian food.  Under an outside canvas canopy a long table had been prepared for us and shortly after being seated we began with seafood bruschetta topped with smoked pesce spade (swordfish).  This was complimented with bottles, many bottles, of ‘Frascati’, a chilled DOC white wine.  Exception in order here from my usual red regiment, I enjoyed the white especially with so much of it on hand!  It was a great way to begin.  Our starters concluded, we were then presented with platters of tasty pasta that included one of ravioli stuffed with Sardinian ricotta, a Fettuccini a la Carbinara and another fettuccini featuring a mushroom cream sauce.  I especially loved the ravioli!  Our alfresco dinner had been wonderful.  I just knew I was always meant to visit Sardinia, a boat-ride from Rome or Naples, but in a pinch the Osteria der Belli will definitely suffice.  Pleasant surroundings, fine service and food to match made this stop-off a standout. 

Just as we stood to leave, there was a commotion in the nearby piazza, a sort of hit and run but not the kind you might imagine.  A purse had been snatched and as the assailant made his getaway at a full run, he’d slammed into a bystander sending him sprawling.  It all happened fast, too fast for me to even say I saw it happen.  Not long after we saw a policeman go by but to no avail, the thief had gotten away.  The women among us, their handbags crosswise across their chests, clutched their purses a little tighter and did a better job of concealing their bling the rest of the evening.  For my part, I checked that my money pouch was secure beneath my belt.  Henceforth, it would take some struggle to wrench anything from our troop.  When it came to pickpockets and outright thievery, here was proof that Rome was no different from any other big city, yet this was our first experience with anything like this.  
Through a few more small piazzas bordered by inviting cafes and romantic outdoor restaurants we approached the church of Santa Maria della Scala (Holy Mary of the Staircase) located in the Square of the Staircase (Piazza della Scala).  Apparently stairs here were somehow of significance.  It is one of the oldest churches in Rome named for a much honored, miraculous icon of the Madonna today located in the north transept of the church.  Tradition holds that the icon had cured the deformed child of a mother who often prayed before this icon, when one day it was placed on the staircase landing of her home.  The church was then built as a response to the people’s need for veneration.  Still awake?  We were, however, not there to visit the church.  Instead our destination was an apothecary, part of but adjacent to the church.  I wondered why this particular stop.  A culture break from indulgence?  Maybe a bromide or some elixir was in order after our many samplings, with more to come.  I soon discovered I hadn’t been far from the mark!

In the shadows of a dimly lit doorway Anna struck the door knocker of the adjoining monastery and home to the pharmacy.  Moments later it creaked open to reveal our next host, Father Ivan, a Carmelite monk who would now lead the tour.  We had been expected.  So I can put this into some perspective for you, we were about to enter what I can only describe as the world of “Harry Potter”.  I wasn’t quite sure about Ivan who from his mannerisms impressed me as a cross between dark Professor Severus of dubious loyalty and the affable headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, both of Potter fame.  In the seemingly cloistered silence of the hallway, he solemnly informed us that photos were NOT permitted.  I’ve been known to cheat but in this case I feared if not a curse or sudden rash then at least ex-communication.  Besides, here in this pharmacy, even here, there was no cure for dumb!

This monastery is famous for it contains, intact, the Papal court's 17th century pharmacy, the Spezieria di Santa Maria della Scala, then as now administered by the monks of the Order of Barefoot Carmelites.  Why the barefooted distinction I mused; was there also a shoed faction?  It wasn’t until 1954, after 400 years of service that they ceased operations, apparently leaving the pharmaceutical business to others like Bayer and Pfizer.  Surprisingly, we were allowed to wonder its rooms, a time capsule of sorts cast in pre-history, straight from the 17th and 18th centuries.  As yet there were no roped-off areas as you might expect in a museum.  We could open cabinets and inspect the contents of drawers.  I kept a sharp lookout for ‘eye of newt’ and ‘sparrow tongue’ as I inspected cubbies and compartments!  Its furnishings, assorted instruments (even a contraption to compress powders into tablets), everything including cabinet drawers filled with herbs, jars of liquids, recipes, remedies … this host of lost skills and traditions, all just as though the pharmacy was still in operation, have been remarkably preserved in museum-like fashion.  Here was a genuine, lost phantom world, where history is longest for it still exists.  Here the residue of antiquated technology is bolstered by a dose of prayer and faith in God’s healing grace.  Long night shadows along still longer counters evoked genuine mystery and cast an air of the bewitched.  It was as if someone had blown out the candles one evening, turned the lock and never returned, suspending this place in a never changing moment.

I was especially taken by the description of one of the more famous products of this papal farmacia preserved in an ornate vat positioned in a place of distinction as an altar might in a church.  In accordance with instructions in the original recipe, this mighty potion rested in a stone vat in front of a window overlooked by a portrait of Saint Teresa of Avila, the founder of the order.  It was something called ‘Theriaca’, said to be the creation of Andromache, Emperor Nero’s personal physician.  This particular remedy, an amalgam of alchemy and primal medical science, is concocted every 60 years.  The potion allegedly had curative value for just about anything that ailed you to include smallpox, dysentery, stomach ailments, paralysis, even sexual impotence.  I hesitated on that last one, wondering why a pope might need that particular cure (then again I was just beginning to watch “The Borgias” TV series).  Anyway, they had just about all the bases covered!  Though I hadn’t any idea of current demand for this concoction, they were coming up on the “use by” date and a fresh batch would be needed in a few more years.  It featured 57 ingredients, many I’d wager, hard to come by these days.  When I inquired about its formulary, Father Ivan pointed out a few of the particularly noteworthy elements called for in the Theriaca recipe.  These included:

Flesh of a male viper taken in a full moon (especially interesting because these particular snakes had to have lived far enough away from the sea to have never had any contact with salt and be male besides)
Pearl dust
Gold dust
Incense (plenty of that around)
and of course Wine (I’m assuming a red!) 

Some of the farmacia's other famous prescriptions included Aqua Antipestilenziale and the Water of the Samaritan Woman (both disinfectants); Aqua di Melissa (prescribed to calm hysteria but no mention of who Melissa might have been); the Water of Scala, a lavender anti-neuralgic used for diseases of the respiratory tract, rheumatic illnesses and allergies; Water Lemon Balm, used as a sedative in addition to a cream on the modern day order of Vicks VapoRub, but in this case 150 years old.  It was my sister who after describing her symptoms to Father Ivan purchased a cream sure to relieve her condition.  But then I wondered anew, can you really trust a barefoot monk, someone I suspected who had to think about attempting a smile?  Trust him? … a salt-free snake oil merchant on the order of a modern day used car salesman (the negative impressions of these dubious professions had to have originated somewhere) and barefoot to boot.  This especially when he didn’t offer our prowling foodie band the slightest morsel (a sparrow’s tongue?) to nibble on! 

Shuffling off by then into a mature night, our tour sadly came to an end in Piazza San Cosimato at the gelateria (ice cream parlor) claimed to have brought ‘gourmet gelato’ to Rome.  The Fatamorgana, a laboratory of these cold desserts, first opened its doors in 2003.  Before entering to sample its frothy treats, Anna first went over some finer points on gelato - what to look for and what to avoid.  It seems that 80% of the gelato offered in Rome is of the fake variety.  Brightly colored chemical powder mixes and stabilizers are ubiquitous and while ice cream is whipped, gelato must be churned.  Avoid the airy fluffy stuff too.  Inside at the counter I ‘failed-safe’ and went with my Italian favorite, limone (lemon).  Though it was good and lacked an icy consistency I still would cast my vote for Lucia’s creamy ambrosia at the Bar Jolly in Calitri.  I know it is the ‘real McCoy’ since I once watched as it was being made.  Use a synthetic or some type of stabilizer in Calitri gelato and you’d probably be stoned!  Now late as it was and as stuffed as we were (where was the bromide?), Anna kindly called a cab for us as we made our goodbyes to the group. 
            Would it be a forgone clichĂ© if I said this had been a fabulous magical evening?  Proof enough for me when I thought I heard angles crying as it came to an end.  "Tras-tevere", meaning "Across the Tiber", had been an unknown part of Rome for us, a neighborhood like none other, part Roman and yet apart.  Lost but always there to be discovered, it has been there for centuries and so like all things touched by man is always changing ... once a synagogue, warehouse, convent, a medieval house, a restaurant ... what will it be for you?  With its cobbled streets alive with life, it reminded me of New York’s Greenwich Village or Paris’ Left Bank.  By nights end, we had a taste for this Roman borough and knew we wanted more on a future return visit (new bus service from Calitri can get us there in under 4 hours).  

After a certain age, we can confidently believe we are all Italian.  Just as all paths begin in Rome, I’m convinced that one way or another we’re all somehow rooted in Rome.  If you don’t believe me just sign up for the Twilight Foodie Tour of Rome through some of Trastevere’s offbeat landmarks and you’ll convince yourself, or at a minimum, become a true believer if only for a night.  Experiences turn our dreams and imaginings into memories.  First the dream, then the memory.  Experience Trastevere’s special brand of Roman theater under a twilight evening sky and in a moment of perfection live the dream!

From that Rogue Tourist,

For related Part II photos (as well as those from other adventures ), click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled “Foodie Tour Part II”.