Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Trastevere by Twilight - Part I

The e-mail had said to “meet at the obelisk”. Our hunt was on. The obelisk? How many could there be, but being Rome, there might easily be one around any corner. It had also said the obelisk was on an island and we knew there was but one in the Tevere (Tiber River) close to central Rome, which really narrowed it down. It had to be Isola Tiberina and what do you know, it had an obelisk! The obelisk was erected in the middle of the island to resemble a ship’s mast, seeing the island had the shape of a Roman ship. We were off then to Rome’s Tiber Island to participate in the Twilight Trastevere Foodie Tour… with the added adviso to be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring along an appetite preferably accompanied by an empty stomach! When you’d seen all the ancient stone remains and all the faded pictures adorning church walls you think you can stomach, all that remains is the food! But let me back up a moment…

When I’d tried to register for this tour , I discovered there were only two slots remaining. With four of us, however, this wouldn’t do. It being the only date the tour would be offered while we were visiting Rome, I was disappointed especially since this tour was ranked the number one walking tour in Rome. We would have to settle for number two, maybe even number three. Disheartened at my discovery, I decided to send the operators an email on the chance that with a cancellation, something might be freed-up. The next day, like something straight out of the The Night Before Christmas, “what to my wondering eyes should appear” but an e-mail announcing that due to demand (ours?), a second tour had been scheduled for that same evening. Great!

The day having arrived and full of anticipation we headed off on our blind date, a "foodie" blind date, from our Roman apartment rental along shadowy streets with names like Monserrato, Pettinari and Zoccolette. We pasted through the Campo di Fiori, by the doorway of a furniture maker’s 'laboratorio', beneath the benevolent eyes of a Madonna perched above like a pigeon sitting in a niche and an octagonal flower kiosk remindful so of scenes from the movie, Pane e Tulipani, and that delightful garlic chewing anarchist florist.

Walking along Lungotevere dei Pienleoni , we soon arrived before the oldest standing bridge in Rome, Ponte Fabricio (62 BC), which crossed to our island rendezvous destination. Once across and on the island, it was only a few steps farther that we came upon the obelisk. It was a wee thing, far smaller than I had expected, especially when portrayed as a ship’s mast. When I think of an obelisk I imagine one soaring high, covered in hieroglyphics, like those standing in the Vatican’s Piazza San Pietro or central Rome’s Piazza Popolo. This modest obelisk, positioned in the center of Piazza di San Bartolomeo all’Isola, had Catholic religious figures on four sides and the ever present keys of St. Peter inscribed into its base. We were early so we bidded our time at the nearby Antico Caffe dell Isola enjoying a new drink discovery, at least for us, something popular in Roma, called an Aperol Spritzer.

We had one additional clue. We had been told to look for the person with a blue spiral binder. This person turned out to be a young American woman named Anna, our hostess for the evening’s foodie soiree. Born and bred in Boston, in addition to being our guide, she was an aspiring actress who had been in Italy now going on four years. As slim as she was, she couldn’t have been doing the tour for long!

There were twelve of us who came together at the obelisk , a couple from Washington State, six from California following a destination wedding in Florence, and our group of four to include my sister from Vermont, her amica (friend) from Connecticut, Maria Elena and myself. We four were the oldest by far. By tours end, however, young and old, we were foodie-friendly after the sharing of bread, wine and pasta to a caloric extent I would regret ever knowing. Following introductions we were off to visit seven food related establishments and one very unusual cultural point of interest. It wasn’t long before we had a choice to make – eat to live or live to eat. For the next four hours, in our wanderings through the streets, alleyways and basements of earthy Trastevere, just one more bridge away on the other side of the island, we would choose the latter.

It was down Via dei Vascellari that we came upon our first stop, Da Enzo Al 29, a one room iconic trattoria operated by three brothers and their sister. I wondered who among them the boss might have been! A peek into the small side kitchen revealed people chopping and dicing away in preparation for the many additional patrons sure to follow our departure. A chalky wall placard described additional offerings for the day including exotic sounding Roman recipes like ‘spaghetti all’amatricha’, ‘saltimbocca alla romana’ and something called ‘mantechiamo’ featuring copious handfuls of pecorino cheese. They would have to remain mysteries until our future return. The owners clearly prided themselves on using the freshest of quality ingredients in their creations, which we discovered when we were served their specialty of carcièfo (artichokes). In their preparation the young artichokes are first soaked in lemon juice, salted and then deep fried, not once but twice. This cuisine style was referred to as carciofi all giudia (Jewish style artichokes) and was what we had come to sample. Interestingly, we were close to the ancient Jewish quarter of Rome. Not much of it remains. We were seated at a long cloth-covered table (photo above) precisely set for twelve expected American travelers. When served, they had the appearance of golden sunflowers. With their hearts removed, the outer curled leaves of the artichokes, enclosing delicate centers, tasted like crisp potato chips with a hint of nuttiness. You could consume everything including the long artichoke stem which we did with little hesitation while sipping fluted long-stemmed glasses of Prosecco before we all proclaimed “Ciao, Ciao, Ciao” and moved on to our next culinary surprise. The first stop had been a big hit.

Moving down Via dei Salumi, the street of the pork butchers, we turned into Vicolo dell Athleta (Alley of the Athlete) to the 2089 year old basement (yes, that old!) below Ristorante di Vino. We had arrived not to eat but to taste wine in a cellar that was 150 years older than the Coliseum! No ordinary place. The di Vino is located on the site of a former 12th century synagogue founded by Ben Jechiel, today a beautiful medieval house with arched loggia rebuilt on the site of the former synagogue. The street itself was once known as Vicolo delle Palme, the name derived from the fact that there were once some palm trees planted there in memory of Judea. Other proof of its Jewish heritage was evidenced not by a mezuzah by the front door but the presence of Hebrew characters carved in the marble at the base of an exterior column.

The building has gone through numerous births and rebirths - a synagogue, a convent, a bakery, a private home, a warehouse, and today’s reincarnation, a restaurant. What next is only speculation for the basement is now a protected heritage site, so controlled we were told they couldn’t dust the walls!

We could only fantasize what the food prepared upstairs by the Catalani family might be like as whiffs of modern and classic Roman cuisine swaddled us as we entered and quickly descended to the basement. Shortly thereafter, this pleasant aroma was replaced by the stale moldy smell of time. The current name of the alley, the Alley of the Athlete, derives from the basement discovery, in the last century, of a marble statue of an athlete scraping oil from his skin with a strigil. The statue today is located in the Vatican Museum. In addition to this find, a bronze horse made by Lysippus on behalf of Alexander the Great and considered an original Greek classic was also unearthed. Today this masterpiece can be found in the Capitoline Museum at the top of Michelangelo’s staircase by the edge of the Roman Forum. From a 2nd century street, we had arrived on a basement floor whose level was the same as it was at the time of the Roman Republic. We were indisputably deep inside a graveyard in time.

The cellar houses other treasures, a rich collection of more than 800 different labels from all the wine regions of the world. With delicate long stemmed wine glasses in hand, there amidst the protected, not-to-touch dust and cobwebs, we sipped a rich, velvety, red wine selection from Marche, “Il Casolare”, and snacked on mini-meatballs seasoned with coriander in addition to pepper hors-devours arrayed on a plank clad table so old that in the dim light I looked for any sign of carved initials of the likes of Caesar, maybe a Pope, Michelangelo himself or possibly even Puccini. Bless our souls, the night was still young, yet time, history and Rome had already come together.

Our next stop would mirror what we call a ‘backwards day’, where for one day things are done in reverse. I’m reminded of backwards because our next stop was at a cookie factory! How about an early dessert as a sort of palate cleanser? So it would be … across Via dei Genovese to cobblestoned Via della Luce and the 100 year old “Biscottificio Innocenti”. There we would enjoy one of their specialties, this one known by the unappealing name of ‘brutti ma buoni’, that’s right, “ugly but good”. Still warm from a boxy conveyor belt oven that filled the workspace behind a simple counter, production area on one side and customers on the other, these confections as best I can tell, were a mélange of nuts, flour, sugar and meringue. Short lived, the samples we were offered didn’t have time enough to cool! At the moment there was a little of the “Cookie Monster” in each of us. In any case, we needed the sugar to fuel the remainder of our meandering journey.

This famous family-run cookie factory was a working, functioning establishment with customers coming and going throughout our visit. Like many of them, we had lost any semblance of self-control and began to buy bagfuls of the freshly made biscotti with names like ‘cat’s tongue’ and ‘make-a-wish’ along with jam tarts, almond and hazelnut affairs. I for one think of biscotti as those hard oval-shaped breakfast treats good for dipping into coffee, but in Italy, biscotti encompasses any type of cookie.

There was limited space for all of us in front of the counter as we traded coin for sweet munchies. Stefania, our host, was the current generational owner. I met her coming from her tiny office on our side of the counter. She sported a broad smile as she maneuvered behind the counter to attend to our transient troop of visitors. Her obvious passion for her cookie craft, a craft acquired from a long line of cookie makers before her, was evident. Her view of life encompassed generation … skills passed down to her from her parents and grandparents before them. Walk-in customers like us are augmented by loyal consumers from small café owners to the finery of multi-star rated hotels throughout Rome. It is sufficient for them to have fancy establishments while in the Innocenti’s case attention is given to the product not to a glitzy fashion trendy storefront. After all, this was a factory frozen in time, much as it was a hundred years ago. The sweet scent from the oven, which extended at least a half a block away, served as their more than sufficient marquee.

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.

- To be Continued Next Month -

From that Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related Part I 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 I”.