I tell everyone I’m a great cook in Rome. You would be, too. So would your slacker son who lives on Corn Flakes and Pop-Tarts. Everyone is a great cook here. All you have to do is shop. Public markets are sprinkled around Rome like Safeways in the U.S. In a way, it’s very Third World. In another way, it offers the best foundation for a healthy lifestyle. Everything in the markets is fresh. I’ve been here three weeks and the only thing I’ve bought in a box is Coco Pops after a major cereal withdrawal. The one drawback is bread must be devoured within 30 seconds of purchase or it goes hard as a police baton.
Yesterday I learned to be a better cook. I took my first cooking class in Rome. I emphasize first. When you’re retired, you’re shocked at how much time you have. I find myself revolving my days around one scheduled event. The rest of the time is spent with whimsical wanderings through the windy streets of Centro Storico or lounging on my couch reading about soccer. Or I’m in the kitchen making up recipes with whatever ingredients happen to look good in the market that day. Right now, my fettuccine with sausage and bell peppers would go for about $20 in any Italian restaurant in Denver. I had some limoncello meatballs that would be the hit of any Super Bowl party. I bought some fresh tagliatelle and cooked it for about two minutes before mixing it with fresh tomatoes, garlic and pancetta, tossing it with a fistful of pecorino romano, and would let it pass at any dinner party. I brought two Italian cookbooks from Denver and I haven’t opened either one.
I plan on becoming a better cook here, and yesterday was my first step. Unfortunately, my first step was almost a face plant into a plate of pasta. I was writing in my journal at 11 a.m., trying to plan my eating around the 6:30 p.m. cooking class. I get an email from Laura, our Rome Explorers Meetup organizer: “We’re waiting for you? Any problems to arrive?!?” The exclamation point hit me like a red-hot poker up my arse. I frantically searched past emails and there was her reminder from the day before: The class started at 10:30 a.m! I know what happened. My American cell phone’s calendar mysteriously disappeared one night two weeks ago and just as mysteriously, reappeared three days later. All the appointments returned but, strangely, the times are eight hours later than originally listed. Damn technology. One day it’ll make me starve.
So I raced out the door, a toothbrush nearly still sticking in my mouth, dressed in baggy jeans with unshowered hair. The No. 271 bus luckily pulled up to my bus stop as I ran out and I took the 10-minute ride to Prati, my old neighborhood near the Vatican. I walked up a quiet side street into what looked like a 19th century office building King Vittorio Emanuele may have used for office retreats. The courtyard could’ve been used for beheadings.
I walked in to see six women dressed in white smocks and an Italian man giving instructions in heavily accented English. I told my story before Laura brained me with her rolling pin. I greased my entry by saying, in Italian, “I’m resembling an Italian man. I show up only to eat.”
I’d missed the first hour but all I missed was rolling the pizza dough and making the marzipan for the tiramisu. That’s fine. The summer after my senior year in high school, I was a dough roller at Papa’s Pizza. If I ever kneaded another batch of flour and water the rest of my life, it would be way too soon. (A side note: Ever have a job where you have to listen to Top 40 radio for eight hours a day? I still can not hear “The Night Chicago Died” without driving off the road.)
Teaching the class was Andrea, a young, bespectacled guy with a wispy beard, receding hairline and serious demeanor. Cooking is serious business in Italy and this was a serious kitchen. The long stainless steel stove had six burners, long tubes of oils and enough silverware to defend Rome in case of invasion. The wall had a diagram of a pig, cut into sections, each one with detailed descriptions. It read “Tagli Suino Piemontese” (Cutting a Piedmont Pig.) Andrea even had an electronic pepper shaker. Now when you won’t turn your wrist to dispense spice, that’s lazy.
We were making three dishes: pizzetes (little pizzas); penne pasta with sausage, pumpkin and fennel; and tiramisu. I arrived in time to throw a sprig of basil into the tomato sauce. It’s a nice touch I never thought about while cooking, nor did I ever think about (or maybe admit to) that the tomatoes in Campo dei Fiori aren’t as good as I remembered. Andrea explained: They’re not in season. The tomatoes I’m buying probably came from a hothouse in Sicily. The real garden tomatoes, the ones I used to eat like apples, start appearing in March and April. At least that’s what one of the dozen or so charts on the wall said. This kitchen had more info on the walls than a doctor’s office.
It reminded me of a funny language faux pas when I first lived here in 2001. I went to the market looking for tomatoes for the first time knowing that tomatoes in the U.S. are packed with preservatives, making them as flavorless as pulpy socks. So I walked up to an old woman running a vegetable stand and asked, “I suoi pomodori hanno preservativi?” (Do your tomatoes have preservatives?) One problem: Preservativi is Italian for “condoms.” Conservanti is the word for preservatives. But, I told the class, if you want to have sex with a tomato, at least you’re safe.
The tomato was bubbling and some dipping spoons confirmed that the Passata, the bottled tomato sauce Andrea uses in the winter, is the way to go this month. It was delicious, so sweet I looked around for a sugar bowl. Meanwhile, Andrea was dropping massive slices of pumpkin that looked like mango into a giant blender. I loathe pumpkin. They’re meant to eat, not carve. My old girlfriend and I once made pumpkin pie during a Thanksgiving treat to some Roman friends. They were as disgusted as I’ve been my whole life. This, however, was different. It was blended into a mush then sent to a giant frying pan with ground-up sausage and a slight sprinkle of fennel. This fennel had seeds in it which, surprisingly, added to the flavor but not the coarseness.
By this time, it was about 1 and we were starving. It was an eclectic group. Two American women lived here working for one of the United Nations’ many Rome-based aid organizations, a Boston lawyer visiting her sister, a Cameroonian who has lived and been educated all over the world and now lives here, Laura and one of her Italian friends. Then there’s me, the token male who found his strength in the kitchen by the way I stealthly cut little round pizzas the length of my hand. They were then thrown into two liters of boiling oil until they were brown on both sides. Surprisingly, though, they got big and puffy, very much like a pastry. That’s what Andrea wanted. We pulled them out to let them cool and put little dollops of the tomato sauce, a little basil and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan. (Another tip from Andrea: Use my beloved peccorino romano with traditional roman dishes such as carbonara and cacio e pepe; use Parmesan with others. Peccorino is just too strong.)
Surprisingly, we did not make the penne pasta. I figured it was because you get together seven hack amateurs trying to poke long holes into little tubes of pasta, we wouldn’t be making lunch. We’d be making a midnight snack. Andrea poured the pasta out of a box, which in Rome I thought was akin to eating Dunkin Donuts in Paris. But Andrea claims dry pasta works better with heavier dishes with heavier sauces such as four cheese. Fresh pasta is better in simpler dishes. That’s why you can take fresh pasta, throw it on some browning garlic, toss in a couple of tomatoes and pour on the pecorino and you have a great meal. You try that with Barilla out of the box and you’ve got lunch in a war zone.
The meal was nothing short of scrumptious. My disgust for ingesting pumpkin disappeared with one taste of the penne pasta. The pumpkin seemed to make it sweeter and blended perfectly with the sausage. The pizzettes became as addicting as crack cocaine. We had a feeding frenzy with hands flying at the plates as fast as Andrea could pass them out. And, of course, the tiramisu was as good as anything I’ve had in Rome. Good job, ladies. I had nothing to do with it. I’m just a typical male trying to get fed.
I think I’ll be fed very well here.