Le Polpette al Sugo

At home in Rome, meatballs cooking on the stove top meant that rigatoni with meat sauce would be served as a first course.  The abundant tomato sauce in which the meatballs cook almost steals the show from the meatballs themselves, and makes for a tangy compliment to pasta.

There are many Italian meatball recipes.  This one is a simple favorite.

Ingredients
2 lbs lean ground beef
1 lb ground pork
2 eggs
3-4 sprigs flat leaf Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, very finely chopped
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
The inside only of ½ loaf of Italian bread
Milk
3 28-oz. cans peeled whole tomatoes, or more if desired
Carrots
Celery
Onion
Olive Oil
1 beef bullion cube
Flour
Dry red wine
Salt

Place the ground meat into a large mixing bowl.  Add eggs, parsley, garlic and Parmesan cheese.  Place the inside of ½ loaf of Italian bread in a separate bowl.  Add just enough milk to moisten all of the bread, and let sit for a few minutes. Pull the bread piece by piece out of the bowl, squeeze to eliminate excess milk, and add it to the meat mixture.  Add 2 pinches of salt, and mix it all together with your hands.

Place about 1 cup of flour on a plate.  Shape the meat mixture into balls slightly larger than a golf ball.  Roll each meatball in flour and set on a plastic sheet.

Cover the bottom of a large pot with olive oil.  Cut a ¼ inch slice of a large onion, chop it finely, and sauté it in the olive oil.  When the onions are translucent, add two carrots, and two stalks of celery, cut into pieces.  Gently place the meatballs one by one into the pot, and then add the bullion cube and a dash of dry red wine.

Let the meatballs simmer in the sauté, stirring occasionally so that they brown on all sides.   After approximately 7-8 minutes your meatballs should be well-browned.

Add your whole tomatoes, passing them through a food mill to obtain a smooth sauce.  (See Methods section for more information).  You should use at least 3 large cans of whole tomatoes, but more is fine – you will just have more sauce left over.  Bring the sauce back to a boil, and then allow it to cook for 20 to 25 more minutes, adding salt to taste and stirring gently from time to time.

Serve in pasta bowls and have plenty of bread ready to soak up the sauce.

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Prosciutto e Mozzarella

We don’t always share our kitchen well.  Our cooking styles are different; Cara is calm and meditative, while Stefano is turbulent and inspired.  Stefano’s creations are splendid, reminiscent of his mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen.  When he is done cooking, every cabinet door is open; every pot, pan and utensil needs washing.

On weekend afternoons when the outdoors is calling, something simpler is called for.  Two simple ingredients, prosciutto and mozzarella, make a perfect lunch.  Add rustic bread, and call it a meal.

Prosciutto
Prosciutto comes from the thigh and shoulder of the pig.  There is prosciutto crudo – uncooked, cured ham, and prosciutto cotto –  cooked ham.  Choose prosciutto crudo, which is a darker red in color, to accompany your mozzarella.  Ask at your deli counter for prosciutto that comes from Italy.  Parma and San Daniele are two good brands.  Ask for your prosciutto thinly sliced, but not so thin that it tears.  It will need to be at least 1/16th inch thick.

Mozzarella
It is well worth finding good mozzarella for this dish.  We opted for mozzarella di bufala, which is made from the milk of the water buffalo. This delicacy from the Campania region of Italy is a larger, denser mozzarella with an earthier texture and a saltier taste.  The trademark of a good, fresh mozzarella is the milk that oozes out from its center when it is cut.

Il Panino
Enjoy your prosciutto e mozzarella with rustic bread, or make easy-to-take panini.

Next up: Stefano makes meatballs just the way his mom did, and the kitchen may never be the same.

Un Cono e Un Caffè al Pantheon

Our favorite monument in Rome is the Pantheon.  Built in 27 B.C. as a temple to the gods of Ancient Rome, rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in 127 A.D. following the burning of Rome and converted to a Catholic church in the 7th century, it is one of Rome’s best preserved buildings.  The Pantheon boasts the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, with an oculus in the center that lets in the Pantheon’s only source of light.  Today, the Pantheon is home to the tombs of famous painters, a composer, an architect, two kings and a queen.
Whenever we return to Rome we be sure to visit the Pantheon, and while we are there we make time to stop for some of the best gelato and caffè in all of Rome.

Gelateria Giolitti is just a few blocks away from the Pantheon.  With its gigantic columns at your back walk straight ahead, passing along the right side of the fountain and down a narrow street called Via della Maddalena.  Proceed three or four blocks until you reach Via degli Uffici del Vicario.  Turn right and walk about a block and a half.  Gelateria Giolitti is on the right.  If you were to continue down that road you’d reach the Italian Parliament and Chamber of Deputies.  Don’t do that, though.  Stop and have a gelato, instead.

Gelateria Giolitti is not exactly a secret, so expect a full house and plenty of jostling and crowding to get your gelato.  Don’t be intimidated – it is worth it!  Stop at the cassa (cash register) first, and pay for your cono (cone) or coppa (cup).  Take your receipt and proceed to the gelato bar.  Practice being assertive – you will need to be in order to get the attention of the gelato servers.  Hold your receipt up to demonstrate that you’ve paid already and make eye contact.  Be ready to call out the flavors of gelato you want on your cono or in your coppa.  If you can’t read the little flavor labels, just point.  You can choose two and sometimes three flavors per cono or coppa, depending on the size you ordered.  Some of our favorites are pistacchio (pistachio) and nocciola (hazlenut), although the fruit flavors are buonissimi, also.  Your server will ask you if you want panna (whipped cream) on top.  Say yes – this panna is natural and much less sweet that what we are used to, a perfect compliment to the gelato.

Of course, if all of this is too intimidating, you can just sit down at a little table and be served by a waiter.  We won’t hold it against you if you choose this option; but know that you will not only pay a hefty surcharge for a table and wait service, you will also miss out on the adventurous and authentic experience of standing elbow to elbow with Italians and tourists alike to order your gelato from Giolitti.

Next, it’s time to get what many claim is the best caffè in all of Rome.  Head back toward the Pantheon the way you came.  This time, however, once you get back to Piazza della Rotonda where the Pantheon is, veer to the right past the fountain and keep walking with the Pantheon on your immediate left until to get to Salita de’ Crescenzi.  Turn right onto Salita de’ Crescenzi.  Proceed until you get to Via di Sant’Eustachio, which turns into Piazza di Sant’Eustachio, home to Sant’Eustachio Il Caffè.

Sant’Eustachio hasn’t changed much since it opened in the late 1930s.  Its tight space sports the original decor, and the baristi are more formal appearing that elsewhere in Rome.  They mean business; watch as they clear away used tazze (espresso cups) and set new ones out on the bar with rhythmic precision.  Expect lines and crowding like at Giolitti.  Follow the same routine of paying first at the cassa and then taking your receipt to the bar.  Order the renowned Gran Caffè, a dense, creamy double-espresso.  You will simply not find a better caffè in Rome, or perhaps anywhere.  Do not order a cappuccino; those are for breakfast with your brioche.  Do not order a regular caffè; you can get those everywhere in Rome.  You are at Sant’Eustachio, and you must order a Gran Caffè.  We hope we are sufficiently clear on this point.

If you do, you just may find yourselves doing what we do when we visit Rome – ensuring we make a visit to the Pantheon, and enjoying a gelato and a caffè while we are there.

Gelateria Giolitti
Via degli Uffici del Vicario, 40
00186 Roma
http://www.giolitti.it

Sant’Eustachio il Caffè
Piazza di Sant’Eustachio, 82
00186 Roma
http://www.santeustachioilcaffe.it

This map shows the Pantheon (B), Gelateria Giolitti (A) and Sant’Eustachio il Caffè (C).

On our most recent visit to Rome, we gathered three generations of family for a walk in the historical center, and of course, a visit to the Pantheon, Giolitti and Sant’Eustachio.  Gelato was had by all – Flavio, Davide, Giorgia, Noemi, Luca, Damiano, Sean, Mery, Patrizio, Ivana, Andrea, Debora, Daniele, Valentina, Marco, Cara, Stefano, e Maria.  Only the adults had caffè, though!

Crema di Caffè
If it may be a while before you have a chance to pop into Sant’Eutachio, here is a little trick you can use to render your home-made espresso more like a Gran Caffè.

When you make espresso, set aside a very small amount of the first coffee to come out of your espresso maker.  This coffee is stronger and richer that the coffee that follows.  Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the reserved coffee.  Stir rapidly until the sugar has dissolved and you have a dense, sticky, cream.  This is called crema di caffè.   Add a teaspoon or two of crema di caffè to each espresso you pour, and stir.  The crema will render your espresso extra-rich and creamy.

La Carbonara

Not wanting to venture out to the market in the downpour, Spaghetti alla Carbonara was our choice for lunch on this stormy Sunday afternoon.   The creamy eggs, crispy guanciale, and sharp pecorino made for a hearty pasta dish that diverted our attention from the dark, thundering sky outside.

There are differing theories about the origin of la Carbonara’s name.  Some say that it was a preferred dish of Italian coalminers (carbonari) because of the non-perishable nature of the dry pasta, guanciale and pecorino cheese, and the availability of fresh eggs from the hens that they carried with them.  Others maintain that the recipe appeared shortly after the 1944 Liberation of Rome – a combination of Italian pasta and the bacon and eggs preferred by North American troops.

Many unauthentic versions of la Carbonara are around.  This one, though, is just like what you’d find in a Roman trattoria.  The trick lies in the authenticity of the ingredients and the technique.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is one of the classic dishes of Rome, so it is fitting that we paired it with Fontana Candida, a dry white wine from Frascati, one of the hill towns surrounding Rome that make up the Castelli Romani.  Fontana Candida is a refreshing, minerally wine with a crisp acidity and green apple and citrus flavors.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

Ingredients
1 lb. spaghetti
100 grams guanciale*
Olive oil
6 eggs (5 yolks, 1 whole)
Pecorino cheese**
Salt
Black pepper

Put a large pot of water on the stove to boil.  When ready, salt the water (see the Methods section for more information) and add the spaghetti.

In the meanwhile, slice the guanciale into strips 1/4″ thick, and then cut again into small pieces.  Slowly fry the guanciale in olive oil until crisp, but not burned.  Remove from heat.

Separate the yolks from the whites of 5 eggs.  Place the yolks into a dish, and discard the whites.  Add one more whole egg to the yolk mixture, and beat by hand.  Set aside.

Grate enough pecorino cheese to add generously to the top of each plate of pasta.  Set aside.

When the spaghetti are cooked, scoop out a large cup of the boiling water to set aside, and then drain thoroughly.  Return the spaghetti to the pot and place back on the stove on medium heat.  Moving quickly, add first the guanciale and the oil it was cooked in, and then the eggs.  Stir quickly until the eggs are cooked, adding some of the reserved water so that the mixture is creamy but not runny.

Transfer the spaghetti to pasta plates, grind black pepper liberally on top, and finish with a generous sprinkling of pecorino.  Serve immediately.

*Guanciale is cured pork taken from the cheek of the pig.  It is more flavorful than its cousin pancetta, which is cured pork from the belly of the pig.  Both guanciale and pancetta are best purched in Italian specialty delis.  If you cannot find guanciale, pancetta works fine in this recipe.  If you cannot find either use pork belly, which is what we did today because we didn’t want to run out in the rain.

**Pecorino is a sharp aged cheese made from sheep milk.  We prefer pecorino in our carbonara, but parmigiano can be substituted.

Torre Normanna

If you have never been to Italy, you need to start planning a trip, now.  If you have been there, you need to start planning your return trip.

A friend recently returned from a trip to Italy raved to us about her experience in Cinque Terre, in the northern Ligurian coastal region. She told us about swimming off of a boat in the Mediterranean Sea, while an Italian chef on deck grilled freshly caught seafood to be served once her party returned onboard.  Why, she asked, would we ever have left a place like this?

That answer, of course, is complicated, but in short has to do with the fact that as regular, middle-class Italians we did not spend our days swimming in the Mediterranean Sea while onboard our yacht a chef grilled seafood for us (shirtless, I imagined, although admittedly this detail I added myself).

Our posts in this category are not about why we left Italy, but instead about our favorite places in Italy, so that all of you who visit can enjoy these wonders.  We start with an amazing restaurant called Torre Normanna on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, located south of Naples on the Mediterranean, where the mountains meet the sea.

We lunched at Torre Normanna while visiting our family in Rome this winter.  This Norman (as in “of Normandy”) Tower is a fortress that juts out into the clear blue-green Mediterranean Sea.  From the street, you walk along a narrow pathway into the ancient structure, up a flight of stairs and into the main dining hall, the windows of which open up onto the sea.

It was lunch time during low season when we were there, between Christmas and New Year’s, and the restaurant was quiet except for a few other couples.  The seafood menu was exceptional; our kids’ batter-fried seafood platters were abundant and came with a miniature shark perched on top with its jaws pointed toward them in a wide-open smile.  When you visit, order scialatielle ai frutti di mareScialatielle are a home-made egg pasta made in that region of Italy, and frutti di mare means “fruit of the sea”, or seafood.

Ask for a table adjacent to one of the arc-shaped windows that look out over the sea, or better yet, in warm months request a table on the patio or terrace.  There is a private beach available for patrons in summer months, as well.  Finally, be sure to use the restrooms while you are there, with their windows that open up the sea and let in the salty breeze.

Torre Normanna
Vai D. Taiani, 4
Strada Coastiera Amalfitana
Maiori, Amalfi Coast
www.torrenormanna.net