La zuppa della strega e la festa della Befana

When Stefano was young, there were no packaged cookies, biscuits or other breakfast treats in his home.  His mamma, Maria, prepared everything homemade.  Breakfast was crostata, or rustic olive oil cake called pizza dolce, with a small glass of warmed whole milk darkened with a splash of caffè.

Some mornings, Maria would prepare la zuppa della strega for Stefano, his brother Marco and his sister Debora. Crusty bread was soaked in warm milk, with a bit of espresso, sugar and sometimes cocoa to sweeten it a bit.  Frugality was behind this breakfast creation; it was a way to consume day-old bread.  But Maria made it fun by giving it a mysterious and peculiar name – zuppa della strega, witch’s soup.

Zuppa della Strega

Stefano has carried this tradition forth in the States.  On weekend mornings he’ll prepare a bowl of zuppa della strega for 8-year-old Luca, who devours it with the same delight that Stefano did when he was that same age.

Zuppa della Strega

January is the season of witches in Italy.  La Befana is a folklorish, witch-like old woman.  On the eve of January 6th, the holiday la festa della Befana, she rides on a broomstick from house to house and leaves treats inside stockings left out by Italian children   As the date suggests, this holiday has its origins in the Christian Epiphany, and it marks the end of the Christmas holiday.  Con l’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via.

La festa della Befana is even more eagerly anticipated than Christmas by young Italian children.  When Stefano was young, the Befana would leave him and his brother and sister home baked treats, clementines, sugar candy that resembled black coal, and sometimes a little bit of chocolate.  The Befana was a universal symbol for motherhood, and so after waking up and finding their treats in the stocking, Stefano and his siblings would give auguri to their mother, much like one would on mother’s day.  There was plenty of teasing about the Befana‘s homely appearance, too.

As has happened to so many holidays, la festa della Befana has become more commercial since Stefano was young.  Stores theme-based stockings stuffed with chocolates and toys have largely replaced the homemade treats of Stefano’s youth.

Unchanged, though, is the large open air market celebrating la festa della Befana in Rome’s Piazza Navona.  During the weeks between Christmas and la festa della Befana, the piazza is filled with stalls selling candy, toys, miniature Befana dolls and more.  There are amusement park rides, live street artists and more to delight young and old alike.  Whenever we are in Rome over the holidays we make sure to bring the kids for a day of fun.

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

Here, the Italian cousins enjoy ciambelle in front of Piazza Navona’s Fontana del Moro on la festa della Befana in 2010.

Piazza Navona Festa della Befana

Ingredients for zuppa della strega
Day old bread
Milk
Sugar
Cocoa (optional)
Espresso (optional)

Directions
Break the bread into small pieces, and place them into a small saucepan.  Cover then with milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Once the milk comes to a boil, remove from heat and transfer into a bowl.  Add sugar to taste, and espresso or cocoa, or both.  Stir, and enjoy warm.

Ciao, Roma!

Ciao, Roma!  It’s been too long.

We had a perfect day to visit our favorite city – it was hot but not sweltering, and a cool breeze competed with the splendid sun, offering us reprieve from the heat.

Via Condotti e Antico Caffè Greco
We took the Metro to Piazza di Spagna, and then worked our way down Via Condotti and Via Borgognona, strade romane dotted with the flagship stores of Italy’s most famous designers.  Window shopping for alta moda is hard work, so we took a break and ducked into Antico Caffè Greco, the oldest bar in Rome, for a coffee.

Il Pantheon, Caffe’ Sant’Eustachio ed Enoteca al Parlamento
A trip to Rome’s historical center must include our favorite monument, the Pantheon, a temple originally built in 27-25 B.C. and dedicated to the goddess Olympia.  It was as magnificent as always today!  A quick stop for pizza al taglio was really just an excuse for another coffee, this time a creamy Gran Caffè  from Caffe’ Sant’ Eustachio, arguably the best coffee in Rome.  We found Sant’Eustachio surprisingly calm, and were happy to not have to press up against the other Romans and tourists to work out way to the bar.  Caffeinated and energized, we headed toward Piazza Navona and came upon Enoteca al Parlamento, a historical wine shop and bar filled from floor to ceiling with dusty bottles of Italian wine (some of it very high quality), along with preserves, spreads, candies and other delicacies.

Piazza Navona e Gelateria del Teatro
After browsing the artist stands and admiring Bernini’s famous fountains in Piazza Navona, we headed down Via dei Coronari toward one of Rome’s best gelaterie, Gelateria del Teatro.  This is the epitome of gelato artiginale, hand-crafted, inventive gelato made from all natural ingredients.  The Pistacchio and Ricotta, Fico e Mandorle Tostate (Ricotta, Fig and Toasted Almond) cone was spectacular, and we made a mental note to return for Pesca Bianca e Lavanda (White Peach and Lavender).

Il Tevere e la Grattachecca
It didn’t matter that we’d just had gelato.  We were really craving a Roman grattachecca, hand-shaved ice drizzled with syrup and adorned with fruit.  The grattachecche vendors are typically found along Lungotevere, the road that winds alongside il Tevere, or the Tiber river.  As predicted, we came across one at Ponte Umberto I.  We chose a black cherry and a mint one, and agreed to bits of fresh coconut on top.

The grattachecche gave us just enough energy to walk back to the Metro at Piazza Barberini and ride home in the cool and fast-travelling underground train…just in time for our nephew Davide’s 3rd birthday party, which lasted well into the night.  Stay tuned for birthday parties, Italian style!

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.