When in Rome, Eat Ugly Food

Sometimes vacations turn ugly. But starting your trip off with an ugly dinner isn’t always a bad thing.
ugly food

It was perhaps a little odd to be traveling together. Winnie, Molly, and I were friends through words, reading and writing, and had never so much as shared a meal together, but we showed up in Rome hungrier than the Visigoths. We heard about a place nearby, a local spot. Perhaps we would want to try somewhere more special? It’s innocent questions like these that can surprise travelers with the arguments they cause. But we were jellied from 20 hours of absorbing jet fumes, no one had a fight to put up, and we arrived at the unassuming Sora Rosa.

The dining room was greenish under florescent light, empty but for two tables, one of those empty but for spent pitchers of wine. We scanned the menu until one of the other customers, pickled by drink and tickled by our arrival, shouted, “Ravioloni! Fettuccine!” I couldn’t tell if these were recommendations or grunts of greeting, but we took them as the former and soon they arrived, the giant ravioli’s pasta sheets thick as half a finger, lopsidedly filled, the water from their cooking pooling in the tomato sauce. The fettuccine looked barely better, a mess of it sitting on army green peas, microscopic prosciutto, and pallid, gray mushrooms that looked like they once lived in can. It was not an auspicious start to our Roman eating holiday.

And yet, and yet, and yet… the ravioloni’s pasta was carefully cooked, satisfying and substantial, the tomatoes perfectly balanced despite the water, and one of my bites came unexpectedly perfumed with the best basil I’ve ever had. The fettuccine seemed less casually brilliant until the sweet, earthy, beany flavor of the peas opened up with the mature funk of prosciutto, and the mushrooms began to undergird everything. After that moment, every flavor hit at once with every bite. We were polite, sharing plates cordially, until we were only pretending to be polite, twirling enormous forkfuls before passing, our eyes following the plates as they went away from us.

“Do you think,” Winnie asked, in between bites, “this food would work back in the U.S.?” Molly shook her head. “I don’t think you could really serve this back home. It’s too ugly,” she said. I wondered about that. For all our praise of rusticity, simplicity and honesty in cooking, we still expect certain signals of professionalism in presentation: ravioli should be the same size as one another, colors should be vibrant. If food is a mess it must be a careful, respectful mess. But I didn’t say these things, because I was too busy chewing, and because what I was really thinking in that moment was that you could never serve this food back home because it would never get there. I would personally intercept it if it tried to come into the country and eat it.

More food arrived: A sweet, meaty fish, whole off the grill, its fins charred black. Baby zucchini, fried soft and wilty. Eggplant, stewed gray. It looked a mess. It seemed almost technique-less, like someone just threw olive oil in a pot with some vegetables and forgot about it. And yet the flavors floated and sustained, and the three of us, friends but not yet intimately, were soon sticking ours fingers into the food without bothering to pass the plates, pulling out bones and tossing them away, our arms and hands threading around each others’ without a second thought.

There was not much to the rest of the night. We asked for change to pay the check, and all giggled excitedly when we heard the server go into the kitchen and ask his Mama for a couple of fivers. We left the place toddling with fullness, still exhausted from travel, and I expected we would just go home and sleep. But then Winnie brought up gelato, Molly suggested the place we saw back towards the train station, and I started thinking about flavors. This, I knew, was going to be a good trip.

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