1950s Archive

A Gastronomic Tour of Italy


Originally Published October 1954

Of all the roads leading to Rome, few are more rewarding than the Via Gastronomia

The migratory scribe whose primary interest is gastronomy will find that he has ample time for truant tangents in most of the Italian provinces. Beguiling as the theme of regional wine and cooking may be, he can still wander into the green pastures of history, art, and bicycle races without neglecting his epicurean duly. Not so in Rome. The subject of wining and dining in the Eternal City is so rich and so rewarding that vagrant deviations into the companion beauties of the capital are out of the question.

Unless he is to indulge in a full-length novelette, he must have the fortitude to forego the antique shops on the Via Sistina and the twinkling ankles on the Via Flaminia for the solid facts of life on the Via Gastronomia.

So, with nary a sidelong, time-consuming glance at St. Peter's or the Forum, we plunge headlong into the theme of Roman food-and come up bubbling with encouraging facts. The much quoted assertion that it is impossible to dine poorly in Rome turns out to be a glorious and gratifying truth. As do the Parisians and the Lyonnais, the Romans refuse to patronize a poor restaurant. You see one now and then tables deserted, waiters balancing forlornly on their heels, cash registers silent. A few doors away is another place absolutely choked with chattering, gregarious guests. The Roman public knows the difference, and so will the timid traveler-if he follows the crowd!

The excellence of Roman cooking runs through all categories of dining places, from the humble trattoria CO the chic casino in the park. It applies to discreet carpeted haunts of the aristocracy and noisy nightclub cellars ringing with song. Price seems to make little difference. You will find delectable Roman food in sidewalk cafes across the Tiber and in inexpensive country inns along the ancient Appian way. Only the drab and unimaginative diner who sticks close to his hotel and submits to “international” cooking should find it dull. Beyond any doubt Rome's gastronomic stature is in keeping with its historic eminence as a world capital-and that's good news.

The carta del giorno of any good Roman restaurant contains a tempting cross section of Italian cookery-Adriatic fish, Florentine beef. Bolognese pasta, Neapolitan sweets-but Rome's own specialties stand up well in comparison. Baby lamb, egg noodles and artichokes take on splendor and originality when prepared in the Roman manner, and no visiting gourmet worthy of the name would leave the city without making the seductive acquaintance of fettuccine, abbacchio and carciofi alla romana. Among many Roman dishes, we have space to dwell only upon a spectacular few.

Fettuccine alla romana: These arc thin, fresh egg noodles, served very hot with butter and finely grated Parmesan cheese. This sounds like a banal definition for a sublime dish, and so it is This is a crowning achievement in pasta, and so perfected that few outsiders can hope to achieve it. Yet its essentials are simplicity itself. The mannered flush and flourish which accompany this famous dish at Alfredo's and elsewhere happen to be essential, even if a gold fork and spoon are nor. The beautiful ribbons of golden noodles arrive at your table quite dry, and as hot as live steam. In a half minute or so your maître d'hôtel must melt an imposing block of butter in them, together with just the right amount of Parmesan or Romano cheese-ground almost to the fineness of talcum powder. It takes a lot of lightning tossing, twirling and mixing to melt both butter and cheese, and to transfer the fettuccine still steaming to your plate. Apart from crêpes Suzette, few dishes offer such a dazzling opportunity to a head waiter with exhibitionist tendencies.

Roman fettuccine is about three-eighths of an inch wide and much thinner than other egg-enriched Italian noodles, but the secret of its beauty seems to lie in its freshness. Made in the morning, and cooked only on order, the maesto fettuccine al triplo burro is a thing of rich, buttery, fattening splendor. Yet its price on a Roman menu is less than fifty cents. An abbacchio is a very young milk-fed lamb, not much bigger than a full grown hare when it is suspended in an Italian butcher shop. It can be roasted in the oven or on a spit, and is exquisitely tender and delicate. Cooked alla cacciatore in a casserole with peppers, garlic, rosemary, vinegar, spices and a suspicion of anchovy, it takes on a character all of its own. As a delicacy, abbacchio is totally satisfying except to the too-tender hearted. Of course, if you conjure up a picture of baby lambs frolicking among the bluebells and buttercups, you're not going to enjoy the dish as well. It is a shame to end their days even before their baas have changed.

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