With flights to Europe grounded, and the coronavirus upending daily life here and abroad, I knew early in the lockdown that a planned spring vacation to Rome would be postponed. I should have spent a week eating my way through the Eternal City. Instead, I turned my kitchen into my own personal trattoria. I couldn’t get groceries from the stands at the Testaccio market, or people-watch outside a Trastevere taverna. But with the right recipes, I hoped I could bring a little bit of Rome home.
Befitting the city’s status throughout history as a crossroads of the world, cucina Romana is complex and diverse. Dishes are tightly linked to the region’s rural roots, while their flavors have been influenced by generations of outsiders who made Roman food their own. “Local cuisine has been infiltrated fabulously by ingredients, customs and techniques also inherited from laborers, bureaucrats and students arriving from other parts of Italy,” write Katie Parla and Kristina Gill in “Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes From an Ancient City.”
“Their regional Italian elements mingled with native traditions to produce the Roman classics, and the transformation is ongoing.”
Had I made it to Rome this spring, I might have sampled fried street snacks such as supplì (rice croquettes) and mozzarella in carrozza (fried mozzarella), heaping plates of cacio e pepe and other pasta dishes enriched with pecorino Romano cheese, salads with bitter chicory leaves, artichokes served raw or cooked with olive oil or fried “Jewish-style,” and pizza — both the thin and thick crusts that the city is known for.
Could I possibly enjoy such delicacies in Minnesota? With a few great cookbooks, I took off — to my kitchen, anyway — to eat like a Roman tourist.
Follow my itinerary, with some recipes that follow, to create your own culinary Roman holiday at home.
Day 1: Takeoff
Menu: Cheese plate, sparkling Lacryma Christi from Naples.
Itinerary: Getting in the mind-set for a trip to nowhere takes some imagination. Naturally, I used my imagination to fly first-class. I popped some Italian bubbly, put my legs up on my lie-flat sofa, and ordered a cheese plate. That part was real. I subscribe to Imperfect Foods (imperfectfoods.com), a weekly grocery delivery that “rescues” excess and unattractive, perfectly edible food that doesn’t stand a chance in a supermarket. This week, they had stocked cheese trays from JetBlue. With air travel in a slump, the airline had excess onboard refreshments to unload. I bought two of those cheese trays, and began my “trip” with an aperitivo of airplane food.
Day 2: Jet lag
Menu: Spaghetti carbonara, espresso.
Itinerary: It was my first day off, and, just like when arriving in Europe, I was tired. I slept late, only wore pajamas, drank an espresso standing at my kitchen counter (aka al banco, as the practice is called in Italy) and finally mustered up the energy to cook dinner. I chose a Roman classic that has taken on its own life in America, spaghetti carbonara. With a rich sauce made with bacon, egg and cheese, it’s kind of like having breakfast for dinner. At least, that’s how I justified wearing pajamas at the table.
Day 3: Cooking class
Menu: Fresh carrot pasta, spring vegetable stew.
Itinerary: With tourists staying home in recent months, in-person cooking classes have gone online. I chose “Pasta With the Grandmas” from dozens of global cooking classes through Airbnb’s Online Experiences (airbnb.com/experiences/1610894). Beamed from a village north of Rome, a granddaughter taught a small group of international students how to make colorful pastas using vegetables and fruit. Occasionally, one of the grandmothers would walk into the frame and offer her wisdom about how to roll and cut the dough into different shapes, such as farfalle, fettuccine and cavatelli.
I made deep-green spinach bow ties, then tried the recipe again using some old carrots in the back of the crisper. The striking orange strands of pasta, which I tossed in vignarola — a Roman spring stew of fava beans, peas, artichokes and lettuce — was a favorite.
Day 4: Excursion
Menu: Veal saltimbocca, puntarelle salad.
Itinerary: Needing supplies, I journeyed to the faraway land of St. Paul to pick up Italian 00 flour, veal and chocolate-hazelnut confections from Cosetta Italian Market (211 W. 7th St., St. Paul, cossettas.com). Since I had already traveled so far, I added in a walk around the other lake called Como.
Back in my Minneapolis kitchen, I used the veal to make the Roman dish saltimbocca, topping each cutlet with prosciutto and sage and pan-frying in butter. On the side, puntarelle salad without the puntarelle (an Italian green). I couldn’t find Roman chicory, so I replaced it with escarole (radicchio or frisée are other options). The hearty greens get drizzled in an anchovy vinaigrette, and orange segments keep it bright.
Day 5: Pizza tour
Menu: Pizza Romana, pizza al taglio.
Itinerary: Food tours are a little harder to re-create online than cooking classes. So, I plotted my own-pizza walking tour (without the walking), by attempting Rome’s very different signature pies. There’s a solo-sized round pie with a cracker-thin crust, and then there’s pizza al taglio — an inch-thick slab of focaccia-like dough that’s so substantial that you need to cut it with scissors. Both of the recipes I used required an overnight rise, and were the most labor-intensive part of my week. But what is a staycation for, if not project-baking?
Day 6: Return
Menu: The last of the airline cheese trays.
Itinerary: The best thing about a staycation? You don’t have to get home from the airport, unpack or go through the mail that piled up while you were gone. Instead, I used the time that I would have spent on those chores to do another very important one — a mountain of dishes.
That evening, I cozied up on the couch and scrolled through photos on my phone. Amazingly, my camera had captured exactly the same pictures it would have if I had actually gone to Rome. They were all of food.
Fresh Carrot Pasta
Note: This was inspired by “Pasta With the Grandmas” cooking class (nonnalive.com). For different colors and flavors, use any cooked and drained vegetable, such as spinach or beets. The pasta can be served with any sauce, but to highlight the flavor of the pasta, toss with melted butter, fresh chopped herbs and Parmesan cheese. Italian 00 flour is available online and locally at Cossetta Italian Market and at France 44 (though call in advance to assure it’s there).
• 1 c. carrots, peeled and chopped into several pieces
• 1 egg
• 2 c. all-purpose or Italian 00 flour, plus more for kneading and rolling dough (see Note)
Boil carrots until tender, then cool.
Blend egg and carrots in a food processor. Put mixture into a large bowl and gradually add 1 cup flour, stirring with a fork in between sprinkles of flour, until the dough holds together and is too tough to stir with the fork.
Place dough on floured surface and knead using fingertips, adding a little flour whenever it gets sticky. As the dough stiffens, knead with the palm of your hand. Incorporate about 1 cup flour while kneading, about 10 minutes.
When dough is smooth, divide into 4 pieces and, working with 1 quarter at a time, roll out thin sheets with a rolling pin or using a pasta roller (begin on the widest setting and work your way down to setting 5). Cut sheets in half if they get too long, and keep sheets and dough covered with a dish towel as you work.
Use the pasta roller to cut spaghetti or fettuccine. Or, if cutting by hand, sprinkle the dough sheet with flour and roll from both ends toward the center, folding one roll on top of the other. Using a pizza cutter or a knife, cut the rolled-up dough into strips of equal size. Gently unroll them, toss with more flour, and place in piles on a dish towel until ready to cook.
To cook, gently drop pasta into boiling, salted water. When pasta floats to the surface, remove with a slotted spoon.
Note: From “The Silver Spoon Quick and Easy Italian Recipes,” by the Silver Spoon Kitchen.
• 2 tbsp. butter
• 3 1/2 oz. pancetta or thick-cut bacon, diced
• 1 garlic clove
• 3/4 lb. spaghetti
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
• 1/2 c. grated pecorino cheese
• Salt and pepper
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the pancetta and garlic, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the garlic turns brown. Remove and discard the garlic. Continue to cook the pancetta for another 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in a large pot of salted, boiling water until al dente, then drain and add to the pancetta.
Remove the pan from the heat, pour in the eggs, add half the Parmesan and half the pecorino, and season with pepper. Mix well so that the egg coats the pasta. Add the remaining cheese, mix again and serve.