Bringing a Little Rome to Nantucket -Spring 2017
by: Amanda C. Lydon
photography by: Janie Dretler
It was a plate of prosciutto that convinced me. Our friend Andrea “Dre” Solimeo, longtime chef at Nantucket’s Ventuno, first teasingly suggested that Italians hold back from exporting their finest work and that in Rome, we’d taste the good stuff they normally kept for themselves. And so, a trip to Rome for our family’s Christmas was the destination we chose, trusting that the combination of Greco-Roman mythology and carbohydrates would keep our young children fascinated and happy. But at that moment, in the basement of Roscioli, an emporium/restaurant on everyone’s “Best of Rome” list, I could start to understand what Dre had meant. The curls of prosciutto were something of a happy shock, far paler than any prosciutto I had seen. They were richly marbled and luscious. We had chosen to stay a short walk from the market square Campo di Fiori, a dense maze of food stalls offering everything from long-stemmed artichokes masterfully trimmed to order, to cups of freshly-squeezed pomegranate juice and piles of tiny, jewel-like clementines.
Most days began with a brown bag of those perfect clementines passed from hand to hand, disappearing rapidly as we meandered through the market. We’d inevitably circle back to the ancient bakery Forno Campo di Fiori that flanks the outside of the square, our eyes glued to the enormous front window. There, a convivial group of gray-haired men dressed all in white took turns docking long trenches of pizza dough, brushing their dimpled surfaces with olive oil and rosemary before baking them in ceiling-high multi-doored ovens. That marvelous “pizza bianca,” crisp, airy and rich with olive oil, was a fortifying breakfast most days, and our children never tired of the novelty of eating pizza first thing in the morning.
Forno Campo di Fiori’s other specialty, a transcendent potato pizza, was another hit with the kids, though they were less convinced by other varieties that tempted their parents: artichoke and crushed potato, or one scattered with grated zucchini, zucchini flowers and shards of anchovy, or another with only sweet tiny cherry tomatoes popping out of their blistered skins.
“Just follow your nose,” Dre had advised, and we did.
Norcineria Viola dal 1890 is an unassuming storefront off the same Campo di Fiori, but entering this narrow salumeria feels like discovering Narnia by way of the winter coat cupboard. On the near wall, the stuffed head of a wild boar glowers over the scene as customers jostle goodnaturedly down the narrow center aisle. The ceiling is nearly invisible, every inch of rafter space hung with coiled links of hard sausages of all sizes and varieties. The counters are stacked horizontally with legs of prosciutto, while the refrigerated coolers below display fresh sausages and salamis, their distinctively bright scarlet prosciutto “jerky,” and crocks of testina di maiale, a loose, chopped variation of head cheese.
The handsome team behind the counter are father and son, in immaculate sweaters, aprons and striking eyeglass frames. As they slice, flirt and pack orders, they constantly replenish the tasting platter of salumi set on the counter for customers to nibble from as they make their selections.
Our Fitbit and tracking apps logged miles of walking through museums and ruins, but Rome is a city that rewards dutiful, uncomplaining children. The sheer number of gelato shops let us be selective, avoiding the chains with artificially bright colors or flavors, for independent makers that prize ingredients and scaled-down methods of production. Everywhere we went, portions were delicate enough to justify our eating gelato often twice a day, especially when we saw a flavor that we knew we might not encounter again on our trip: Marsala wine, a divine cinnamonscented rice gelato at Come il Latte or, irresistibly, at Fatamorgana in the Monti district, a pecorino sardo – a savory sheepsmilk cheese – with chestnut honey and candied orange. Almost inescapably, the art and architecture of Rome are all intertwined with particular tastes and impressions of food and food culture as vivid as the history all around us. One memorable evening, our family was the last ticketed group to be ushered into the Borghese galleries, where, dumbstruck, we walked around and around the Gian Lorenzo Bernini sculptures. In one, Apollo chases the desperate forest nymph Daphne as she turns into a laurel tree to evade capture, her outstretched fingers becoming leaves, her toes developing roots, sinking into the forest floor beneath her feet, even her skin transforming into bark. Afterward, we bicycled at dusk through the magnificent gardens outside, glancing at the hedges of fragrant laurel and rows of citrus trees still laden with lemons and oranges, the ground beneath them dotted with fallen fruit.
Before entering the Pantheon, we braved the lines at the legendary Sant Eustacchio il Caffe, where the grownups fortified themselves with espressos almost as architecturally marvelous, each crema as thick, as spoonable, as a cappuccino’s foam. Our kids ventured into new territory by ordering another specialty of the house, a granita al caffe con panna, large shaved crystals of heavily sweetened espresso muted only slightly with a generous dollop of whipped cream.
Another day, after an exhausting, near claustrophobia-inducing march through the Vatican to crane our necks at the Sistine Chapel, we recovered our equanimity at Bonci Pizzzarium nearby. Their glassed-in display is a genius riot of color made for Instagram – up to 20 varieties of vegetable-forward pizzas changing daily – and the staff will slice your various choices into finger-sized rectangles perfect for sharing.
In the evenings, of course, we ordered pasta as a default: cacio e pepe or rigatoni all’amatriciana with another round of fried artichokes for the table because, well, when in Rome...
Oddly, we found the pastas to be the weakest link in 10 days of eating. The often rigid or defiant simplicity to those classic recipes made any lapse in execution stand out in stark relief. “I like al dente but this pasta is too hard,” said our outraged 7-year-old one evening, and I had to agree with him. Our happiest meal came on our last evening, in the vaulted basement dining room of Flavio Velavevodetto, a restaurant tucked under the base of a medieval architectural site, a towering hill reportedly composed of crushed ancient wine casks. The cavernous room was bustling with families, and we ate marvelously: a revelatory “salad” of shredded bollito misto meats with a mayonnaise served alongside, hand-cut noodles with a ragout of tomato and chicken giblets, the cacio e pepe of our dreams and crisp-skinned suckling pig piled over wilted chicories. Back in Boston, the recent opening of the
massive grocery Eataly in the city’s Prudential Center is a game-changer. I haven’t seen the match of my transcendent prosciutto yet, but I was delighted to find a modestly-priced chunk of guanciale, or cured pork cheek, a hard-tosource essential to amatriciana sauce or pasta carbonara. In the spirit of our Roman holiday, I planned a light dinner that highlights baby artichokes, one of my seasonal favorites. Some of these tweaked versions of Roman classics on our table this spring might read as blasphemous there, but stateside, balancing tradition and innovation with hyper-seasonality suddenly feels right at home. ///
Amanda Lydon was a professional chef for 15 years in Boston and Nantucket. She is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.