Rome: Food matches the sights in terms of attractiveness

Italian food in the US cannot hold a candle to the real thing, as Bidisha Bagchi discovered during her trip to Rome.

“What would you like to drink, Madame?” the Ristorante waiter asked me politely and sweetly in his Italian accent. I was thirsty and tired, so I said “Nothing much, thank you, just a glass of water.”

“Very fine,” he said, “With gas or no gas?” I almost fell out of my chair. “Excuse me’ I said, shocked at his weird question, even though I realized that I was shamelessly staring at his drop-dead good looks which by then I had realized that almost 80% of Italian men and women could be easily proud of.

Then it dawned on me: water with gas or no gas actually meant ‘frizzante’ or ‘naturale’ i.e. sparkling or normal water respectively.... Phew!! That was for people like us who would ask for a glass of water on a tired day and not want wine.

Vino is a must with any meal, I learnt, and so is the ‘digestivi’ (liqueurs) while ending one. Tuscan wines or Toscana are world famous starting from the dark red ones to the aromatic whites.

I quite liked the Villa Antinori, a combination of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes; all from the Antinori vineyards of Tuscany. The dessert wine Vin Santo actually means ‘holy wine’ and perhaps explains enough the passion for it.

I am not a big fan of Italian food; at least not in the United States where I currently live because here everything is practically doused in either tomato sauce or gravy. Even the alfredo sauce drips from the dishes in which it is used. But the same old pizza, pasta, spaghetti or lasagna tasted awesome in Rome because it was made just the way it should be.

Pizza is available in almost every corner of the city, as expected; all varieties, starting from the smoky, wood-fired Neapolitan one, to the simple folded ones to the ones that had the stuffings inside the Bread. Delicious! Other than cheese and the sauce, there is just one topping and we ate the most unusual one – eggplant.

Baingan pizza hasn’t caught on in India, I gather, but Italians are conscious of what they eat. So apart from EVOO as the oil of choice, the most preferred vegetables are eggplant and zucchini, thinly sliced, roasted or grilled. Rome being the capital, there was abundance of all regional specialties in all kinds of restaurants. Pasta, lasagna and spaghetti from the Emilia-Romagna region were only a few of the things on offer.

Mastering pasta

I quite enjoyed the gnocchi (pronounced nyo-ki) , a dumpling made from wheat semolina or potato. I liked the one made with potato served with meat sauce. It can even be eaten as an ‘antipasto’ or as pasta.

Talking of antipasti, I should mention a dish which I found in quite a few ristorante in Rome – couscous with vegetables and shrimp. It is known that Mediterranean cuisine has influenced European countries in some way, but that it had made inroads into EVOO land is signigicant.

Of course couscous has Mediterranean credentials so I guess it has a right to be on menus in Italy! Paired with shrimp, diced tomatoes and eggplants, it tasted exotic!

Food from the Lombardy region has always excited me, mainly because of the rice factor, being a diehard Bengali. Risotto and polenta (rice and corn dishes respectively) found their way onto our tables quite naturally. Risotto Rosa al cavolo Cappuccio was a fantastic rice dish made with red cabbage and garnished with parmesan cheese.

Places to eat in Rome and elsewhere have clear distinctions. A local road side eatery, for instance, is called a ‘tavola calda’ (meaning hot table) and will serve any local specialty. We tried their pizzas and they were great!

A trattoria is a restaurant but not a posh one and is normally seen in happening places like the Campo de Fiori. Think of them as Italian bistros. Even though they are supposed to be cheap, the ones in posh localities are as expensive as a proper ristorante (restaurant).

Our week long Roman holiday was well spent with sightseeing, food, drink and fun, and much of it was accompanied by that incomparable Italian creation, gelato – their version of icecream. Being low in butterfat and sugar, we quite merrily slurped up dollops of this dessert, sometimes in exotic flavours, on a variety of cones!

When the food matches the sights in terms of attractiveness, it certainly makes for a super holiday!
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