From a Girl to A Woman
On August 23rd 2017 I celebrated the 10th anniversary of my arrival to Rome. I had long thought about celebrating a decade in grandeur and style. What I did however, was just a spontaneous and sentimental Instagram post with the picture of the Colosseum, telling the story of what exactly happened on that August 23rd 2007, feeling all the feels that there were.
When I first arrived here, in a way I was pushed into world of adulthood without fully realizing it. To be entirely truthful, those first couple of years felt like a long Erasmus experience, thanks to our student lifestyle. Suddenly I was in charge of doing all my stuff, including grocery shopping, which meant I could buy and eat literally whatever I wanted. This was my little rebellion, since my mom had always been obsessed with “diet” food, struggling (in vain) to control my health and weight. There I was, in a new country, in a new continent, exposed to a new world in the realm of supermarkets, filled with long isles of (mostly) junk, which I knew nothing about.
It took me a couple of years to develop a solid interest in what I was eating; real, authentic Italian food, the correct recipes and the artisanal production of iconic ingredients. But then as I developed my interest in food, I got to discover myself. This sentence may sound quite worn out in today’s obsessively foodie media, but food truly is culture, history and an excellent medium to acknowledge our identities.
The whole idea of celebrating a decade of life in Italy was introduced to me by Alice (the owner of Latteria Studio in Rome), who back in 2015 wrote 10 posts on her blog about 10 things she has learned from Italians. Later, I read Arlene’s post about a decade of life in Rome (which is not food related at all, thank god), and I though it’s too good of an oppurtunity to not write about.
In a world obsessed with live posts and 15 second “Stories”, where news from yesterday are old and we’re forced to be in a constant race with numbers, this is a very slow post. It has been sitting here half written and half photographed for a long time, while I found myself pondering upon the sense of blogging at the end of 2018. , I decided to take my time with blog, and publish only what really matters to me, which can be of value to you too.
There is no recipe in this long post; only memories and photos, which are not even necessarily related to the dishes I talk about. I spent months trying to remember my most significant food memories in the past eleven years in Italy. I recorded my own voice, recounting the anecdotes related to each dish. It was a therapeutic and cathartic process that I encourage you to do too.
So here they are. Enjoy reading the first part of my 10 most striking food memories that have marked 10 years of my life in Italy. The second of part will be published soon.
1. Caffè Latte e Cornetto al Bar
Back in the days I studied Italian in Iran, one of the topics of daily conversation was about whether you have breakfast at home, or in a bar. This made absolutely no sense to me, until on my second day in Italy. My friends took me to neighborhood’s bar Angolo Russo which famously bake their own conrnettos — the Italian equivalent of croissants. I will never, ever forget that first taste of caffè latte and cornetto. The milk felt silky in my mouth, its temperature was perfectly warm when I actually expected the hot milk to burn my tongue. The flavor of coffee was intense, yet softened by the velvety creaminess of the milk. The surface of the cornetto crumbled into million flakes with each of my bites and left a sugary coat on my lips that was wiped with each sip of the caffè latte. The core was soft, and not sweet at all. I have few other food memories as powerful and vivid as the memory of my first Italian Breakfast.
2. Wine on an Island
Growing up in Iran where it’s officially forbidden to consume alcohol, my drinking experiences were limited to homemade (very strong) liquores, and smuggled beers and whiskeys that we drank in indoor parties. I had never tasted “real”, properly bottled wine. I had never even seen white wine. To celebrate our arrival to Rome on our first night ever in the Eternal City, we bought a decent bottle and we opened it on Isola Tiberina, a tiny island in the middle of Tiber river. The wine tasted too acidic to me in the beginning, but I began to like it as it started to calm down my tired nerves (I had been awake for more than 48 hours by then).
White wine surprised again when Gianni my friend, taught me to soak slices of yellow nectarine in it, and add a sprinkle of sugar and some mint leaves. Then chill in the fridge and serve for dessert on hot a summer day.
Perhaps the most unexpected experience with wine, was dunking cookies in it! Ciambelline al vino are simple donut-shaped cookies made with wine. Nothing will get you tipsy, happy and full, like a bag of wine cookies dunked in fizzy wine. Just as if it was normal cookies dunked in milk, but for adults.
3. Spleen Sandwich in Sicily (and other Italian Offals)
I have only been to Sicily once. It was more than 9 years ago and I could write 10 striking food memories just about those 5 days. The most memorable, and the tastiest one was undoubtedly panino di milza or the spleen sandwich. Everywhere in Palermo, in small carts, or little shops, you can find the boiled, then sliced and finally fried cow’s spleen, stuffed into in a little (or not so much so) buns. A squeeze of fresh lemon juice on top is a must, while shredded provola cheese is an option.
I had no idea what what milza or spleen was, I knew it was an interior from the vivid gestures of palermitani showing the place their spleen would be in their rib cage. Italians love offal, although at first they might not admit it. But poor man’s regional cooking is full of offal recipes. When in Palermo, you must try this spleen sandwich. When in Rome, do as romans do and try la pajata, the cooked intestines of unweaned calves. Trippa alla romana, Roman tripe in tomato sauce — is another option. Tripe has a glorious time in Tuscany and Campagna too. In Florence, you can’t possibly miss the Lampredotto sandwich (cow’s last and fourth stomach, boiled, chopped and dressed with salsa verde and chilly oil). You should eat it on the benches in front of Saint Ambrose church. If you’re going for a culinary adventure in Naples, be courageous and try centopelle, cows (third? or fourth stomach again?), boiled, chopped, salted, lemon juiced, and served on a piece of paper.
4. Potato Pizza, and the Baked Goods of “Forno“s
Again, back in my very first days in Italy, I was introduced to pizza al taglio — pizza by the slice — that is exceptionally good in Rome. Gianni ordered potato pizza, a classic. I could not fathom the phenomena of potato on pizza, starch on starch, carb on carb. But the clue to understand potato pizza, is just to try it, and you’ll wonder no more. Potatoes could be very finely shredded, or very finely sliced, and rosemary is ALWAYS a must.
You can find potato pizza, simple white pizza (the bread, basically) and red pizza in all Fornos, or bakeries. Except that in most fornos (which literally means oven) you’ll find cold cuts and cheeses too. As you head towards the south, fornos offer different stuffed breads that are similar to calzone, but can be different in name and size. In Puglia for example you find panzerotti, stuffed mainly with tomato and mozzarella, then fried. It’s the best example of a poor man’s food, but I was blown away when I saw it freshly fried and served in a posh, outdoor party among the Trulli one summer evening some years ago.
5. Fresh Pasta, Butter and Truffle
“What’s the big deal about a mushroom found in the woods anyway?”
I asked naively as we were driving to a friend’s family country house in Umbria, many years back. The truffle hunters and their dogs had just returned with some early Spring truffles. They proudly showed off their little treasures, and people oohed and aahed as they examined and sniffed what looked like dirty little rocks with a rough edge. A lady made fresh pasta, for the first time right before my eyes, and ironically, that was the first thing that blew my mind away. Somehow I had never imagined that pasta — the same food I bought in plastic packaging in the super market, was made from a dough that you could make at home from scratch (Yes, I know. Don’t judge me). I watched in awe as the flour and egg dough was stretched out into silky sheets, which were then skillfully folded and quickly cut into long ribbons called fettuccine.
Once cooked for a minute or so in boiling salted water, the pasta was removed using a thong, directly from the pan to a huge bowl. Some of the men added generous knobs of butter, as others shaved the truffles into the bowl, others mixed everything and occasionally added spoonfuls of the cooking water to the pan.
The smell! The smell, I can never describe. This pasta, as simple as it sounds, had one the most sophisticated and delicate flavors I have tasted. And the smell, oh the smell. It was like eating the soul of the forest, and occasionally have the spirit of the earth under your teeth. All wrapped in a buttery cream.
I was on a severe diet back then, yet not even for a second did I regret wolfing down this dish.
Continue reading the second part of my most striking food memories in Italy.
Thanks for reading. Please share some of your food memories in the comments.
Coming from Iran, she mostly develops her recipes by combining the aromas of the middle east with the flavors of the Mediterranean, specially Italy, where she has found her second home.
Latest posts by Saghar Setareh (see all)
- Chiaroscuro Food Photography Workshop, January 19th, Rome - December 1, 2018
- 10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy, Pt. II - September 16, 2018
- 10 Striking Food Memories from 10+ Years of Living in Italy, Pt. I - September 6, 2018