I could attempt to catalogue all that passed my lips in the past 11 days, everything that I saw, from cheesemakers to tiny wineries to villages clinging from chalky hillsides that spill onto green fields. Of cheeses I’d never tasted, some fantastic and others toeing the foul line, and wines that did as much to confound my palate as to dazzle. But that would take a great deal of space. After a 2,000 km journey around Italy, Paolo and managed to eat maybe 40 meals. As I write, we’re on our way back to Bangkok, up in the air. Inspired. Ready to rip.
First, we ate our way around the great trattorias in Testaccio, where Guido Vitaletti, my partner Paolo’s father, worked as a butcher in the local slaughterhouse (it’s now an art gallery). When they closed the abbatoir in Testaccio, Guido opened a butcher shop on Rome’s fringes. He sold fresh meats, cheese and cold cuts his whole life, and, like many Italians, his children followed in his footsteps. The love of food here transcends.
Today, the neighborhood restaurants in Testaccio remain: gutsy places like Felice, Agusterello and Da Enzo that traffic in classics like pasta amatriciana but really shine when the sweetbreads, meatloaf, liver, heart, intestines and baby lamb hit the table. (And hit the table they do – service is gruff, brusque, and unforgiving if you’re full).
A meal to the uninitiated can often feel like three – a battle against waves of salumi, then starches with cheese, and then protein – but shots of coffee and grappa arrive to reinforce, and after a long walk through Rome in autumn, past the Tiber and scattered ruins, we would do it all again.
Italy is a nearly impenetrable world of product. Cheese, sausages, hams, dried meats, mushrooms, pickles, marinated things, breads and all manners of pasta. Often, restaurants do not so much cook as unwrap, slice, plate, and serve. And that’s the glory of food here – a celebration of artisan producers that make things out of pork fat and sheep’s milk and semolina flour that really, seriously, should not be fucked with.
(To see this orgy of product up close, in Rome, go to Volpetti, and ask for Claudio. I like it much better than the modern Eataly monolith that's sprung up next door.)
Coming from a rootless cooking background like mine, the cooking seems a little too simplistic at first. Caccio e pepe? A fresh pasta made with only pecorino, starchy water, and black pepper? But then you see it, how the starch and the cheese coaslesce into a velvety sauce, how that sauce sticks to the thick strands of rough, soft pasta like glue. There are three tastes: the sheep’s cheese, rich and savory with a whiff of pasture; the wheat, which tastes faintly of hay and earth; and the spicy brightness of black pepper.
And as I ate my first, and then second, and then third helping of this dish, I started to understand. Some things are supposed to be simple. To complicate their purity would be unthinkable to a Roman chef. And as I’m working with one, this was something I needed to see. Needless to say, I’m very glad I did.