Bite Your Fear

Posted on May 11, 2013

Esther Maurini suggested we meet near the Circo Massimo at the front steps of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters. I had walked across central Rome to reach the ruins of the ancient sporting venue, all the way from my hotel’s northwesterly location to the city’s southeast corner, and arrived with time to spare. Esther expected me outside the FAO at three; it was quarter of. That left me fifteen minutes to find our meeting place. I congratulated myself for padding my walk time with a few extra minutes (and also for not getting lost, a minor miracle at times considering the mostly twisty streets of Rome). Because I was early, I detoured to wander around the ruins and take a few photos of the façade of the Domus Augustana set high above the field. At five minutes before three, I packed up my camera and left to find Esther.

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I had only a photo to recognize her by, the thumbnail portrait on Vayable’s website of a smiling, dark-haired young woman. Esther and I had corresponded by e-mail several times after I booked two of the Rome experiences from the many Vayable* had on offer, but we had never met outside of cyberworld. I was certain I would recognize her, though, and she knew I would be carrying a large yellow handbag. Finding the FAO building should also be a cinch, I reasoned; after all, I had seen it marked on my map earlier that day. The open sight lines at the Domus made it easy to see across good deal of the neighborhood I was in. That part of Rome between the Palatine and Aventine hills was far more open than the darker, tangled city center, the streets more boulevard-like than anything I had seen in Italy. Dotted around the ruins, and even housed within some of them, stood lots of government offices, flags waving. One of them was bound to be my destination. 

I picked the most likely one, a large white building with three flags and an impressive flight of travertine stairs leading up to a wide plaza, and began walking out of the ruins toward it. From my hazy memory of the map, the building seemed to be in the right direction. Alas, it was not. It was not the FAO but another government office. Lost? No, more like turned around. Leading with Mi dispiace, I mustered up enough Italian to ask a government official wearing a handsome suit and a bluetooth earpiece if he could point me in the right direction. He pointed and off I went with a wave and a Grazie!

I don’t like being turned around, don’t at all like being lost, and I really hate being late, but I had to let a lot of my worry go this time around, traveling alone in Italy. The worrywart part of me that craves control planned almost every hour of my vacation, bought train tickets in advance, photocopied hotel reservations in duplicate, made notes – pages upon pages of to-do lists – so as not to forget dates and destinations, and gathered everything together in a travel binder organized with clear pocket dividers and handwritten tabs; while another part of me, a small but resigned part of me accepted that snafus might happen, that I might miss a train or be stuck with only large Euro notes and no small bills when I stepped into a cab hoping for a ride. I understood that my language skills might slow me down, and for the most part I lived with what I could not change or control. What was the worst that could happen, I reminded myself in one of my many internal pep talks: Some taxi driver would get a really large tip? I might have to walk twenty minutes in another direction to find the right meeting place? Neither of those situations seemed earth shattering or vacation ruining.

I was twenty minutes late reaching Esther and full of apologies. I did recognize her, though. The smile was unmistakable, warm and genuine. She seemed unfazed by my tardiness and just pleased we had managed to find each other in the end. Off we went to explore some of her favorite spots in Rome, chatting and getting to know each other as we walked.

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On that Monday afternoon in Rome, I gave the planning over to Esther and let her show me how she spends her days in the city, from the walks she likes to take, to the city bus she uses, to the streets and piazzas of her own neighborhood of Monteverde, across the Tiber. Once there, we walked the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphilj, getting to know one another while working up an appetite for aperitivo, the light meal and glass of wine Italians enjoy in the early evening, meant to tide them over until their customarily late dinner. At Kilometro Zero, a wine bar known for their use of organic and local produce, I sipped cool Frascati as we snacked on tomato bruschetta made with slices of chewy spelt bread, a spinach and ricotta rotolo hot out of the oven and fragrant with noce moscata (nutmeg), and a savory quick bread loaded with sundried tomatoes and capers.

Later, at Conte Zio for dinner, owner Sergio Raghi greeted us at the door with handshakes and cheek kisses, left-right in the Italian fashion. The restaurant was busy with local politicos hosting a rally in support of Vittorio Contarina, a candidate for Rome’s City Council. Large and airy, much different than the cramped trattorias and osterias I was used to, ConteZio made a perfect space for mingling with the well-dressed and friendly crowd. Vittorio, his friends and committee chairs graciously welcomed Esther and me, even though neither of us would be voting in the upcoming elections, and invited us to share in the appetizers and pastas. Sergio offered up classic Roman fare to the hungry crowd. Servers brought in trays of suppli (fried risotto cakes, the Roman version of arancini), potato croquettes, fried mozzarella, fried cod. Romans are fond of fried food.

They are fond of their traditional pasta dishes as well. Once the appetizers were depleted, Sergio strode into the center of the room and announced the arrival of the first pasta course. “Cacio e pepe!” he called, drawing out the vowels for dramatic flourish. The pasta with its simple sauce of sheep’s milk cheese and black pepper was greeted with loud applause as servers carried it into the room right from the stovetop, plumes of steam still wafting from the giant slope-sided skillet.

There was almost as much applause for Vittorio as he launched into a passionate campaign speech. We tucked into the second pasta, penne all’arrabiata, as he spoke, and I let the moment wash over me: the good food, Esther’s company, the generous welcome I had received from everyone. It didn’t matter to me that I understood next to nothing Vittorio or others said. What did matter was not worrying about that. I was simply happy being present, invited in to experience a bit of daily Roman life.

Esther put me in a cab back to my hotel, a bit surprised, I think, that I begged off dessert at her favorite neighborhood gelateria. “Not another bite,” I told her. Before we parted, though, she made sure to write several recommendations for good food around Rome, and made me promise I would try at least some of her favorites the next day, on my free day wandering the city.

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Damson and ricotta cake from an all-female bakery, I read. Pizza near the Campo dei Fiori, filettaro (fried cod with puntarelle), the best gelato in the city on Via Della Seggiola. I looked back at Esther and thanked her again, for the wonderful day and for taking such care with making this list. We then said our goodbyes and the taxi sped me back to Via Dell’Orso. After the long day we’d had I was looking forward to bed. And if I was going to make a dent in Esther’s list the next day, I needed a good night’s sleep.

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Spaghetti cacio e pepe is a simple preparation, a half-dozen ingredients at most, and delicious because of its simplicity. Both tangy pecorino and earthy black pepper shine. Getting the cheese to melt properly and form a silky sauce that coats each strand of pasta can be a challenge, though, no matter how simply the recipe reads. When I came home, I made a version found in Saveur magazine. This version, not strictly traditional, uses a little olive oil to help the sauce along, something I found preferable when making the pasta for the first time. I have included that recipe below. For a recipe minus the olive oil (one that requires a little more stirring and attention to get right, not to mention some crossed fingers and toes when trying it for the first time), check out the entry on Food and Wine’s website.

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

  • salt for the pasta water
  • 1 lb. dry spaghetti
  • 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 cup finely grated Pecorino Romano, divided use
  • ¾ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Romano cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt it generously. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, according to package directions, stirring occasionally.

As the pasta cooks, heat the olive oil in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the cracked pepper and stir, cooking until fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Remove a cup of pasta water from the pot, and pour ¾ cup of the water into the skillet, raise the heat, and bring the water to a boil.

Strain the pasta and add it to the skillet, spreading it evenly in the pan.

Turn the heat off under the skillet and sprinkle ¾ cup of each cheese over the top of the pasta. Vigorously toss these into the hot pasta to combine, and continue tossing everything together until the sauce is creamy and clings to the spaghetti without clumping. This takes about two minutes, and you may add more of the reserved pasta water, a little at a time, if necessary to form a creamy sauce. Serve immediately with the remaining grated Pecorino and additional ground black pepper.

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©  Jane A. Ward