May 21, 2009

Spaghetti alla carbonara


Yep, this is another rustic and traditional pasta recipe from Rome. No one exactly knows the origin of this dish, but because carbonara is a cognate of the Italian word carbone (charcoal), some people say this pasta was initially prepared for charcoal workers who needed a hearty meal during their hard work day. In a way there is some truth in this statement since at the beginning of the 20th century, Italian laborers used to carry simple pasta dishes to work, such as spaghetti cacio e pepe. However, coal miners worked in Umbria (and not in Rome), and in fact there are no historical records of spaghetti alla carbonara before World War II. This suggests that a possible origin of this dish was the Italian interpretation of what the American and Canadian soldiers ate while they were in Rome during WW II. Basically, Italians took the quintessential North American breakfast based on eggs and bacon and served it with … pasta, of course!

Ingredients
1 lb spaghetti
5 oz guanciale, diced
4 oz pecorino romano cheese, grated
4 egg yolks
1 egg
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

In a bowl, whisk the egg yolks and the entire egg. Gradually add the cheese while vigorously whisking the egg mixture. Add some freshly ground black pepper to the egg mixture. Meanwhile, begin to cook the pasta. In a saucepan, heat about 1 Tbsp of olive oil, then sauté the diced guanciale until it turns golden. About 1 minute before the pasta is cooked al dente (according to the cooking time on the label instructions), add a couple of Tbsps of the cooking water to the egg mixture. Does it sound familiar? We are tempering the eggs, just as we did when making gelato. When the pasta is al dente, drain it and toss it directly into the pan where you sautéed the guanciale. Then toss the spaghetti into the bowl with the egg mixture. The eggs were raw, but the heat of the pasta will cook them. If you are not convinced of this, make sure you are using pasteurized eggs. Add the guanciale. Give a quick stir and serve your spaghetti alla carbonara with freshly ground black pepper and more grated pecorino romano cheese.

Tips
Common mistakes when people make spaghetti alla carbonara outside Italy: adding onions, butter and cream. The use of cream is something you actually can find in the north of Italy, but this is a Roman dish, so, no cream.

In North America, people associate carbonara sauce with the erroneous version with cream and butter. At the same time, North Americans prepare “coal miner’s spaghetti” which not only has a name that seems to be a translation from Italian (if we believe the mine worker origin), but also the way you prepare coal miner’s spaghetti is more like how you prepare spaghetti alla carbonara. However, coal miner’s spaghetti calls for bacon instead of guanciale, people use a combination of Parmesan and Romano cheeses, parsley is also added, and the ultimate Italian-American ingredient is not absent either: garlic.

Despite the simple ingredients of this dish, spaghetti alla carbonara is pretty tricky to make. Usually what happens is that you get scrambled eggs instead of a creamy egg sauce. The use of cream and onion makes this recipe foolproof, but you should try the traditional recipe.
Posted by Daziano at 10:12 PM | 21 comments  
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May 14, 2009

I dintorni di Roma – the surroundings of Rome


When you are in Rome, you’re forced to make some hard decisions. For example suppose that you’re at the Fontana di Trevi and that you want to go to Piazza Navona. Well, there are several routes, each one with incredible things to see. And, because of constraints on both time and energy, when you choose one route you’re missing all the things on the other available routes. On the other hand, the what-to-see lists provide the essential highlights, but there’re plenty of attractions that are not mentioned in the guides. So let’s face it: it takes more than a lifetime to get to know Rome. I’d say that 3-4 days is the very minimum to see the top 5 Roman essentials: St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Fontana di Trevi and the Piazza Navona (visiting the Pantheon in between). But I’d recommend to everyone staying in Rome for at least 5-6 days. Actually, I always tell my friends to stay in Rome for at least a week. That way, you can leave one day to visit the surroundings of Rome. Again, you have a lot of alternatives: I castelli di Roma, the Etruscan ruins, il lido di Roma (the Roman shore) … but I have two suggestions about what to see in the surroundings of Rome: Tivoli and Ostia Antica.



First, I have a lot of friends who complain about not having had enough time to go to Pompeii when they were visiting Italy – usually people visit Rome, Florence and Venice on their first trip to Italy, leaving Naples for a second visit. Although Naples and Pompeii are not that far from Rome, they’re not that close either. If you don’t have enough time to go to Pompeii, then Ostia Antica is the perfect substitute. Ostia Antica is the ancient harbor of Rome, and now a huge archeological site. Getting there is pretty simple since Ostia Antica is easily reachable by taking the Roman subway! Ostia Antica is full of ruins from imperial times, so there you can have that feeling of experiencing life in an ancient city. There you can visit the old theater, the forum, some nice houses, the public bathrooms, the market and old restaurants. One thing you don’t find in Pompeii is the ruins of insulae: the apartment buildings of ancient Rome. You’ll be impressed with how huge and tall they were. Since Ostia was abandoned, mainly because of several attacks by pirates, and not covered by lava and ashes as Pompeii was, the remaining wall frescoes are scarce and far from being as impressive as the ones in the Pompeii area. However, in Ostia Antica you can find really nice mosaic floors. Finally, one thing to think about … if Ostia Antica was the ancient harbor of Rome, then where is the sea? (Ostica Antica now lies about 2 miles from the sea.)




Another very interesting place to visit not far from Rome is Tivoli. There you have two attractions, each one being a perfect example of the lifestyle of the rich and famous of two different eras. On one side of the town of Tivoli, you find the Villa Adriana. Hadrian’s Villa was the retreat home of the Roman emperor Hadrian, who wanted to escape all of the gossiping, intrigues and troubles of the capital’s Palatine Hill and its court. The Villa was composed of more than 30 buildings, including various palaces, theaters, thermae (individual spas), libraries and temples. In one word, the Villa provided tutti i confort (every comfort) an emperor needed. Everything in the Villa was inspired by the emperor’s numerous travels around the known world, especially to Egypt and Greece. These destinations in a way reflect Hadrian’s passion for the Greek youth Antinous, who mysteriously died by drowning in the Nile. Hadrian deified his beloved Antinous after Antinous’ tragic death: one of the most recent excavations at Hadrian’s Villa was a Temple dedicated to Antinous. Hadrian, a devoted Hellenophile, loved all expressions of art and he was involved in the design and construction of the Villa. In fact, we don’t know the names of the architects who worked with Hadrian, because he was the head of the whole project. This is why the great complexity that the Villa exhibits also reflects the complexity of Hadrian’s mind.



On the other side of Tivoli, you find the Villa d’Este. The Villa was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, son of the infamous Lucrezia Borgia (and therefore grandson of the fearsome Pope Alexander VI, il Papa Borgia), after receiving the property and the title of governor of Tivoli for life. Both were a gift from Pope Julius III returning the favor of the cardinal d’Este’s voting for Julius III as the future Pope. The villa is a magnificent example of an Italian renaissance mansion and gardens. The frescoes decorating the walls and ceiling inside the villa are exquisitely regal. Decorative renaissance frescoes combine the new techniques developed in that period with elements from ancient Roman frescoes, which were re-discovered by that time when artists visited the recently excavated Domus Aurea (the golden house of Nero). The gardens are exceptional. Because the house is advantageously located on top of a hill , its gardens enjoy a glorious theatrical layout filled with fabulous fountains. The famous Cento Fontane (one hundred fountains – which can be spotted in the banquet scene of Ben-Hur) and the Rometta (the little Rome fountain, which displays a miniature version of how Rome looked at that time) are just two of the most illustrious fountains in the villa. In fact, it is hard to count all of the fountains: Europa, del Bicchierone, del Pegaso, dei Draghi, dell’Ovato, di Proserpina, della Civetta, dell’Organo, di Nettuno, etc. The splendorous gardens from Villa d’Este with their charming fountains and spectacular giochi d’acqua were the inspiration of several gardens not only in Italy, but also all around Europe.


Tips
The tower of Pisa was almost entirely made from building material coming from the ruins of Ostia Antica.

Lots of the marble and statues displayed in the Villa d’Este came from Hadrian’s Villa.
Posted by Daziano at 7:52 PM | 15 comments  
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May 13, 2009

Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe


As you might have noticed, Roman recipes for pasta are extremely simple to make. Spaghetti cacio e pepe means spaghetti with cheese and black pepper, and with these two ingredients you can enjoy a delectable dish of pasta!

Ingredients
1 lb spaghetti
7-8 oz pecorino romano cheese, grated
1 Tbsp olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Pour the grated cheese into a bowl. Cook the pasta in plenty of salted boiling water. Just minutes before the pasta is ready, take a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water and add it to the cheese. Whisk until a creamy paste forms (use enough hot cooking water to achieve this). When the pasta is almost al dente (about 1 minute before the total cooking time), drain it and toss the spaghetti into a saucepan with 1 Tbsp olive oil and freshly ground black pepper (reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water). Quickly sauté the spaghetti. Add the creamy cheese mixture and stir for about 1 minute. You may need to add some more cooking water to keep the creamy texture of the sauce. Serve hot with a nice touch of grated pecorino cheese and black pepper.

Tips
If you know some Italian probably you’re more familiar with the word formaggio for cheese. Although formaggio is the most usual word, in Italian you can also say cacio for cheese and, in some dialects, the word cacio is more common. Actually, also in Latin there were two ways of saying cheese: cāseus and formāticus. While the original word for cheese was cāseus, molded cheese was called cāseus formātus, which gave origin to the abbreviation formāticus. Formāticus is the origin of the modern words formaggio in Italian, fromage in French and formatge in Catalan. Cāseus is the origin of the modern words cacio in Italian, queso in Spanish, queijo in Portuguese, Kaese in German, and even cheese in English!
Posted by Daziano at 5:52 PM | 23 comments  
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May 7, 2009

Bucatini all’amatriciana

Bucatini all’amatriciana is another very Roman recipe, a red version of spaghetti alla gricia, where the influence of Neapolitan cuisine appears with the use of tomato. While the original recipe comes from the town of Amatrice (now in the Lazio region but before in the Abruzzo region), it is in Rome where people eat bucatini with this sauce. But in Amatrice, sugo all’amatriciana, which means sauce in the Amatrice style, is almost always served with spaghetti. Actually Amatrice claims the invention of spaghetti.

Sugo all’amatriciana is very simple to prepare, although lots of people make the mistake of adding onion to it. Even Italians do it. Even some Romans do it, but people never do it in Amatrice. I was watching Lidia Bastianich on TV once, and I almost fell down when she was blanching some onions for her amatriciana. Good Lord! I must say though that in Italy adding onion to a sauce for pasta is a question of personal taste, but you must take note of the interesting lack of onion in a lot of traditional recipes: puttanesca, amatriciana, arrabbiata, carbonara … no onion at all! And yet, especially when sauce is prepared outside Italy, people tend to use onion. In Chile, where pasta is one of the most common dishes, people use big chunks of onion in their sauces. I’ve heard of some Italians that freak out at how oniony Chilean sauces are! (And I’ve heard of lots of Italians who freak out at how garlicky American sauces are, but that’s another story.)

Ingredients
1 lb bucatini
4-5 oz guanciale
12 oz passata di pomodoro (good quality tomato sauce) or canned San Marzano tomatoes
1 cup white wine
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 pinch peperoncino (red pepper flakes)
4 Tbsp pecorino romano cheese, grated
Salt, black pepper

Dice the guanciale. In a saucepan over medium heat, sauté the diced guanciale with the olive oil and peperoncino. When the guanciale begins to lose its fat, add the wine. Sauté until the guanciale turns golden. Take the guanciale from the saucepan and reserve. Start cooking the pasta in salted boiling water. While the pasta is cooking, heat the tomato sauce in the same saucepan where you sautéed the guanciale. Add the guanciale and continue heating the sauce until the pasta is al dente. When the pasta is ready, drain it and toss it directly into the saucepan with the sauce. Give a quick stir, add some black pepper and serve with pecorino cheese!

Tips
In Rome some locals call this sauce matriciana. That’s why some people argue that the Roman version with bucatini (and onion according to some other people) has nothing to do with the amatriciana from Amatrice (with absolutely no onion, often served with spaghetti, and sometimes using pancetta instead of guanciale, the latter being considered too poor as an ingredient). Actually they claim that the word matriciana comes from the Latin word matrix in reference to motherhood and matriarchy: an argument that, they claim, shows how ancient the Roman recipe is (they forget that tomatoes were introduced from America though). However, a common feature of Romanesco or the Italian dialect from Rome is dropping vowels, so not surprisingly people simply say matriciana in Rome.
Posted by Daziano at 8:23 PM | 23 comments  
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