I set up this new site because lately Flavors of Rome seems like that favorite dress you were dazzling in 10 years ago that just doesn’t quite do it for you anymore. You try it on, look at yourself from all angles— it’s OK from the front; but, uh-oh, that side angle’s not so good. You could get one of those bone and organ crushing undergarments and maybe get away with it, but instead you take it off and stick it in the back of the closet. You just can’t let go of it…not yet. So you keep it there, glance at it now and then, and remember how it used to be.
But sometimes you have to let go of things, no matter how important they once were in your life. I’m still passionate about the food of Italy and forever in love with Rome, and I have notebooks filled with my adventures and file folders bursting with recipes. So what to do with all this material that made up my life for so many years—beside never running out of things to make for dinner?
Christmas in Italy is very much a family affair. And family affairs in Italy—actually any affair in Italy—always involves food, lots and lots of food. And often that food is tied to tradition.
Every region produces its own version of a sweet yellow bread or cake usually studded with raisins, nuts, candied fruits, or spices, which are symbolic of fertility and abundance for the coming year. There’s pandoro, panpepato, pangiallo, and panforte, but panettone, Milan’s signature cake, is the one most well-known here in America.
Four Stories About Naples, Plus One By Me
I’m talking about the Naples that comes with this view, not the one down I75 in southern Florida.
I’m in a Neapolitan state of mind, consumed by tales from the ancient city on the Amalfi Sea.
One you can’t read yet, because I’m still writing it (see below). The others, The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, are stunning…and contain what are possibly the most soul gripping words I’ve ever read.
Ferrante is a writer who can turn her characters inside out and back again.
Beginning with the first of these four novels, My Brilliant Friend, you’ll know those characters intimately. You’ll love, hate, or admire them; some will disgust you, but you’ll care for them anyway; some you’ll pity; and at least one you’ll recognize as part of yourself. By the second novel, The Story of a New Name, you’re invested emotionally in their future.
You don’t have to ever have been to Naples or even want go there to get hooked by these stories
All of Italy is in full harvest mode: there’s olive picking, grape gathering, truffle routing, and chestnuts roasting on open fires. I was there for all of that at one time—but not this year. This year I’m in Florida where the only harvesting going on—as far as I know—involves sea turtles, and that’s pretty much against the law.
…on an open fire or not.
This is what the ground looked like under the chestnut trees in the Castelli Romani, the hill towns outside of Rome, one October some years ago.
And this is how you can buy those chestnuts, right off the road, freshly gathered into a heap.
These are tough nuts to crack. And if you don’t pierce them before they hit the fire or boiling water, you have a wicked, messy explosion on your hands.
There are two edible varieties of the Italian chestnut. One variety, the castagna, grows in wild abundance along country and mountain roads and can be roasted, canned, or boiled. Like little porcupines tumbling out of trees, the spiny burrs of these chestnuts break open to reveal three polished brown nuts nestled inside.
The other edible variety is the highly prized marrona which grows on trees that are cultivated and guarded like family jewels, bearing a single, much larger and fatter nut used in making the delectable confection called marron glace’.
My Italian friends tell me of a third variety referred to as bastardini, so called because the little bastards won’t open no matter what you do to them.
There are those classic dishes at the core of every culinary culture.They look a certain way, they taste a certain way, only certain ingredients go into them, and they shouldn’t be messed with. That’s what I believe, and also what’s gotten me into trouble with my friends.
I can’t think of a single Italian dish, pasta or otherwise, that’s been bastardized as much as Spaghetti Carbonara, a dish dear to the heart of every Roman. It’s a simple dish of few quality ingredients, but if you can’t leave it at that and you just have to add artichokes or chicken or heavy cream—well, go ahead. But don’t call it Spaghetti Carbonara. Call it something else…and you can invite me to dinner another time.
Twenty-five years ago in London, I bought a cookbook by Antonio Carluccio, a transplant to England from his native Italy. Legendary in the UK, Carluccio is a stranger to the cooks of America. I love this video of him demonstrating the making of the authentic Spaghetti Carbonara. You, too, can do this. Hold the cream.
SPAGHETTI ALLA NERANO
If you’ve ever been to Positano on the Amalfi Coast, you’ve been close to the beautiful little village of Nerano, from whence originated this exquisite pasta dish known to all in the area as Spaghetti alla Nerano. Daniela Del Balzo (who has been my dear friend and mentor in the kitchen for a long time now) grew up in Naples and recalls spending many holidays in Nerano where she discovered this classic recipe.