by Janet Spicer
Tour planner at Olde Ipswich Tours
I was 18 the first time I went to Europe. A graduation present from my parents, that week spent in Rome with my mother was a revelation. I remember the first meal we ate, a pizza at some nondescript hole-in-the-wall restaurant: the crust perfectly thin and crisp; the tomatoes and basil most likely grown in a rooftop garden and picked that day; the delicate balls of mozzarella di bufala (who knew you could milk a buffalo?!) deliciously creamy. The Italians have a phrase, la bella figura. The literal translation is “beautiful figure,” but the colloquialism more closely means “to make a good impression” and it applies to manners, fashion, and naturally, food.
It’s apparent in the breathtaking art and architecture of course, but also in the smaller details, like the old men standing at the local bar every morning sipping espresso dressed in their Sunday best or the care a baker takes to wrap a breakfast pastry in printed paper tied with a string, that Italy is all about making a good impression. That week in Rome was a feast for the senses as we wore out our shoes walking miles around the Eternal City in a state of wonder. Beauty was everywhere. Even the pastel laundry that hung from clotheslines strung above every alley seemed to have been artfully arranged.
Although we made sure to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain, my mom and I knew this might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip so we didn’t waste a minute, packing our days with sightseeing and multicourse meals. We admired Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel; we marvelled at the size and scale of the Colosseum; and we posed for photos on the Spanish Steps like Audrey Hepburn had in Roman Holiday. One day we walked ten miles along the Appian Way, a road built before Christ that once stretched all the way to Italy’s boot-heel, to tour the underground passageways of the catacombs. I returned home exhausted but invigorated. Rome had shown me “la bella figura” and I knew I wanted to go back.
Last month I had the pleasure of bringing my own 17-year old daughter, Coco, to Rome. As our taxi sped past familiar landmarks, the remnants of Rome’s ancient past visible around every corner, it was apparent that not much about the city had changed in 30 years. After settling into our apartment in the Trastevere neighborhood and sleeping off the jet lag for a few hours, the two of us set out in search of dinner. We had only wandered a block from the apartment when our narrow side street opened onto a large piazza anchored by the imposing Basilica of Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches in Rome. Originally built in the 4th century, the medieval mosaics that decorate its golden facade seemed to glow in the fading light of the square. A man sat at the base of an octagonal fountain in front of the church playing a guitar as a group of children chased a soccer ball.
Starving, we stopped at the first restaurant we came to, and a waiter greeted us with buona sera as he seated us at an outdoor table warmed by a heat lamp. Not speaking the language, but flattered that he had handed me the Italian menu rather than a translated tourist version, I pointed at the first item listed: cacio e pepe. The meal that arrived, a simple dish of hand cut pasta with pecorino and a dusting of cracked black pepper, was far more than the sum of its parts: the sharp, tangy cheese offset by the creamy sauce; the al dente noodles just slightly chewy; the pepper adding a kick to the finish.
Across the square, a bell rang out from the basilica’s 12th century tower and the soccer-playing children dispersed. It was almost dark now and the waiter brought a candle for our table. We ate for a few minutes in silence and then I looked at Coco, who had barely paused for a breath.
“What do you think?”
She sat back in her chair, sighed a deeply contented sigh and replied, “if this were my last meal, I could die happy.”
Cacio e pepe, serves 4
Salt, to taste
1 lb. pasta, preferably tonnarelli
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper, plus more to taste
13⁄4 cups finely grated Pecorino Romano
Bring a 6-quart pot of salted water to a boil. Add pasta; cook until al dente, 8–10 minutes; reserve 1 cup pasta water and drain pasta. Meanwhile, heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add pepper; cook until fragrant, 1–2 minutes. Ladle 3⁄4 cup pasta water into skillet; bring to a boil. Using tongs, transfer pasta to skillet; spread it evenly. Sprinkle 11⁄2 cups Pecorino Romano over pasta; toss vigorously to combine until sauce is creamy and clings to the pasta without clumping, about 2 minutes, adding some pasta water if necessary. Transfer to 4 plates and sprinkle with remaining Pecorino and more pepper.