About a month and a half ago, I got real sick of raiding plain old American pantries, so I hopped on a plane headed for Italy. Well, maybe that wasn’t my only reason. I am currently studying abroad in Rome, living, eating, and drinking like the Romans do! It’s been a crazy few weeks, but after getting lost way too often and consequently being chased down an alley in Trastevere, I seem to have gotten the hang of life here.
I live in an apartment. It’s organized sort of like a laser tag maze – without the neon blinking lights and sugar-high kids – complete with a million secret corridors and a layout that never seems to end. What’s my favorite room? That should be obvious…the kitchen. When I first set eyes on the kitchen, it might as well have been a laser tag maze and I might as well have been a 10 year old boy.
My kitchen is huge. In the center sits a giant circular wooden table, surrounded by a hodgepodge of chairs from god-knows-where. The floor and walls are covered in brown tiles, with the occasional tile engraved with a sketch of a chair, a sewing machine, and a bouquet of tulips. One of the tiles even has knitting needles on it!
Our fridge is tiny, and for those of us with big culinary aspirations (ahem), this just doesn’t fly. I should mention that I live with six girls. My allotted space consists of half a shelf, which is usually packed with burrata, salami, blueberry jam, cherry tomatoes, and a bunch of other random foodstuffs I couldn’t name if I tried.
Our frying pans’ handles are all falling off and our two knives are ridiculously dull. The spice rack is lacking and there’s a washing machine crammed under the kitchen sink. The oven only has one setting, “On.” So don’t expect any temperature indicators for any Pantry Raid’s requiring an oven.
Our kitchen window looks out onto a courtyard of trees and benches, surrounded by apartment buildings painted in rich colors that have chipped over the course of many years. This place has so much charm I can hardly stand it. That being said, it’s taken me quite some time to get used to cooking here. Grocery stores are filled mostly with cookies and wine (not complaining) and the occasional mystery meat. Also, everything comes in tiny portions. Which I love, because little things are my favorite. Therefore, when I make a meal, I make a visit to at least two markets, a bakery, a meat shop, and the vegetable stand on my corner. Sometimes, it’s a hassle, but usually, it’s so much fun! Italy, as everyone knows, is a place where people really appreciate food. It’s their culture. Apparently, so is shouting “Ciao bella,” at everything with boobs and a face.
On my second night in Rome, the six strangers I’d be living with for the next five months and I went out to dinner. We were in the throes of defeating (or not defeating) our jet lag, and had just woken up from a nap lasting longer than I sleep most nights. We wandered around our neighborhood like blind newborn puppies until finally we stumbled upon L’Insalata Ricca. No one could understand the menu, and I was no different. That is, until I set eyes on my favorite Italian dish of all time: Carbonara. It was so delicious that I didn’t even care that the waiter took advantage of us, offering bread that would later appear on our bill. I’ve learned my lesson.
In the U.S. “Carbonara” is a sorry excuse for the authentic rendition. Mixed with rich cream and butter, its basically Alfredo sauce with bacon. And we wonder why Americans get a bad wrap. The real deal is supposed to be rich, but not heavy; flavorful, but not decadent. I’d had Carbonara a few times back home, usually the inauthentic kind, but sometimes the right way. Either way, I loved it, and I was so excited to get my hands on one of Rome’s traditional dishes.
In only a matter of days, my roommates and I got real close. Our neighbors, a group of seven boys, quickly became our counterparts. We call ourselves the Nomentana family, as that’s the street we live on. Here are some highlights:
1. Rick. He always gets lost. More times than one, but most significantly on his first night in Rome, Rick manages to get separated from the group, giving all of us a hearty scare. Every time, we say, “Rome has him now,” and every time (so far) Rome gives him back…eventually.
2. Little Michael. He’s actually not very little, but Big Michael is absolutely big and therefore, Little Michael is little. He’s an awesome chef. He’s made us ratatouille and Spanish rice so far, and I can hardly wait for what comes next.
3. John. John’s our house cat. He shows up at our apartment, unannounced, whenever he’s bored and sits around keeping us entertained till he thinks of something better to do. Meow.
4. Kelsi. Speaking of cats…Kelsi loves ‘em. Her wall is decorated with a calendar entitled “Cat Yoga.” Use your imagination. She’s my fellow foodie, and usually my partner in crime, in the kitchen and on the town.
5. Hillary. She’s our signature tall, gorgeous, blondie. She’s our resident fashion consultant, makeup artist, and hair expert. Oh, and she works at Comic Con where she’s paid to walk around dressed like a super hero.
6. Jessica. This girl is a ball of energy. Her “normal face” is my “I just won the lottery” face. She’s super spunky and always prancing around the kitchen, looking over our shoulders to see what’s cookin’.
Every week, we switch off apartments for what’s come to be known as “Family Dinner.” Whoever’s hosting makes the main meal and whoever isn’t is in charge of appetizers and wine. These nights are some of my favorites in Rome. Full of laughter and music and the assurance that Rick won’t get lost, it’s all fun times on via Nomentana.
Our most recent family dinner took place on Valentine’s Day! Since my man’s a million miles away and most of the family’s in the same boat, we decided not to mope around like most of the world. Everyone dressed to the nines in red, white, pink, or purple. Empty wine bottles were stuffed with red roses (courtesy of Jessica’s boyfriend) and soon-to-be-empty bottles were ready for uncorking. The agenda was as follows: red and white food only. Carbonara might be a little yellow, but I won’t tell if you won’t.
Kelsi and I cooked in our funky kitchen as the guests arrived, and the wonderful mayhem ensued. Two giant batches of real Carbonara were gobbled down, followed by a late night run to our local Gelateria in true Family Dinner fashion. It was the best Matt-less Valentine’s Day I could have asked for, filled with great food and even better friends.
This recipe serves about five hungry people. It’s time sensitive, but otherwise pretty simple. Serve it to the one’s you love most, whether they’re your family or your Valentine. And by all means, please drink red wine while you’re cooking.
· 500 grams (or one packet) Vermicelli (regular Spaghetti will do too)
· 100 grams guanciale (pancetta will work too)
· 1 whole egg
· 3 egg yolks
· 2 cloves garlic, minced
· Salt & Pepper to taste
· Olive Oil
· 1 big handful shredded Pecorino cheese (the sharper the better)
First things first, shred your cheese and beat your eggs.
Next, boil a large pot of water. Just before it's boiling, add a whole lot of salt. This will make the pasta extremely flavorful. It's one of the many secrets of Italian cooking. Do not break the pasta in half. If it doesn't fit in the pot, simply let the extremities fan out and push them in once the submerged pasta softens.
While the pasta is cooking, coat a frying pan with some olive oil and sauté the pancetta and garlic until the meat is cooked, but not crispy.
The pancetta should be fully cooked right when the pasta is almost al dente. Remove the pasta from the stove, but before straining it, place some of the water into the frying pan. Next, lift the pasta into the pan.
Add a glug of olive oil and mix the pancetta in with the pasta until the noodles have become perfectly al dente.
Here's where timing becomes really important. Transfer the pasta mix directly from the pan into a large bowl. Very quickly, pour the eggs over the mixture and incorporate the two. The heat from the pasta will cause the eggs to cook. Simultaneously, add the shredded cheese, which will melt with the heat.
Add pepper to taste and serve immediately.
Happy Belated Valentine's Day!