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Cooking in Rome with a new friend

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

“You attend to the pancetta,” Fulvia said, as she walked through the open kitchen door into her sun-drenched yard. “I am going to the garden to pick the sage.”

The cooking of our afternoon meal was well underway. Our ragu was simmering. Our pasta dough had been rolled into a ball and was wrapped and resting. Mary was cutting a large piece of smoked provolone into cubes, having cracked uova da bere – eggs “fresh enough to drink” - into a bowl that would be added to the puree of roasted fresh pumpkin, as well as the Italian bacon I was cooking at the stove.

Fulvia, our new friend, cooking partner, and teacher for the day, was ensuring that the sage was picked just before it was needed, and not a moment sooner.

Welcome to the best day of our trip so far.

It was set in motion when Mary booked our Airbnb, and asked Marzia, the owner, if she knew of any food tours we might sign up for. Fulvia is her sister, who lives just on the edge of the countryside on the outskirts of Rome. She offers occasional cooking experiences.

Thus did we find ourselves on a Thursday morning, a few blocks away from the Vatican and waiting in front of Mercato Trionfale, one of Rome largest food markets. Italians typically shop in small markets. But larger conglomerations of food vendors like this one are also common. It resembles what Americans would know as a farmer’s market, but is under a roof and open every day.

Fulvia’s plan was to buy vegetables, bread, and cheese. But she was not overly specific other than to say that we would have artichoke in some form.

“It is the season, no?” she said, as if referring to a federal law.

This, we learn, is at the heart of Italian cooking (all good cooking, really). When it comes to vegetables, it is always best to eat what is in season. In America we demand ‘all vegetables all the time,’ and food producers oblige, at the expense of flavor. That's why tomatoes in the United States taste like mushy red paper, unless you have a friend with a garden.

Of course there is a mountain of artichoke at the first stall we stop at. But there is also something else.

“Have you had zucchini flowers?” she asked, picking up what looks like a small, slightly limp bouquet that might make a nice decoration.

Mary wondered – correctly – if these might also be called “squash blossoms.” They were, and were added to the bag, along with the artichoke.

There were other stops for cheese, cold cuts, fresh eggs, and bread. Then we stopped at a small café-like vendor. Mary and I were looking for water. And Fulvia declared it was time for coffee, which in Italy means approximately one heaping tablespoon of espresso.

As we waited for the caffeine dose to be delivered, Fulvia and I talked about how we make it in America versus how it is made here. She is not a fan of the newer machines that involve inserting small plastic pouches into larger plastic devices, then pressing a button.

“I still like the old way,” she said, pointing to a small, three-piece metal coffee maker that percolates water up and over a round filter of coffee grounds. “I know it takes five minutes, and the machine takes one minute. But if it takes one minute to make your coffee, then you have to be back at work in one minute.”

She shrugged and laughed.

“Ahhh, but I am telling you our secrets!”

I nodded, and quickly wrote what she said in my notebook.

Fulvia’s house is on the outskirts of Rome. But it might as well have been a hundred miles away. Like many Italian homes, it is surrounded by a high fence and vegetation.

“Italians are very protective of their property,” she explained.

Walking through the gate heightened the feeling of seclusion and specialness as we stepped into the yard, greeted by her two happy dogs.

Before we went into her kitchen, Fulvia took us for a walk around the property, which seems to be at least two or three acres. She first showed us a lovely pergola, draped in vines and flowers, and made by her late husband. We could feel his presence as she described his woodworking talent, and the pleasure he got from making and planting things. We could also feel his presence when we got to an open spot of grass, with two chairs looking out across a field next to her property.

“This is a beautiful place to watch the sunset,” she said.

The outdoor tour ended at her large herb and vegetable garden, where she also raises honey bees. Then it was into the kitchen.

Fulvia’s kitchen is beautiful, as is the house - a villa that seems in complete harmony with the lush landscape of the property. The kitchen is large, with a big wooden table – made by her late husband. But it is not a “showcase” kitchen. The appliances are solid, but not “professional.” She lit the burners on the stove with a small Bic lighter.

Fulvia’s is a welcoming family kitchen, made for cooking family meals.

We started by preparing a simple ragu – meat – sauce. That meant chopping an onion, a carrot, and a stalk of celery, and adding them to a pan with some olive oil. Once the onions started to turn golden, we added a combination of chopped beef and uncased pork sausage, breaking it up as it cooked. Afterwards we added diced tomatoes from a can, some red wine, salt, fresh oregano, fresh basil, and sugar, and let the whole thing simmer.

Then we made our simple pasta dough, mixing flour and eggs and a pinch of salt and rolling the dough into two small balls. Each was wrapped in plastic and left to rest.

Next up was the pumpkin flan, which neither Mary nor I had ever heard of. We were only familiar with the sweet flan, the custard-like Spanish dessert.

We started with a sheet pan full of pumpkin chunks that Fulvia had roasted. Mary put them in a blender along with some eggs, cream, the aforementioned cubes of smoked provolone cheese, some parmesan cheese, the pancetta I had browned, the fresh sage and some salt and pepper. The whole thing was purreed, then scooped into ramekins and placed in the oven to cook at 350 for “about 20 minutes,” she said.

The cleaning of the artichokes was fairly simple. We just pulled off the outer leaves until we got to ones that were mostly white, then peeled off the tough outer layer of the stems. Then we quartered the hearts of the artichoke, cut the stems into bite-size pieces, and put it all in a bowl of water with a fresh lemon.

For the blossoms, we pulled off the stems, opened the flowers, and gently stuffed them with fresh mozzarella and anchovies. Each was then closed up and set aside.

Then it was time for the salad. Fulvia had bought a bunch of puntarelle, which is a variant of chicory. It looks like green spaghetti. She mixed the it with a small amount of olive oil and vinegar, as well as some anchovies, and set it aside in the fridge.

Now it was time to turn our dough into noodles, and we were introduced to a machine Fulvia simply called a “guitar.” As the name suggests, it was a wooden base, with an array of tight wires strung across an open area. We rolled out our dough into thin sheets, then cut them into flat shapes that fit on the guitar. Then we used a rolling pin to press the dough into the wires, cutting them into fettuccini.

Before the final cooking started, it was time to make our dessert, the Italian classic, tiramisu. The first step was making a small pot of coffee, then we separated four egg yolks, and set aside two egg whites. The yolks were mixed with some sugar, mascarpone cheese and coffee, while I whipped the whites long enough to achieve stiff peaks, after which it was folded into the rest of the ingredients.

I should note that Fulvia chose eggs from her own chickens, collected that morning. These were even fresher than the ones we bought in the market – reassuring as the recipe involves no baking.

Next we took a box of rectangular shaped egg biscuits – Italian-style cookies. Each was dipped into hot coffee, then placed three across to cover the bottom of a rectangular ramekin. The custard was layered on top, and the whole process was repeated, sprinkled with chocolate powder and placed in the fridge.

Finally it was time to make a simple batter for the blossoms and the artichoke.

“You can use sparkling water for the batter,” Fulvia said. “But I prefer a beer.

She opened a bottle of Moretti, and poured most of it in into the egg and flour mixture. We coated the artichoke with the batter, then carefully dipped each blossom. The blossoms went into the hot peanut oil first.

The work itself was reward enough. But the lesson finished off with a lovely lunch - with some red wine, of course - under one of the pergolas in the yard. We enjoyed the delicious food, learned that Fulvia had just found out she is about to become a great aunt, and chatted about our shared love of cooking with friends.

At the end of the meal, as we sat at the table and enjoyed a last bit of wine before coffee and the tiramisu, I asked Fulvia where she learned to cook. She paused for a moment, and smiled.

“Living?” she said with a shrug.

What a great day.

Check out our other food stories here.



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