Tag Archives: Italy

Day Trip from Rome: Garden of Ninfa

19 Mar

Spring is in the air and that means the Garden of Ninfa, which has been called the most romantic garden in the world, will soon be open for its limited 2017 season. Ninfa is the Italian word for nymph. It is an apt name for this sylvan place that time forgot, with its flowers, trees, and gurgling streams, and its ruins covered in vines.


Located near Cisterna Latina 75 km (46 miles) southeast of Rome, Ninfa has a long and colorful history. A thousand years ago, it was a small town by a flowing stream, home to a temple dedicated to the water nymphs from whence it got its name. By 1100 it had become an important and wealthy place next to the only north-south road that was passable when the Appia Antica was flooded.

  
Pope Alexander III was crowned there in 1159, but the town’s honor and glory would not last long; the Pope’s enemy the Emperor Barbarossa sacked the town. It eventually passed into the hands of the Caetani family, though it suffered a long and steady decline starting in the 1300s. During subsequent centuries, nature took its course, engulfing the abandoned medieval town, which faded from sight.


But not from memory. In the early 1920s, Gelasio Caetani decided to reclaim the swampy land via a custom-built drainage and irrigation system, and establish a garden amid the ruined town with the help of his English-born mother and American-born sister-in-law. Gelasio’s’ niece Leilia Caetani and husband Hubert Howard continued the family’s work. They imported plants from all over the world; the 8-hectacre (20-acre) site is home to more than 1,000 plant species, including dozens of roses, clematis, climbing hydrangea, water irises, ornamental cherry trees, cypress, magnolias, oaks, and poplars, among many others.

 
  

Today, a foundation maintains the garden, which is only open on certain dates and is accessible only via a guided tour. In 2017, visiting season kicks off on April 1. The majority of open days are in the spring, though the season runs through November 5. Check online for dates and to buy tickets–and if you are going to go, get there early. If you have a few minutes before your tour starts (or after it ends), you can cross the road and visit the Horti Nympharum, a classic citrus garden across the lane complete with fountain, a family of swans, and castle ruins to wander through. There is a separate entry fee for that garden, but it is worth the price.

  
Finally, if you are making a day of it, head up to the walled hill town of Sermoneta for lunch; the town itself is charming, and the views of the valley from above are gorgeous.

  
  

View of Garden of Ninfa from above

Truffles and Chestnuts: Two Festivals in One Day in Umbria

13 Nov

Last weekend, we took our first road trip. Destination: Umbria–specifically the Truffle Festival (Sagra del Tartufo) in Fabro. This medieval town is just under two hours away from Rome (slightly less if you can make it out of Rome without getting lost…). And its woods (below) are full of truffles.


The Festival is in the higher, older part of town and consists of about 50 stalls, many selling truffles, truffle sauces, truffled cheeses, truffled sausages, and almost anything else that can be truffled. Unfortunately, we were a day late to see (and taste) what was billed as the world’s biggest truffle omelette. But we did sample our way up and down the stalls; being equal-opportunity eaters, we devoted attention to non-truffled items, too:

  

  
I did a double take when I saw the sign below, thinking mule salame was on offer along with the wild boar and venison versions. But no–it was just salame shaped like mule testicles….

  
After visiting the festival, we stopped at a nearby restaurant for lunch (because really, the festival was just a long snack…), where we ordered truffled pasta to share and I had pheasant with a sauce made from truffles, pate, and cognac. That may sound expensive, but it wasn’t; during truffle season in Italy you can get all sort of truffle-related dishes for very reasonable prices. Of course, if you are hoping to buy a whole, hefty, wrinkled, earthy, deeply aromatic truffle–that’s an entirely different proposition. But we weren’t. I was happy with the few tastes I had. A blasphemous statement, I know–but I find that a very little truffle goes a very long way.  Now, porcini mushrooms, on the other hand….

After our very late lunch, we could have gone back to Rome, but we decided to (literally and figuratively) squeeze in one more festival–the Chestnut Festival (Sagra della Castagna) in Narni. The Festival itself was very small, with not much on offer. But Narni was striking at twilight and night, and we did happen upon chestnuts roasting over an open fire:

  

Ode on an Italian Panino: Allesso di Scottona

24 Oct

Taking a page from Keats, who is buried in the cemetery near our apartment, this post is dedicated to a single beautiful object: not a Grecian urn, but an Italian sandwich.

The object of my affection can be found at the Testaccio Market, a wondrous place away from the usual madding crowds of Rome, a veritable feast for the senses and the stomach. Fantastic produce? Check. Meat, poultry, fish, cheese, nuts? Check. Honey, preserves, pastries, gelato, and all other delicious sweet things? Check. Coffee and wine? Check. Plus housewares, vintage clothes, flowers, and more, including the panini at Mordi e Vai (which means “Bite and Go,” or slightly less literally, “Grab and Go”).

You cannot miss the stall; the heady aromas wafting around it will help guide the way to this bastion of Roman street food. Proprietor Sergio Esposito, a proud native son, wanted to offer his customers serious Roman panini–panini with fillings born from Testaccio’s history as the city’s meat-packing district. And more, he wanted to engender an appreciation for this authentic fare. He succeeded, judging by the devout following Mordi e Vai has cultivated.

As it was my first time there, I asked Signor Esposito’s son for his recommendation. He said the most popular panino (panini is plural) is the one made with Allesso di Scottona and chicory:

Panino
Allesso
 comes from cotto a lesso, which means “boiled,” though “simmered” might be more accurate; the preparation is similar to a French pot-au-feu. A scottona is a heifer, a female bovine that has not yet had a calf and is no more than 15 or so months old. (A “cow” has had at least one calf.) Scottona meat is marbled with small flecks of fat and is very, very tender. As the meat simmers, the fat melts and gives additional flavor to the meat.

To prepare the panino, Signor Esposito’s son took a piece of the fork-tender meat from the simmering liquid and placed it on a cutting board, where he carefully (I would say almost lovingly) cut it into smaller pieces. He sliced a crusty ciabatta roll in half, dipped an open side into the simmering liquid, and then gently placed the meat on top. He followed it with some braised chicory–a somewhat bitter leafy green that is related to dandelions, endive, escarole, and radicchio. Finally, he added the other half of the bread, pressed the sandwich lightly together, wrapped it in a translucent wrapper, and handed it over. Cost: 3.5 euro.

PaninoMaker
What a triumph. The crusty bread balanced the tender savoriness of the meat while the chicory countered its richness. It was the perfect panino for a fall lunch, and the perfect introduction to Mordi e Vai’s offerings, which include panini with fillings ranging from meatballs and sausage to tripe and bits of liver, lung, and heart–as well as other fare.

If you get there early, you may be doubly lucky: you may not have to wait long for your panino and you may be able to find a table in the central courtyard of the market, where you can give this delectable Roman sandwich all the attention it deserves.

Sign
Mordi e Vai

Box 15
Testaccio Market
Open 8am-2:30pm.

My Roman Kitchen, and More

15 Oct

I have discovered I will need to imbue my cooking in Rome with a hefty dose of gratitude. When I first saw our kitchen, with its cream cabinets, red shelves and drawers, built-in refrigerator, stove with the perfect size burner for a small espresso maker (it would not be an Italian stove without one, after all) and even a dishwasher, I liked it immediately. It was light-filled, modern, and had the essentials. Plus the colors reminded me of the kitchen I just left. I did make note of the tiny oven and the lack of counter space, but I knew I could find solutions for both those things.

What I did not know was how lucky we were to have any kitchen at all. Turns out that in the world of Roman apartment rentals, “unfurnished” very often means “apartment comes with absolutely nothing but walls and doors–no appliances, no cabinets, no closets–nothing.” Friends of ours who also recently moved here saw an apartment they liked, but the kitchen belongs to the previous renters, who are willing to sell it to them for a hefty price. Otherwise, the appliances and cabinets will be removed. I didn’t ask about the kitchen sink; I’m sure it will go, too.

In the United States, kitchens usually come fully stocked, so to speak. Not in Rome. Upon seeing the kitchen in our new apartment, two different Italian friends asked 1) if we had brought it with us from the United States (ie, dismantled and reassembled from our old house), or 2) how we had managed to buy the appliances and cabinets here–and have them installed–in such a short time. They were quite surprised to discover everything came with the apartment. So whatever differences there may be between this kitchen and our previous one in the United States (and I will list some below)–I am, above all, very happy to have any kitchen at all.

Kitchen

Drying Cabinet
All of the Roman kitchens in which we have lived (four to date) have had drying cabinets, which I love. They are cabinets with internal racks, set over the sinks, and are immensely useful for a quick washing up (especially when there are just a few dishes), for items that can’t go in a dishwasher, and also for storage:

DSC_0003-001  DSC_0011-001

Aforementioned Oven
I was delusional to think I could fit half-sheet baking pans into a typical Roman oven, but I brought them anyway as they were the only ones I had. Though I knew I probably could not use them, it was still disappointing to have it confirmed: the baking sheets hit the edges of the oven, which is roughly 17.5 inches (44.5 cm) wide on the inside. But then inspiration struck and I discovered if I took out the racks, I could slide the sheets right into the grooves. It’s a tight, slightly warped fit, but it fits. I haven’t actually baked anything this way yet, but for the sake of research, will soon experiment with some cookies.

DSC_0019  DSC_0022

Garbage Disposal (or lack thereof)
Ok, I admit I do miss having a garbage disposal just a tiny bit, as I’m not super fond of fishing food out of the sink traps. But of all the things to miss, this really doesn’t rank very highly (unlike, say, Zip-Loc bags). And as I fish things out of the traps, I find myself admiring the rapidity with which calcium makes its presence known here–on the base of the faucet, even in drops of water as they dry in the sink. That is why we use bottled water in the espresso maker and tea kettle, and why I occasionally throw an anti-calcium tablet into the washing machine.

DSC_0011

Washing and Drying Clothes…
I realize this post was meant to be about kitchens, and that kitchens and washing machines don’t always go together (except that I’ve seen and lived in apartments with washing machines in kitchens). But I wanted to mention our washing machine, which is unfortunately located in a closet that is right behind a door in a small room–it’s not possible to open the door to the closet without closing the door to the room, meaning there’s a lot of banging of doors on laundry days.

First, of course, I’m grateful the washing machine came with the apartment. Second, it’s not so much the washing machine that is different (thought it is smaller), but rather, it’s the fact that there is no dryer. While hanging clothes to dry is quite common here and in many, many other parts of the world, it is less common in the United States. But I have always liked it. I don’t experience many Zen moments when it comes to housework, but hanging fresh-smelling, damp clothes to dry is one of the few tasks I actually enjoy–despite not having a yard, terrace, or balcony, and only being able to use a small clothes rack. Part of it is sensory, but part is intellectual (yes, my family thinks I have gone off the deep end): deciding how to arrange the clothes in such a way to optimize the available space while ensuring maximum airflow and minimal wrinkliness….

Perhaps part is also the novelty. This process of working out a new modus vivendi in the house and in Rome is something I quite enjoy. I know the pleasure I currently take in even the smallest of tasks may turn into something else later, but I will appreciate this time while it lasts.

DSC_0002-001  DSC_0004-001m