Tag Archives: Rome

Recipe: Pasta Carbonara for Two

7 Mar

In Rome, there are four classic pasta dishes: Amatriciana, Carbonara, Cacio e Pepe, and Gricia. The two base ingredients that are constant across all four sauces are Pecorino cheese and black pepper. Cacio e Pepe, which means cheese and pepper, is a perfect example of the magic that occurs when the two base ingredients are combined with pasta cooking water. Gricia omits the water and adds guanciale (pork cheek/jowl). The purest version of Amatriciana (from the town of Amatrice itself) also omits water, but adds tomatoes to the guanciale. (Note: the black pepper can be a very controversial ingredient in an Amatriciana sauce, depending on who you ask. I include it, as I was taught.) Carbonara is Gricia with eggs; it never, ever includes cream. Essentially, a small handful of ingredients trade places across the four classic Roman pasta sauces.

This Carbonara recipe came about when we were living in Rome as true empty nesters. It took me a few years to adjust from cooking for 6 to cooking for 2 (even though our children left home in phases), but I finally did it. This is a recipe my husband and I enjoyed often, one that can be easily doubled (or tripled) when guests arrive. The photos below show guanciale (pork cheek/jowl), which typically has a peppery outer coating. If you cannot find guanciale, look for pancetta (pork belly). If you cannot find pancetta, use bacon. Pancetta and bacon may not be authentic, but you should use what is available and make something that tastes good to you. The beauty of recipes such as this one is their ability to be translated in a way that still preserves their essence. I will never speak Italian like an Italian, but what I do speak is still recognizably Italian and I hope it demonstrates my love for (if not my complete mastery of) the language.

Note: This recipe uses raw egg yolks. They are cooked by being tossed with the hot pasta, but if this may be a problem for you, try Pasta in Cream Sauce as an alternative.

Pasta Carbonara for Two


  • 100 gr. (about 1/4 lb.) guanciale, cubed or diced
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 225 gr. rigatoni (1/2 lb)
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 30 gr. (about 1/4 heaping cup) finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese, plus more for garnish


Cook guanciale in olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, stirring frequently until crispy. Remove the guanciale to a plate. Put 1-2 tbsp. of the guanciale drippings in a large bowl; let cool. Add egg yolks, grind a healthy amount of pepper over the yolks, then mix with a fork to emulsify.


Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, stirring occasionally until al dente (according to package directions). Before draining, reserve ½ cup of the pasta cooking liquid— and place a tbsp. measuring spoon into the reserved pasta water.

When the pasta is ready, drain it and immediately add it and 1 tbsp. of the reserved pasta water to the egg mixture; tossing vigorously to coat and to make sure the egg yolks don’t scramble. Add the Pecorino in batches, stirring and tossing until the cheese is mostly melted and the sauce thickens. (Add more pasta water or pepper if desired.) Just before serving, mix in the crispy guanciale.

Divide among bowls. Serve with more grated Pecorino Romano.


Being Fed at Sora Margherita

28 Jan

On a recent blustery Saturday, after a long appetite-inducing walk (past our local 2,000-year-old Pyramid, up the Aventine Hill to look through the famous keyhole, down to the Circo Massimo for a required stop at the Mercato di Campagna Amica farmers’ market, past the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin and the Boca della Verita, onward to the ancient Teatro di Marcello, and into the Jewish Quarter),  my husband, a friend, and I made a spur-of-the moment decision to see if Sora Margherita was open for lunch. It was, and miraculously, one last table was available. Though we went there to eat, I ended up being fed. And what a joy that was.

Sora Margherita is a tiny, no-nonsense place that is perennially packed. We settled in, careful not to knock elbows with our neighbors, and were eventually given water, a basket of bread, and then a single hand-written menu.

Sor Margherita, Ghetto  IMG_5137
We were deep into the difficult task of deciding which of the renowned house specialties to order when our busy waitress, Tiziana, finally came to a halt beside our table. “Well?” she asked. It can be perilous to send Italian waitstaff away, because they may not come back for a while. Tiziana was a woman on the move and we were starving, so I employed my favorite tactic–I asked her to advise us. Whereupon she took away the menu and said, “I will decide.” And so she did.

In short order, the dishes began to appear. First out, two traditional favorites: Carciofo alla Romana, a tender whole artichoke braised in white wine and olive oil (Roman style)—and Carciofo alla Giudia, a crispy, deep-fried version (Jewish style). Tiziana wrongly feared we might not know the proper technique for eating the crispy version, so she leaned over the table, pulled off an artichoke leaf, and held it to my mouth. I opened up and ate; I dared not refuse Tiziana anything.

The artichokes were followed by broccoletti ripassati—Romanesco broccoli that is blanched, then sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and chilies until it is meltingly soft. I could have eaten the entire plate. Then came puntarelle in salsa d’acciuche—a salad made with the shredded inner stalks of a member of the chicory family, seasoned with olive oil, garlic, lemon, and anchovies. It was a crisp, piquant counterpoint to the soft broccoletti.

Having temped our palates with these appetizers and side dishes, Tiziana then began to roll out the main courses: the famous, house-made fettucine al sugo di carne (with a braised meat sauce), salsicce e spuntature al sugo (fresh sausages cooked in the same meat sauce, accompanied by a spare rib), and baccala fritto (fried cod).

IMG_5146  IMG_5148
We shared all the delicious dishes family style, but even so we struggled to finish everything. On one of her perambulations past our table, Tiziana glanced at the sausage platter and saw the lone meaty rib, bereft of its former companions. That stopped her in her tracks. She reached over, lifted the rib from its resting place, and said “This is good—eat!”  Again, the rib was aimed in my direction. When faced with a saucy offering, what can one do? I took the rib and returned the clean bone to the platter a moment later. Only then was Tiziana satisfied. We had done our proper duty by Sora Margherita’s dishes.

Almost. There was dessert to be had, and we had torta di ricotta e cioccolato—a moist ricotta cake with chocolate. Because there is always room for dessert.

The warm glow from that lunch (and the resulting food coma) lasted a long time, thanks to Tiziana and the masters in the kitchen. We’ll be back. Because the pasta cacio, peppe, e ricotta (pasta with a Pecorino Romano-black pepper sauce and dollops of ricotta) is already calling my name.

Sora Margherita
Piazza delle Cinque Scole 30
Phone: 066874216

Recipe: Coda alla Vaccinara (Oxtail Stew) with Rigatoni

2 Dec

One of the pleasures of being in a new place is tasting local dishes and then trying to figure out how to make them. In Italy, part of the fun lies in consulting butchers, greengrocers, cheese purveyors, wine merchants, and really, any Italian who eats, because they are all happy to offer advice. As soon as the days grew cooler, I knew what I wanted to make: Coda alla Vaccinara (Oxtail Stew) served over rigatoni–an old-style dish appearing on many Roman menus.

In previous times, the slaughterhouse workers of Testaccio (the vacccinari) were given offal and oxtails to pad their slim salaries. Their wives rose to the challenge and created dishes that made the most of the available ingredients. In Coda alla Vaccinara, the oxtails are braised in a sauce made with pancetta, lots of celery, onions, carrots, tomatoes, wine, and spices, though the stew is open to interpretation; everyone I asked prepares the dish in a slightly different way. Some people make it with red wine instead of white, some add water, some forego the carrot, some add raisins. Large pieces of celery are de rigueur, but in a rebellious break from tradition (and knowing I wanted to turn the entire stew into a sauce), I finely diced all the celery and survived to tell the tale.

However, I did not escape looks of shock and dismay on the faces of two Italian friends when I mentioned I had added a pinch of cinnamon to the stew. “Cinnamon? CINNAMON? No. NO.” But I say “Yes.” In addition to cloves, cinnamon very frequently appears in recipes for Coda, which is meant to have a warm-scented, delicately sweet undertone. So here is the resulting recipe, a hearty interpretation perfect for autumn and winter. And following on the advice of Alessandro Volpetti (and I’m happy to take the word of anyone at Volpetti’s), I topped the Coda with grated Ricotta Salata cheese, one of my favorites. But omit the cinnamon if you prefer, top with Parmesan or Pecorino Romano instead–this dish is yours to interpret.


Rigatoni with Oxtail Sauce (con Coda alla Vaccinara)

1-2 tbsp. olive oil
2.2 lb. (1 kg.) oxtails
salt and pepper
4 oz. (about 112 grams) pancetta, cubed
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, finely diced (or coarsely grated)
5 stalks celery, finely diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
1/8 -1/4 tsp. chili flakes
4 whole cloves (or 1/8 tsp. ground)
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
1.5 tbsp. tomato paste
1.5 c. white wine
1 large (28 oz./800 grams) can peeled Italian tomatoes
fresh parsley and marjoram (or oregano)
tiny pinch sugar

1 lb. (500 grams) rigatoni
Ricotta salata cheese, grated

1. Lightly season the oxtail pieces with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven, then brown the oxtail pieces, turning them on all sides. Remove from the pot and place in a bowl.
2. Add the pancetta to the pot and cook until mostly crispy and the fat has rendered; do not drain the fat. Add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook until soft, deglazing the pot as you go. Sprinkle the onion mixture with more black pepper, add the garlic and bay leaf, and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the chili flakes, cloves, and cinnamon and cook for a minute or two while stirring. Add the tomato paste and the wine. Simmer gently for about 5 minutes to reduce the liquid slightly.
3. With clean hands, take a peeled tomato from the can and crush it into the stew; repeat with all the tomatoes. This is a very satisfying technique—but moderation is key; if you are too enthusiastic, you may end up shooting tomato bits across the kitchen. If you prefer a slightly less visceral experience, you can cut the tomatoes while in the can, or remove them and dice, adding all the tomatoes and all the tomato sauce/juice from the can to the pot.
4. Mix in the pinch of sugar, nestle the oxtail pieces into the vegetable mixture, pour in any liquid from the bowl they were in, sprinkle with more black pepper, and then scatter some of the herbs on top.

5. Cover the pot and simmer on low heat for about 3 hours, or until the meat is very tender when pierced with a fork (it may take longer depending on the oxtails). Remove the oxtails, place on a dish, let cool, then pull off as much meat from the bones as possible (this will require some patience). Return the shredded meat to the sauce; keep warm.
6. Cook the rigatoni according to package instructions until al dente, drain, return to its pot, and then mix in the Coda sauce. Scatter more fresh herbs on top and serve with the grated cheese.


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:

 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.

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.

Mordi e Vai

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

Postcard from Rome

20 Apr

Apologies for the silence–I was on a jam-packed work trip last week. But the meeting was near Rome, so I can’t complain!

Immediately after arriving in Rome on Sunday morning, I headed to a delicious lunch at the home of some dear friends, where I was treated to chicken rollatini and a ricotta mousse topped with melted Nutella. It was the start of a fantastic eating fest. After lunch, we headed to Eataly for coffee and to have a look around. Of all the beautiful things to see there, here is just one that struck me because of its appearance and name:  Ox Heart (or Beef Heart) ribbed tomatoes (Pomodori Cuore di Bue). On the way back to the hotel, I counted myself very lucky to be in Rome at just the right time to see all the wisteria in bloom.

[Please note that these blog photos were taken with my iPhone — the day-time/outdoor ones turned out a bit better than night-time/indoor ones….]

Pomodori Cuore di Bue                         Wisteria

I had very limited in Rome itself and since we had lived there before, I eliminated any sightseeing and focused solely on the gastronomic. And of the wealth of options on that front, I was miraculously able to eat two of my favorite things in Rome (ok, in the world). The easier of the two involved a lightening-quick pilgrimage to Della Palma gelateria near the Pantheon for a scoop of Roché gelato– dark chocolate base with crushed hazelnuts and wafer pieces, like the famous chocolates — topped off with a scoop of Duplo gelato, a rich caramel base interlaced with liberal swirls of Nutella.  There are many gelaterias in Rome, including some very famous ones, but this is the one I like best because it is where we always used to go as a family. And because of the Roché and Duplo…. I am sighing now, knowing it will be some time before I taste either again.

The other dish I was hoping to have was Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia (Spaghetti in Squid Ink) — a dish that would be a serious contender on my last-meal list. The problem is that very few Roman restaurants offer it. So I owe a deep debt of gratitude to a kind friend who told a restaurant owner that an overseas visitor had a serious craving for the dish, and to the owner for going out and buying the squid-ink sacs just to prepare the meal for us on the evening of my arrival. The jet-black sauce is made with squid ink, garlic, white wine, olive oil, red chilies, and tiny pieces of squid. It is dish that tastes as if it came straight from the sea, and it’s fantastic. But it turns your lips black; you will end up looking like Cruella De Vil. It is so worth it, however.

Gelato at Della Palma                          Spaghetti al Nero di Seppia

The very last night, after non-stop meetings in a suburb of Rome where there was not a lot to see, another lovely friend suggested an outing to Bracciano, a charming town with a beautiful lake and an old castle. I loved the many flower pots the residents had everywhere: on stoops, staircases, walls, lattices, etc.  And I was struck by the hardiness of the fig tree; the ones I saw were all growing straight out of high walls, having found a tiny foothold and enough nutrients to somehow survive.

Flower Pots, Bracciano                       Fig Tree by Lake Bracciano

Flowers and Daughters

22 Jun

This will be a quick post in honor of my 15-year-old daughter, who is in Rome being a nanny for the summer. When we were all there as a family in 2005, we were walking through the Jewish Quarter behind the Teatro Marcello one day and stumbled upon an artist who had set up shop on a church stoop, painting flowers on strips of wood he had nailed together. We could not resist, and brought one back with us. It currently resides above the doorway of the office in our house, a permanent reminder of the cheerfulness of flowers. And that is why it is a good tribute to our daughter.

Here are more examples of the artist’s work. This photo was taken in 2005, but when I was there a few months ago,  I saw the artist and his wares at the same church stoop. Rome is truly the Eternal City.