The first time I went to Italy was in 2007. I gained thirty pounds in nine weeks.
“Quattordici chili,” a pudgy-cheeked version of me would boast, as if saying the words in Italian made them somehow meritorious. I dropped two pants sizes — first 30, then 32 — before the trip’s end. And I ate in my first Michelin three-starred restaurant in jeans, because slacks were by then an impossible dream. Moderation has always been a problem for me.
Over time I’ve learned that in Rome there is no moderating guanciale. Tonight at Cesare al Casaletto I encounter the first piece, thick like tree bark, leaned casually against a plump pile of tonnarelli like the bouncer at a nightclub door — the carbonara gatekeeper. I dodge it at first, not to avoid the precious pork but to skewer it last, with a swirl of noodles. A fine varnish of egg yolk, pecorino and pepper holds it together. The bite looks, I reckon, just about perfect. But it’s not for me — it’s for a girl back home. She loves carbonara.
This girl has a bit of a thing for pesto, too. These polpette di bollito would make her swoon. Golf ball-sized, they are crispy just for an instant. Then the breading gives way to gossamer, a thousand skinny fibers of slow-cooked veal meat so tender it seems to melt. The meatballs are doused in a rather punchy Genovese pesto, and I attack them with gusto.
I’m in Italy this time with, or rather for, my family. My role is that of translator, tour guide, and culinary guidance counselor — Virgil to their collective Dante. We’ve trudged past the inferno of mediocre restaurants in the city center tonight to find this one. And since I’ve devilishly ordered all the fried antipasti on the menu, we eat like hell.
After the meatballs come supplì (‘rice bawlz’ in the dialect of my region) and after the supplì, eggplant croquettes. The latter live in a spicy arrabbiata sauce and have an altogether more homely character than the rest. Coarsely chopped and very loosely formed, they seem to have passed through a grandmother’s hands before they hit the fryer. Nonna doesn’t do quenelles.
Maybe best of all are gnocchi fritti, little nuggets of fried dough I drag methodically and repeatedly through a thick cacio e pepe fondue. Over-saturating them with the sauce seems nigh impossible. And praise the lard! A second serving arrives a few minutes later, just as the first is starting to cool. That is not just thoughtful service — that’s love.
My family and I share everything… kind of. The pastas arrive and my mom corrals the aforementioned carbonara. My dad stains his shirt approximately three times with the bucatini while he wonders what became of the oxtails I promised him. (They’re in the sugo, I tell him. And, oh, what a sauce it is…)
It is a simple fact that Taco Sundays and Gnocchi Thursdays are honored and respected traditions. But tonight we have the latter on the former, and it doesn’t feel so bad. I surreptitiously add on an order of rigatoni alla gricia, and find an edible double rainbow. The noodles are a bouncy, toothsome al dente. The guanciale, pecorino and pepper combine to form a sauce so balanced, so elegant that I forget for a second the assertiveness of those ingredients on their own.
My family’s swan song has been sung by this point, so beef involtini and lamb coratella are mostly a solo effort. That delightful sounding word means lamb heart, lungs and liver. The murky brown stew is a regional, seasonal specialty I could only have here and now. So I try it, dutifully. I am not the biggest fan.
But this is all research, I figure — research for books I’ve not yet begun to write, for debates I may never have. I’m ultimately just very lucky that in spite of my gluttony, plumpin’ ain’t easy. I float through life pretending that I’m the anti-Fat Bastard, eating because I’m happy and happy because I’m eating. But this afternoon, while en route to a bakery, I saw some graffiti:
“Felicità è reale solo se condivisa,” it said. Happiness is real only if it is shared.
I poke lazily at the panna cotta and crème caramel on our table now. They were ordered in a state that might be described as a food blackout. And just like the rest of the food tonight, these desserts are excellent. But we don’t need them.
The truth is, they aren’t for me anyway — they’re for her. These are the flourishes on the stories I’ll tell her about the meals I wish we’d have shared. Next time I’d be really happy if she’d help me write them.