Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Rome – “la Bruschetta”

Gianluca arrives around 4:00 pm with a small plate of handmade chocolates from the pastry shop across the street. He knows, when the days are long and lunch was a plate of steamed vegetables eaten in the middle of a meeting, by 5:00 things will start to get ugly. It is not that I want to be grumpy but breakfast is rarely more than a cappuccino, occasionally accompanied by a Baba’. The rum syrup that penetrates the soft briosche like sweet bread of the Baba’ is just the right offset to the cappuccino. The 4-5 handmade dark chocolate snacks are perfect, obviously with a double espresso. We are going to be late again tonight; three dinner meetings already this week, I need a break.

“Raffaella, let’s go to Bruschetta!” I called out.

A few minutes later Raffaella arrived, sat down, and we starting discussing dinner. This week we had been to Camponeschi, Al Bric, and Porto di Ripetta. The food was always marvelous, but tonight I wanted something simple. “La Bruschetta” is actually Taverna del Campo in via del Pellegrino. The family that owns “Bruschetta” is the same that owns Pierluigi in via Monserrato, one of the VIP restaurants in Rome.

“Do you want me to call ahead for something special?” she asked.

I replied without hesitation, “Spaghetti and Meatballs!”

This seems like a stupid request but, you will not find Spaghetti and Meatballs in an Italian restaurant, Italian being a restaurant located in Italy.

“We’ll bring Gianluca,” I advised as Raffaella called ahead.

Gianluca is great, he is typical Roman, 5’8” tall and 3’ wide and strong as an ox. His midnight black hair blended perfectly with his dark brown olive complexion. A good appetite, he is always ready to accompany us at dinner.

By 8:00 pm, chocolates or not, it is time for dinner. Phone calls to get everyone on the same page and Gianluca brings the car around. At 8:30 we arrive in via del Pellegrino. The restaurant is located on the corner with a one-way side street that lead to Corso V. Emanuele which is perfect to park the car. Most of the year there are outside tables surrounded by some plants but we have our own favorite place. The building was constructed sometime in the 1700s so it winds itself around with numerous small rooms, each with 2 or 4 tables. Upon entering the shift manager greets us. Immediately to the left is the open kitchen, very similar to a 1950s diner. The walls are covered with painted ceramic tiles. The stoves and prep tables adjoin the front bar window. You could eat directly at the bar but mostly clients will sit and chat with the cooks while sipping some wine.

From behind the counter Mimmo shouts out a hearty, “Ciao! Ho preparato le Polpette.”

Mimmo is an interesting attraction all by himself. He spent 20 years in Canada as a restaurant general manager and returned to Italy to retire. Gianluca fills a wicker bread basket with the dried peanuts still in the shell located by the bar stools in a wine barrel and starts walking toward the back. All the way around and to the very back of the restaurant there is a small room with two tables for 4 and a small window.

It has now been about 20 hours since I have had anything serious between my teeth. By the time our waiter arrives we have made a mess of the table with the peanut shells. Carlos, a young gentleman from Peru’ who immigrated to Italy to be with his mother, wants to talk about the wine but we are grilling him about how to vacation in Peru’. Finally he decides that we should be drinking Greco di Tufo. It will go well with dinner but before he can get away we have to get the order in for the bruschetta (we are really hungry!) Although there are 15 types of bruschetta, thus our nickname for the place, we always choose the same, Bruschetta Mediterraneo – dices tomatoes, mozzeralla and oregano.

The list however is impressive:

Bruschetta alla contadina (red peppers, capers, onions, basil), Bruschetta olio norma (basil, diced tomatoes, eggplant, ricotta), Bruschetta alla bottarga (bottarga, diced tomatoes), Bruschetta al radicchio (pancetta, onions, radicchio), Bruschetta al Tonno (capers, onions, tuna, olives), Bruschetta alle Sarde (sardines, fennel, pinoli, raisins, diced tomatoes), Bruschetta ai carciofi (artichokes), Bruschetta alla Catalana (crab, lobster, arugula, onions), Bruschetta ai funghi (various mushrooms), Bruschetta ai funghi porcini, Bruschetta mediterraneo (diced tomatoes, mozzarella, oregano), Bruschetta alle vongole (clams), Bruschetta ai gamberi (shrimp).

Carlos tripped off to put in the order for the bruschetta. By the way he looked at us with his head slightly tilted back and trying to keep a chair between us. I think he was concerned that he might be dinner. Usually Carlos would return shortly with the bottle of wine and the glasses but tonight the wine and the bruschetta arrived at the same time. We dig in. The Tuscany bread grilled over the fire gives a good base to bite into. Then right on top of the hot bread goes the sweet ripe Tomatoes, the creamy Mozzarella di Bufala, Olive Oil, salt, pepper, and a bit of oregano. It’s a party of flavors.

Bruschetta can be ordered as dinner. I love it as an appetizer, it’s light so you can have something in your stomach as you start drinking yet, it will not ruin your appetite. We only had one plate between the three of us. The Bruschetta had been summarily devoured and Carlos returned. By this time the look of concern for his personal safety had disappeared. I worked him over for more information about how to vacation in his hometown.

We lighted our cigarettes and sat back content that the evil beast of hunger had been, for the moment, tamed. Carlos indicated that he knew about our upcoming feast therefore needed only to know if we needed something else. Raffaella asked about what was good tonight. Taverna del Campo has a wide assortment of traditional regional cuisine. Carlos listed some of the more popular dishes, Farfalle al radicchio (pasta with radicchio, mascarpone and ham hocks), Orecchiette con broccoletti (pasta with broccoli), Pasta e Fagioli, Bambolotti amatriciana (pancetta, tomato, pepper, chili peppers and cheese), various filet of beef, fried or grilled Calamari and Swordfish steaks.

Raffaella ordered Calamari Fritti. She did not intend to participate in our imminent engorgement. Carlos was off.

I am mostly a comfort food type of guy. I like food that I can sink my teeth into and when I get up from the table I am satisfied, not just not hungry, but seriously satisfied. I do not need all of the spices and the sweets, but I do need something I can bite into. Something that requires my teeth and when it is in the belly you can say, “Oh, thank the heavens, today I have eaten!” None of this contemporary Asian-Italian stuff. Simple flavors, great quality base ingredients, and balance are what I need to come away from the table happy, obviously a good bottle of wine helps.

Carlos returned, pulled the second table in the room next to our table and brought another bottle of wine. In the distance you could here someone singing and soon it was clear that it was Mimmo. Around the corner and into clear view was Mimmo, holding this incredibly huge platter. He placed it on the second table and it took almost three quarters of the table. Spaghetti with meatballs, not just a couple of plates, there must have be 2 pounds of pasta and 24 fist-sized meatballs.

Mimmo was so proud of himself. He was sure that he had prepared a plate that we could not finish. But this was a challenge that two very hungry, very big, men could not walk away from. We politely offered a meatball and some spaghetti to Raffaella but her plate of Calamari had arrived. Niceties aside, it was time to get down to business. Two plates of pasta and 6 meatballs each was the starting bid. Earlier that day, when Raffaella had called Mimmo went to the butcher and bought a 2 pound rump roast, ground with a coarse grind and mixed with sausage, pepper, small bits of pancetta, and salt. Breaded and fried in Olive Oil these meatballs were there, inviting us to dig in.

The first round went fairly quickly and the third bottle of Greco di Tufo arrived. Carlos was somewhat dismayed that we were in for the second round. Another plate of pasta and five meatballs, just in case Raffaella wanted to try them; it would be rude to finish them off without a thought for her. Halfway into this plate, Gianluca starting showing signs of weakness. He had been using the fresh baked bread to sop up the extra sauce and it was filling him up quickly.

By the time I had finished the second plate, Gianluca still had a meatball on his plate. Mimmo arrived, sure that he had finished us off, leaving two meatballs. As he was gloating about this fantastic dinner, Gianluca finished his meatball and quietly, breaking off bits and pieces, I completed another meatball. One remained, and the count was 12 to 11. Gianluca conceded defeat as I finished the final meatball. A couple hours had passed but we had completed our mission. Mimmo, amazed at the feat, brought espresso and Grappa. At this point we really needed a digestive but were content. It took several more hours before we actually left; we usually close the doors with the owners when are at home in a restaurant.

Taverna del Campo, or in our dialect la Bruschetta, has very good regional foods and service is excellent for the price, but the true value is the opportunity to spend an evening with great people, be treated like royalty, and experience Roman lifestyle as a Roman.


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