“It’s just a pile of rocks and a bunch of dead flowers!” he said kiddingly one very hot, very humid September afternoon as the three of us stood in the middle of the Roman ruins fresh (or maybe not so fresh) off our overnight flight from Chicago. We were too early to check into our hotel room so of course our first destination was to visit the remains of the Roman Forum; the political, religious and commercial center of the Roman Empire.
The Forum was always my first stop in Rome. “Begin at the beginning” I tell whoever I am there with! It is a daunting but exhilarating task visiting the vast array of historical sites in this city. Many deserve multiple viewings. In those that do, especially the Roman ruins, I see something new each time I return and the experience is always enhanced by the person accompanying me.
Though this was probably my 12th trip to Rome, it was my first with my daughter Candace since she had taken over as manager of Convito. So we would view Rome together enjoying not only its incredible history but our own – tasting regional dishes and local wines and wandering through Rome’s beautiful outdoor markets and food emporiums gathering inspiration and ideas for Convito. Our traveling partner and defacto humorist was Rob Warner; Candace’s husband, my son-in-law and this blog’s food photographer. His keen observational skills and sense of humor added immensely to our appreciation of this historic, iconic city.
Rome is not only the capital of the Lazio region but also the capital of Italy. It is one of the oldest cities in Europe and has a history that spans more than two and a half thousand years. The new is always next to the old. Although original structures may have been destroyed there is usually something that remains. Piazza Navona, a piazza built in the 1st century AD on the site of the Stadium of Domitian, is a perfect example of this rich juxtaposition. It combines charming cafes that line its periphery with three historically notable fountains the centerpiece of which is Bernini’s Baroque masterpiece, Fontana del Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers).
It is one of my favorite lunch spots in Rome. Candace, Rob and I came here several times during our stay. Its atmosphere inspires great conversation. One particularly memorable one was with Candace at Café Tre Scalini over a bowl of pasta and a glass of the famous Roman wine, Frascati. Her professional future was the topic.
Upon graduation from the University of Wisconsin (also my alma mater!), Candace pursued a career at an Intercultural Training firm. After three years she began thinking about a new job. At the same time I was looking for a new manager. I needed someone not only capable but trustworthy. Trying to manage four businesses (three Convitos and a French Bistro) as well as the details of an impending divorce was somewhat overwhelming. Hiring Candace seemed the perfect solution. She had worked at Convito for years growing up and now had the benefit of an education and work experience with an international company. So in 1996 after many “arm-twisting-discussions” and several glasses of wine, Candace agreed to assume the role of General Manager.
Now five years into her job – she was comfortable and knowledgeable enough about the operational and numbers aspect of the business to turn her attention to Italy’s regional food, wine and culture. Traveling to Rome seemed the best way to begin. She loved travel. Three years living in England with her family and a junior year abroad studying at the University of Aix-en-Provence, travel had been an integral part of her life. Italy especially was a favorite destination but now as manager of a business specializing in all things Italian, she looked at this country through different eyes.
Growing up with a mother who owned an Italian food and wine market, Candace already knew a lot about Italian food. Only 10 when Convito opened, she had tasted her way through many different pasta sauces, cannelloni and lasagnas enjoying not only the taste but also the Italian pronunciation of each dish. Language came easy to her. She graduated with a major in French and had also taken several courses in Italian during her university years, so she loved letting the music of this language roll off her tongue. Not being much of a linguist myself, I was happy to let her negotiate our way through Rome.
My favorite Convito story about Candace is one that ties Italian food to the Italian language. One of our customers recalls a very sweet encounter with a little girl back when Convito opened its second location. (Candace was probably 12 or 13 at the time and loved to sneak behind the line to help the customers when it was especially busy). The customer asked the staff to recommend a sauce to go with the fresh fettuccine she was about to purchase. As she tells the story, this very young, very pretty little girl popped up from behind the bread case and said, “I would recommend the Pomodoro con Vino”. “I was astounded”, recalls the customer “but charmed at the same time and, of course, I took her recommendation and purchased that very sauce.”
Being away is always the best time to rethink and regroup. We did much of that during our visit to Rome – not only talking about the business and what new ideas we could bring back to both the market and the restaurant but ordering dishes we thought might be ideas for our own menu. Building on our own history in a city that personifies history and talking about change in a city where change was evident on every street corner, was most exhilarating. Candace would eventually add Business Manager and Partner to her Convito credits, but for the moment, we were more concerned with examining what was on the plate in front of us.
It was Pasta alla Checca, a dish we offered in our cold deli case almost since the day we opened – one that was originally developed to be served at room temperature. Using fresh, uncooked tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh basil combined simply with olive oil, salt and pepper, it is the perfect summer dish. This style of pasta can be found all over Italy but it was here – many years before – that I ordered it for the first time. And now I happily ordered it again with Candace.
Pasta alla Checca
Serves 4 – 6
1 # penne cooked al dente*
¾ pound fresh mozzarella cubed (1/2 inch cubes)
6 medium tomatoes, quartered, seeded then cut into julienne strips approximately ¼ inch by 2 inches (about 3 ½ cups)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh basil julienned
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Have all ingredients assembled before cooking the pasta. This is a dish that is usually served room temperature and during the summer months when tomatoes are at their peak.
*I have served this dish with many different cuts of pasta
Matching the precise historical characters with the actual era is always challenging. But since my pre-restaurant background is steeped in all things historical (a history teacher father, graduating with a history major from the University of Wisconsin and teaching history in grades 7 and 8) I continue to try each time I visit.
One such monument whose history is incredibly complex is Castel Sant’ Angelo, a somewhat clunky towering cylindrical building originally commissioned by Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. Through the years it has served as a military fortress, a prison, a castle, a papal apartment and finally as a museum. All those many incarnations didn’t much matter to my good friends and passionate opera lovers, Janet and Paul Alms. To them Castel Sant’Angelo represented the very location where the heroine in the third act of Puccini’s opera Tosca leaps to her death from the Castel’s ramparts. Strolling through this ancient monument with them was a theatrical experience – Paul recalling the dramatic moment of the heroine’s death while Janet described the final heartbreak scene – the tragic story of ultimate betrayal. Appreciative of all its other functions in the historical spectrum of things, it will be impossible in the future to view this landmark without thinking of Janet, Paul….and of course, Puccini.
I asked Janet and Paul to join me in Rome to not only celebrate our long history together (we had been friends since 1968) but also to thank them for their role at Convito. Janet began part time work as our “pasta fresca lady” manning our pasta-extruding machine the very day we opened in 1980. Throughout the years she has assumed many other part time roles both in the market and the restaurant. Paul joined our staff in 2000 (after retiring from the corporate world) to help with various creative endeavors including designing gift baskets, taking care of our summer planting and helping me design the new Convito Café & Market. It was that change – the completion of that project – that we were here to celebrate.
In 2005 the Convito location in Plaza del Lago was unexpectedly condemned (foundation problems – shortly to become our own Roman ruins). Our choices were to either wait for a new building to be built or to look for another location. That is until I came upon the idea to combine our French bistro (located on the other side of the plaza) with Convito Italiano, our Italian trattoria and market. The good fortune of a recently vacated flower shop right next door to Betisé sealed the deal and I decided to merge my two businesses.
In a decision I would come to question more than once given what turned out to be an especially challenging two-year process, I decided to design the new business myself rather than hire a designer. Who knew our needs better than me – and Candace. So we began the arduous task of closing one business, moving and combining it with another business and opening as soon as possible with a modified concept and a newly configured location. Costs and timing were of the utmost importance. Shortly after we began I decided I needed a “partner-in-design”, someone to help me think through aesthetic and placement issues. Of course, Paul was that person – someone who was familiar with all areas of our operation and was exceptionally creative.
Months later – deadlines and contractor meetings long behind us –we found ourselves in Rome concentrating instead on walking the stradas -our only responsibility to make sure we found the perfect café or bar in which to celebrate our success at Convito’s transformation. Over and over again we toasted our completed project – a cappuccino in Piazza del Popolo, an aperitivo at the foot of the Spanish Steps and a glass of wine at just about every lunch and dinner we had during our time in Rome.
We could even congratulate ourselves on opening the new Convito on the exact date Candace and I scheduled it to open. And laugh about our archaic methods of design like cutting out large butcher paper templates of all the grocery shelves and deli cases we planned to move from the old Convito to the new – laying them on the floor to make certain their placement met all the city’s requirements of aisle space and fire codes and a myriad of other codes we did not know existed until we began this project. This “method” is not exactly what they teach you in architecture school but it worked brilliantly and not only did we open on time but did so with an aesthetically beautiful new space. Paul attributes opening on schedule partly to my “yelling” at the contractor and the workmen when they didn’t show up as scheduled. “I wasn’t sure if I should be afraid of you as well”, Paul recalls laughingly “but it did keep me on my toes!”
Betise and Convito Italiano were now joined as Convito Café & Market. In combining a French bistro and an Italian market and restaurant we somewhat altered the mission of both establishments, but at the end of the day we were still offering our customers gourmet food, wines & spirits both in our market and in our café. Our formerly Italian business just had a few more French trimmings.
The three of us enjoyed the whole Roman dining experience. One dish we especially loved was a classic Roman dish called Saltimbocca alla Romana literally translating as “hop-in-the-mouth”. Salty and succulent, it is a combination of veal, sage and prosciutto. We ordered it several different times during this trip and savored every subtle variation.
When I returned from Rome I talked with my chef, Noe Sanchez about making this into a sandwich but using a less expensive cut of meat. He cleverly put together a grilled chicken breast sandwich wrapped in prosciutto while incorporating the sage into an aioli. It is on our lunch menu today.
For 1 sandwich
2 slices prosciutto – thinly sliced
3 fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 – 5 ounce chicken breast
1-tablespoon olive oil
2 slices of crusty load sliced about ½ inch thick
1-tablespoon mayonnaise mixed with 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage and 1 teaspoon lemon juice
On a flat surface, lay the two slices of prosciutto overlapping about ½ inch lengthwise. Sprinkle with chopped sage. Place chicken breast at bottom end of the prosciutto slices and roll up pressing the prosciutto to seal.
Melt the olive oil with the butter in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add the chicken wrapped prosciutto and sauté for approximately 5 to 6 minutes adjusting the heat to brown slightly on both sides. You may have to sauté longer depending on thickness of the breast. It should be thoroughly cooked but not too dry.
Spread the bread slices with the sage mayonnaise. Put the cooked chicken breast on bread and serve.
- I like to brush the bread with olive oil and sauté or grill briefly.
- Options – fresh’s spinach or sliced tomatoes on top of chicken breast.
On my most recent trip to Rome I again heeded my own advice to “Begin at the beginning” – a first stop at the Roman Forum. This time my sister Joan accompanied me. Looking out onto the wide expanse of land filled with broken columns, half buildings, and staircases leading to nowhere, it is impossible not to be moved by Rome’s former splendor. Joan was most certainly one of those people. I can’t remember anyone more enamored of the Roman ruins than her. It was difficult to pull her away – even as rain began to fall and the prospects of finding a taxi back to our hotel diminished. I think I could have left her there overnight resting at the foot of some Corinthian column or maybe under the Arco di Tito (the Triumphal Arch of Titus).
Her background like mine reverberated history but hers followed a different trajectory – city planning. Joan’s many years on the Wichita Kansas City Council often found her trying desperately to save historic buildings or at the forefront of renovation projects bringing neglected areas of the city back to life. City change was very much a part of her vocabulary. She loved the challenge. I can only imagine what this site stimulated in her “city planning brain”.
When I finally pried her away from the ruins, my suspicions were confirmed: there were no taxis to be found. Not only do taxis seem impossible to find when it is raining, but given the fact that it was a Sunday and we found ourselves surrounded by at least two groups of Italian protesters, our hopes of finding a ride back to the hotel were diminishing quickly! Zigzagging our way through narrow streets and alleys (I have absolutely no sense of direction even in a well laid out city yet alone this city whose roads were developed from ancient foot paths), we eventually made our way back to our hotel. I was so fixated on finding our way home, I said little on our trek as we all but raced through the complex maze of Roman streets – none of which I recognized – with Joan following closely behind most likely thinking that she had come to Rome with a crazy person and that I was trying to “ditch” her. Exhausted, we cancelled our restaurant reservation that evening and ate at a pizzeria around the corner from our hotel. After we caught our breath and were into our second glass of wine, we finally had a good laugh about our first and very frenetic day in Rome
Later in the week we returned to an area on Capitoline Hill near the Roman Forum for dinner at a restaurant called Vecchia Roma. At night when you approach , all the ruins including the Colosseum are lit up enveloping you in a glorious ancient landscape. The restaurant is known for its classic dishes. It was here many years before that I tasted my first Amatriciana, Rome’s famous pasta sauce.
Amatriciana is one of my all time favorite pasta dishes and is one of the first sauces my partner Wanda and I developed to sell at Convito. People in Amatrice say the name of the dish originated in that Central Italian town but in Rome chefs claim it has nothing to do with those origins. As with many famous Italian dishes, much controversy over the name continues to this day but no controversy exists over its succulently delicious taste.
Amatriciana’s origins date back to the 18th century. The main ingredients are guanciale (cured pork cheek), tomato and onion. Pancetta is often used instead of guanciale. (Guanciale comes from the cheek of the pig and pancetta from the stomach and is less fatty but both are dry cured). Convito’s version contains bacon since in the early eighties, neither guanciale nor pancetta were readily available in Wilmette. Bacon is smoke cured so our version is a little smokier. Even though it became easier to find pancetta (Convito has been selling it for years) we never changed our recipe. How can you remove bacon from anything?
Amatriciana is typically topped with grated Pecorino Romana – a hard salty sheep’s milk cheese – although Parmigiana Reggiano is frequently substituted.
Bucatini alla Matriciana
Bucatini with Tomato Bacon Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 ounces bacon cut into ½ inch cubes
½ teaspoon chili pepper flakes
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon dried marjoram
¾ cup chopped onion
1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes with juices, broken up by hand
salt to taste
1 pound bucatini
1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese
In a large heavy skillet heat the oil over medium heat. Add the bacon and sauté until crisp about 5 minutes. Add the pepper flakes, black pepper and marjoram and stir briefly. Add the onions and sauté for approximately 5 minutes until soft. Add the tomatoes and cook reducing the heat to low. Cook until the sauce thickens approximately 15 minutes.
In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Mix with the sauce and divide into 4 bowls. Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
To make this recipe richer and creamier, we sometimes add ¼ cup of Mascarpone at the end before we mix it with the pasta and top it with the grated cheese. It becomes Bucatini alla Matriciana Rosa
Through the years I have been fortunate to experience the splendor of Rome with so many different people. They have joined me in what feels like an advanced history class adding their own particular flavor to some of Rome’s most iconic landmarks. I will never visit the Roman ruins again without hearing my son-in-law Rob’s hilarious commentary or see the awestruck and contemplative expression on my sister Joan’s face gazing up at the Roman Forum. Or when I stroll through Castel Sant’Angelo I most certainly will remember the dramatic retelling of the Opera Tosca by good friends Janet and Paul. And, of course whenever I lunch again in Piazza Navona, I will remember the animated face of my daughter Candace at Tre Scalini engaged in a conversation about the future of Convito and her part in it. Those experiences have become a part of my own Roman experience. A part of my Italian journey..