It is mid-January, 1984 and I am strolling down Via Condotti trying desperately to decide where Paolo, my business partner, and I should have lunch. In Rome your choices are limitless. A city of this size draws not only local chefs but chefs from across Italy giving one the opportunity to eat just about anything from Michelin-starred special occasion restaurants, glamorous cafes, casual trattorias and small osterias serving simple spaghetti dishes. We decide to pitch our dining guidebooks (Paolo has two favorites) and walk into the maize of side streets just off Via Condotti to see what we could find by chance.
Because this area is filled with luxury shops, many of the restaurants are packed with posh-looking shoppers clutching newly purchased merchandise from Gucci or Prada or any of the myriad of world famous designer shops that line the streets. We fortuitously came upon a small café tucked into a corner at the end of a very narrow alley. No shoppers in sight. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant and I am not sure I could ever find it again, but I do remember the delicious food and the wonderful conversation.
Philosophical discussions were often a part of Paolo’s and my dining experience. They certainly made for a richer, more interesting meal and Paolo’s observations were always important to me. While I dissected the food, he would often dissect the service. He liked professional, friendly service – not the overly friendly – “Hi, I’m Bill and I will be your waiter” kind but the kind where the customer and the waiter respect one another. His take on “the customer is always right” motto, however, was not black and white but nuanced. He felt – and I agree – that there is a point where following that rule gives abusive customers an advantage. “That’s not good either,” he would say. “It builds employee resentment if an owner always comes down on the side of the customer even when a customer is completely unreasonable. And the relationship between the owner and the employee is important to the health of any good restaurant.”
We decided this café got high marks for both food and service. Paolo liked our waiter and I loved my dish. Basically my lunch dish was a version of carpaccio but instead of very thin slices of raw beef fillet, this dish was made with cold thin slices of cooked braised or roasted veal rump, layered with thin slices of fresh tomatoes and zucchini, sprinkled with julienned basil then finally drizzled with olive oil. That particular day I had it for lunch but since then I have served it for a light summer dinner or as a first course. Different vegetables like artichoke – depending on the season – can be used instead of the zucchini and tomatoes.
We decided to have an after-lunch espresso at historic Antico Café Greco back on Via Condotti, No matter how many times I visit Rome, I always find time to enjoy an espresso or cappuccino at Café Greco seeping in the history and splendor of its past (even Casanova had coffee here).
During one of my visits, my artist sister Karen sketched a woman so suited to this café, she almost looked as if they had rented her as a prop. Sneaking looks at her (trying not to stare which was difficult), Karen captured the essence of this exotic and fascinating and rather historic looking woman perfectly. She eventually made the sketch into a lithograph that hangs at the foot of my stairs. I get to say hello to this mysterious creature everyday.
“Where do we eat?” was a question I never had to ask when I traveled to Rome or anywhere else for that matter with Bill Youngclaus. He made the choice and it was inevitably a good one. Bill was a business colleague and friend of my then husband Bob. He and his wife Nancy had lived and traveled in Europe for years. How lucky we were to benefit from their vast experience in not just Rome but cities all over Europe. Nancy became our museum and art guide and Bill our ‘bon vivant” to all things culinary.
During my first trip to Rome in the mid-seventies (actually it was also my first trip to Italy) Bill took us to Andrea, a small club like restaurant just off the Via Veneto on Via Sardegna. Because Bill was so knowledgeable about where to find the best food in Rome (and just about every other place he traveled to) and was somewhat of a linguist (my husband and I were neither), the pressure on him at dinner was intense. “What’s in that dish?” “What did the waiter say?” “What is the best wine?” Is it red or white?” “What should we order?”
Bill remained cool even in the midst of our relentless questioning. However, the beads of perspiration forming on his forehead should have given us a clue that our “inquisition” was causing him extreme stress. At Andrea, he finally decided to shut us all up and order everything for the whole table himself. The meal that followed was perfect.
I have been back almost every time I go to Rome. And always I order that same meal. We began with the Catalan Salad, their signature dish. I had been curious about the glass-lined silver bowls that sat on a table at the entryway of the restaurant. The waiter informed us – that was the Catalan Salad, the restaurant’s salute to Spanish cuisine. He brought one of the bowls to our table along with four shallow empty bowls. We helped ourselves to what was an absolutely delicious combination of lobster, potatoes and tomatoes – somewhere between a salad and a soup. Next came tagliatelle pasta with wild mushrooms in a simple olive oil and herb sauce. I loved the pasta but I could just as easily dined on only the Catalan Salad, lots of bread and of course a great bottle of a white wine. The lobster deserved a great wine. Bill ordered a bottle of Vietti Arneis. Its crisp acidity and elegance was a perfect match.
Fortunately for me, Bill Rice, renowned former food and wine columnist for the Chicago Tribune, also went to this restaurant and actually managed to get the recipe. It was printed in the Chicago Tribune’s magazine section in July of 1989. I have made a few adjustments to the recipe over the years but it essentially remains Bill’s recipe.
Catalan Salad Andrea
4 to 6 servings
1 can chicken broth (14 ½ oz.)
1 bay leaf
½ cup red onion, sliced thinly into half moons
2 cloves garlic
1-teaspoon sweet paprika
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1-pound ripe plum tomatoes
4 frozen lobster tails (total about 12 ounces) defrosted
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
½ teaspoon lemon juice
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
In a non-aluminum pan, combine the broth, bay leaf, sliced onion, garlic cloves, sweet paprika and vinegar. Bring to a boil, then simmer, partially covered for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile peel the potatoes, cut them into coarse chunks and cover with water. Cook until al dente. Remove with a slotted spoon and put them in a heat resistant bowl suitable for serving.
Cut the tomatoes into chunks – similar in size to the potatoes and add them to the bowl with the potatoes. Add the chicken broth mixture and stir to combine.
Place the lobster tails in the potato cooking water and simmer until firm and opaque, about 10 minutes.
Drain the lobster, remove shell and cut lobster meat into chunks. Add to the bowl with the potatoes and tomatoes. Let cool.
In a small bowl, combine mustard, cayenne, black pepper, salt and lemon juice. Stirring constantly, slowly add olive oil. Stir this sauce into mixture in bowl. Scatter basil over all. Wait at least 2 hours to serve. (If practical, do not refrigerate)
Serve at room temperature in flat soup bowls with spoons and lots of bread.
Bill Youngclaus loved food. He loved the whole dining experience. His passion included all aspects of dining – from enjoying the breathtaking view of Rome on the Hassler Hotel’s rooftop restaurant to the hustle and bustle of a trendy neighborhood Trattoria to the elegant food served at one of the posh restaurants off the Via Veneto to even a slice of pizza savored in a small packed pizzeria near Piazza Campo De’ Fiori. He introduced us to it all. He was one cool guy whose infectious enthusiasm and zany sense of humor remain with me to this day.
Since my first trip to Rome with Bill, Nancy and Bob, the tables have turned. I am now (with the exception of my partner Paolo) the recipient of the question “Where do we eat?” As a consequence, I completely understand the “perspiration-producing” pressure that Bill must have felt. Of course I study the latest guidebooks, check into personal recommendations and often consult with my winemaker friends, but frequently I find myself going back to the restaurants Bill took us to back in the seventies – many of which remain favorites of mine to this day.
Another of those restaurants I return to over and over again is Sabatini located in the heart of Trastevere on the west bank of the Tiber river. Known for it hearty, peasant Roman fare, it reminds me of the kind of Italian cooking I was first exposed to in my then-mother-in-law Mary Barocci’s kitchen – years before my first trip to Italy, long before I met my Convito partners and certainly prior to any thought I had of opening an Italian restaurant and food and wine market. Her food was robust and full of flavor like the dishes I have savored over the years at Sabatini and other Italian trattorias like it, the kind usually specializing in cucina rustica – simple hearty dishes that warm the soul as well as the body – just like hers.
Mary was my mother-in-law for some twenty plus years. Though not Italian (she was first generation Croatian but married to a first generation Italian) her cooking skills were perfection itself. At age 21, before her I even married her son Bob, I visited her Milwaukee home and tasted her spaghetti and meatballs and chicken cacciatore over polenta. It was then and there that I was convinced that my favorite food was Italian. Its succulent goodness but elegant simplicity matched my tastes perfectly.
Certainly Mary learned much from the Italian and Croatian women in the Michigan mining community she grew up in but everything she cooked came from deep inside. She was a complicated lady – cooking the delicious peasant dishes of her past yet displaying a refined elegant sophistication in her personal choices. She had as many layers of flavor as the stews she spent hours cooking. Her beef stew, in particular, was rich, hearty and absolutely delicious. She knew the exact right amount of time to brown the meat, the correct portion of tomato paste to add as enrichment, the seasonings that would further enhance the flavor. This skill carried over to everything she cooked. Her pastas and gnocchi were equally wonderful. Mary was simply an instinctual cook.
Much of Roman cuisine is based on the kind of peasant food Mary cooked. And though I never had an oxtail stew in her kitchen like the one I had at Sabatini in Rome, its deep, hearty flavor was reminiscent of hers. The slow cooking which tenderizes the meat and releases layer upon layer of flavor is the key to this dish and was one of Mary’s fundamental techniques
In the recipe below “lesser” cuts of meat –in this case, oxtail – are used and braised until they are tender and warmly delicious. A recommendation for enjoying this stew is to have plenty of crusty bread on hand to soak up the sauce – maybe the best part of the stew.
¼ cup olive oil
4 ½ pounds oxtail cut into 1 ½ – 2 inch pieces*
1 ½ tablespoons salt
1 cup diced onions
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced celery
2 cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon dried marjoram
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
1 cup red wine
2 – 28 ounce cans chopped Italian plum tomatoes
4 cups beef stock
freshly ground pepper to taste
more salt (if needed) to taste
In a heavy bottom saucepot, heat the olive oil. Season the oxtail pieces with salt, browning well on all sides over medium-high heat. Remove and set aside. Add the onions, carrots, celery and garlic to the pan and sauté over medium heat until soft and beginning to brown, approximately 5 minutes. Add the marjoram, parsley and bay leaf and stir into the mixture. Add the meat back to the pan. Deglaze with the wine over high heat, cooking about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes. Bring to a steady simmer. Add the beef stock; bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for approximately 2 ½ hours.
*ask your butcher for the larger, meatier pieces)
Having now opened six restaurants since my culinary journey began, I often look back and think about how it all began. Certainly Mary Barocci’s kitchen was my first Italian influence. Then came Bill Younglaus with his long list of great and varied restaurants always satisfyingly answering the important question “Where do we eat?”.
But the person who had the biggest influence on the kind of restaurant I would eventually open was my original partner, Paolo Volpara. His mother, Wanda Bottino taught me how to cook regional dishes but it was Paolo who escorted me to hundreds of restaurants throughout Italy – restaurants that represented every region, some so fancy they reminded us of French cooking, some small hole-in-the-wall type trattorias serving up casual but amazingly good food. All kinds and types of restaurants. Some I remember vividly. Some long forgotten.
I feel fortunate for the people and experiences that led me to where I am today. Though I enjoyed each and every meal, sometimes in the moment I did not recognize the influence they would eventually have on me. Amazingly, I often find myself resurrecting details from a restaurant I once enjoyed or from a conversation I once had. Sometimes its a particular dish that pops up and influences the way I prepare something for an upcoming menu item or its the memory of a comment that Paolo made like “you can tell the class of a person by how he treats a waiter” (a lesson learned from his father) which continues to influence the way I think about what customer service parameters should be. They all merge together to become the whole of what I am doing today and Rome always seems to stand in the center of those influences.