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Amber Paulen


Or an exploration into the Roman bounty.

The sound of the dolorous accordion drifts through my window and I know that those below are enjoying a late lunch. Though he plays mostly for tourists, I can’t deny my enjoyment of his distant melodies. Down below is via Urbana, an ancient via, but aren’t they all? From this height I am able to watch those who are constantly walking by, the tops of their heads distort the whole of their bodies, appearing more wide then tall. I like this street and as I pass through in accumulating frequency, the community stacked above and to both sides, begins to emerge. Even the tourists have their place, though the streets would not be empty without them, they might not be so lively. And myself? I am aware of my temporality, as suitable roommates are not so easy to find, though beautiful apartments are.

Via Urbana could be any street in the center of Rome, so let’s pretend that it is. Studding the buildings on either side of the via are little shops, whose wares range from pricey-clothes to hammers and nails. These shops are locally-owned as they would say in Oakland, but here, what isn’t? Here one can even go further, family-locally-owned since 1011 AD and the scales which weigh a community’s consciousness break their springs, though I will get to that later. Between these little shops are the numerous porticoes whose interiors are in continuous revolution around food. There are the cafes, gelaterias, restaurants, trattorias, ostarias, little cheese and meat shops, panetterieas, fresh pasta shops, macellerias, pasticerias, fruit and vegetable stands, outdoor fruit and vegetable markets, pizzerias, paninotecas, enotecas, birrerias, and then of course, and I mention this with dreaded necessity, the super-market.

The nonna walks in a zig-zag pattern, collecting her ingredients for the days’ meals. On one side of the street she stops for some tomatoes. This is the same green grocer she has patronized for years, she trusts his veggies, as if she had grown them herself. She picks up a bunch of perfectly reddened tomatoes and gives them a sniff. In this way, the nonna is able to discern what dish these tomatoes would best in, what spices will compliment them, who to feed them to. She also purchases a couple alio, a melanzana, and some peperoni. She says her departing “Buongiorno,” and is out the door. The nonna walks across the street. The shop she enters is forgivingly cool and she expels a long breathe; summer is fast approaching and the sun sits like a Caesar on his throne, directing the heat in a penetrating performance, causing refuge to be sought in the cool and in the shade. The man in white stands erect behind the glass display case, he greets the nonna with a, “Salve, Signora.” Like the green grocer, she has established a relationship with this man over the years, they ask about their families and the freshness of the bread. The nonna takes a mozzarella, some prociutto, some parmigiano reggiano and a chunk of salted bread. Her bags are growing taut, but she must cross the street yet again. Yesterday, she finished the pasta and this morning she found herself to be out of eggs. Finally, as the mid-day heat demands, she returns back to her home to cook a lunch of no small proportions.

The nonna is the discerning character, she sniffs out the highest quality, the freshest vegetables, the most locally made cheese. There is only one pasta that she would dare to feed her son and his son both. In Italy one knows what tastes good and what does not; the good is always incredible and the not is just OK. Is it that Italians are difficult to please or simply that they demand the best? Not settling with fruit shipped from Mexico, not daring to enter into their palette white bread, with an ingredient list a mile long. Here food is taken seriously, it is the fulcrum around which this society pivots and it better be good.

In the States, specifically the Bay Area, food has only begun to be reconsidered. Though it is done in a very American way, shoving titles onto bananas, creating categories based on the food an individual chooses to eat. Coming up with terms such as food-justice, raw-foodist, slow-food-movement, organic, locally-owned, fair-trade, grass-fed, pesticide-free, gmo-free and on and on. All of this jargon has been created in defense. It is a raised food-consciousness whose ultimate goal is to return all food to its primal state of being good, where one can trust what is put into ones mouth.

Then, I must ask, what is good? Obviously, what you choose to sustain yourself varies for everyone, but I think there is at least one standard that most can agree on, freshness. The nonna is not going to buy wrinkled tomatoes or even tomatoes grown out of Lazio. Whose saliva does not start to gather at the smell of bread as it is pulled, steaming and hot out of the oven? Who actually enjoys frozen burritos, microwaved at a 7-11? America is a nation of convenience, where time and effort are the altar upon which good food is sacrificed. Packaged food being the antitheses of freshness, packaged food being the child of convenience.

Let’s take, for contrastable effect, the nonna of the average American family, God bless her soul! But wait! She is probably awash and locked up, far from her brood, in one of those asylums of modern society, the old-folks-home. In her wake, we will then secretly squint into the life of the average suburban mom. Her fridge is full on any given day, so thankfully we are spared the burden of following her temerariously through the florescent aisles of her favorite mega-super-market. The mom pulls the suctioned door of her fridge open, the lights shine, the plastic sparkles from every row and shelf, with all the flavors of persuasive advertising. How fantastically her fridge is stocked! She is the American dream! She pulls out some preformed burgers and slaps them in a pan. She takes out a bag of precut lettuce and dumps it into a bowl. She pulls from the cupboard a box of flakes of potatoes and shakes them into a pot, she just adds water. In two minutes dinner is ready, in two minutes more, it has been completely devoured. Seconds, anyone? The children are already sitting in front of their personal TV. God Bless America, just listen, she is humming it under her breath.

Just think of all those poor digestive systems willingly being fucked. Whoever thought that potato flakes equals potatoes? Have you ever read the label that is stuck, almost harassingly, on the back of the box? Stretching the length of the Nile, what poison are you ingesting? Watch as Americans widen their belts and then the belts of their children. Watch as the whole nation becomes slothful and stupid. This is the cancer that is intent on spreading, what are we to do?

In Rome I feel protected. From both the labels that have risen out of the flames of the justice-toting-food-warriors and from the unrelenting labels whose purpose is brazen declaration, partially-hydrogenated, high-fructose, eh. In Italy it all can be forgotten, in Italy all one must do is eat.

Mmmmmm. . . my stomach buzzes.

Yummmm. . . my stomach bellows.

Smells are rising and spinning pirouettes through my open window. They come drifting on the currents of the dolorous accordion, they come from the simmering of delicacies, the preparation of a minor feast. Is it tomato and garlic? Or some roasting red peppers and some grilling eggplant? The nonna is fabricating an elaborate meal, she is humming to herself all the while for she enjoys this task completely. She dips her finger into the sauce of fresh tomatoes and tender garlic and takes a taste. She rips off a piece of the roasting peperoni and puts the tender and fleshy morsel into her mouth. The juices jump from her mouth and splatter onto her apron, “Buonissimo!” she whispers modestly to herself. As she waits, she goes to the window to watch those passing by. Coming down the street is her son, his hand is clasped over his own son’s hand. They have come for a meal. The nonna eagerly greats them at the door.

Grrrr. . . my stomach growls.

I smell the melody of smells. I must satiate the hunger that has grown and flourished during the creation of this piece, through the nonna’s magnificent meal and through all these grand thoughts of food.

“Let’s go out to eat,” Simon says, standing up from his chair, in an immediacy I can not reciprocate.

“OK, but just wait. I am in the middle of this paragraph and I can’t leave without finishing it.” Simon sits back down at his desk and I continue typing this, in a hurry to finish the paragraph. Though, once the idea of going out to eat is entered into my brain, I am assaulted by a myriad of dancing pastas and ambulant pizzas. They cross my mind as a high-flying marching band parade filtering down this small via Urbana, pushing all other occupants rudely out of the way. As it is, all finely strung words are pushed out of my mind. Enough already! “I can’t write anymore. My thoughts have become flooded by food. Let’s go!” Simon stands up in an instant.

The green apartment door closes with a smash behind us. Via Urbana is an echo of silverware hitting plates, of glass clinking with glass, of pans heavily falling to the stove. Simon and I walk side-by-side through the center of the street. The orange lamps reflect off of the cobblestones giving rise to an enchantment whose sole purpose is to perpetuate the existence of that which causes pleasure. The tables which line the via are full and the voices of those sitting are joyful and ebullient as they lift the fork to their mouth and the wine glass to their lips. A stray cackle stretches the length of the street and is then sliced in two by the exaggerated vroom of the motorino.

The darkened sign to the right of the door reads, ‘La Vecchia Roma,’ and if one is not looking for it, there is the possibility of passing the restaurant by. Simon and I enter into the vestibule, a cramped space in which to wait, for this restaurant always seems to be packed and if it is not, I believe they would still make you wait. Though the fullness of an eating establishment is an auspicious sign indeed because those whose silverware sits unused on empty tables, should be avoided like the plague. Only good food survives.

It is the older waiter with the graying and curly hair, his glasses balanced precariously on the ridge of his Roman nose, who tells us it will be a twenty minute wait. “That’s OK,” Simon and I say to each other and content ourselves with watching the already seated eat.

The tables are draped with cloths checked red and white; each one is occupied, by couples and families, tourists and Italians, and those who are eating are doing so with gusto. The walls are a collage of paintings hung at random intervals of a breadth which extends to the ceiling. There are some forged Salvador Dalis, some withered yet inspired acrylic works, some undecipherable watercolors, some cheesy posters and some crooked photographs. Here is a feeling of organized neglect and of synthesized hodgepodge, as if we had stepped our feet into a madman’s living room, whose dearest occupation is the drenching of himself in heightened stimulation. Three waiters navigate through the crowd of chairs and customers, they move quickly and with direction, unless they are stopped to talk.

From the center of the room, the curly-haired waiter calls to Simon and I, just as we were beginning to feel neglected. He points hurriedly to the table that is situated beneath two framed pairs of breasts and we gladly take our seat. In one great sweep we have silverware, glasses, water and a liter of wine. “Should we order some bruschetta (the ch is pronounced as k), some fiori di zucca, some carciofi?" Simon asks me with a smile. “Sure,” I say, pouring wine into our glasses. The waiters pass by with heaps of pastas topped with cheese, the steam rises off them in great clouds. As the plate is placed before the cheerful customer the fork is already lifted and spinning up the noodles, all before the customary, “Grazie,” is even uttered. That must be good pasta, Simon and I watch with hunger.

First arrive the bruschetta. Simon stabs one with his fork and pulls it over to his plate, I do the same. The tomatoes are peerless, the bread perfectly toasted, the olive oil has been drizzled over the entirety in superb moderation. The first bite hits my tongue like a rocket, I could be satisfied with just that one. As I am chewing, the fiori di zucca and carciofi are gracefully placed in the center of the table.

“This is already a lot of food,” I say to Simon. “I am going to be full after the antipasti and have room for nothing else but a limoncello.”

“That’s not true,” he replies and with his fork he stabs a fiori di zucca, breaking the tanned and fried coating with his knife, the flower is revealed and the still hot mozzarella and anchovy temptingly oozes out. “Delicious!” he exclaims, it seems he has lost the conversation.

“But wait, explain what you were going to say before you were interrupted by the zucchini flower.” With my own fork I take a carciofi to my plate and slice it in half then stuff it into my mouth. The tenderness of the artichoke allows it to be tasted in all corners, for it melts with butter-like sweetness.

“Here you may eat as much as you desire, for it seems that tonight we have been blessed with illimitable stomachs for the cause of literary merit. Do you feel any more full then you were when we left the apartment?” I shake my head for a response, though arguably I was hungry when I left and now I am not. “Cheers to the Roman bounty!” Simon says lifting his glass. I meet it with mine, for only a full course meal will prove the truth of his words.

“Ok, then let’s order some mozzarella di bufalo and a plate of mussels.” Which Simon does promptly, lifting his hand and directing his order.

The mozzarella arrives adorned with rughetta. Simon pours olive oil on the big and shiny white ball, then cuts it with a slice down the middle. The milky white liquid squirts out and spreads along the plate, mixing with the excess oil, mingling with the rughetta. I take a bite of the corner first, the slightly harder outer layer gives way to a taste so fine and so fresh, so creamy and so desirable that I almost eat the whole ball myself, though the mussels arrive just in time to stop me. Simon and I both reach for one shell after another, taking some bread to dip greedily into the richly mellow sauce of oil, wine and parsley.

Our table is now littered with empty plates and a mountain of shells, we have cleared away every crumb. We sit back in our chairs to properly observe the extent of our indulgence, sipping some wine as the waiter comes to clear the plates. This waiter is tall and demanding and his steps are able to carry him in four efforts across the whole of the dinning room. His demeanor demands respect and when he returns to take our order I respond without hesitation, “Cacio e pepe, per favore.” Simon orders a carbonara and the waiter turns back with a twist of his heels.

Whether or not I am blessed with an illimitable stomach I find myself amazed at the amount of food I am able to eat. I find myself amazed at the amount of food those around me are able to eat, antipasti, primo, secondo, dolce, cafe. And yet, despite this grand intake, carbohydrates to the max, dairy products in inordinate proportions, it is rare to see an obese Italian. Perhaps they do all have memberships to the gym, but I doubt it. To me it seems that they surpass Americans in quantity consumed, but here is my main idea: quality, freshness, enjoyment! Let’s eat!

All restaurants here are alive with sounds, there is the constant din of the kitchen and the staff, bellicose are their voices and temperaments, while the harmony of the customers is verbosely constant. There is no need for background music. The restaurant is alive and it bellows like any other organism. It is no wonder that the pastas arrive on a gust, descending before each of us like a demure apparition. Simon lifts his fork and I follow with the same, buon appetito!

“How is it?” I ask after I finish my first bite.

“Mmmm. . ,” is his answer.

We eat silently, our eyes dropping to our plates and then back to each other, to our plates and to the activity surrounding us. The cacio e pepe is perfect, the pasta cooked al dente to compliment the simplicity of the pepper and cheese. I clear the plate with no effort, giving me the proof I needed for the existence of the most recent phenomenon known as an illimitable stomach.

Without asking, Simon orders me a grilled fish with a side of spinach and a steak for himself. When the waiter is gone he waits for my argument, though I offer none, but wait for his defense. “I didn’t think you would agree to a second, so I just ordered it. Is that OK?” he adds a bit worried.

“You’re right, I would have said no if you would have asked, but I might as well try for how often am a able to stuff all of this food in without feeling as if I will explode.”

“I knew you would agree,” he says, his face covered in a smile and we both laugh at our luck of this evening. The wine has made me ebullient especially in this atmosphere of a multitude of voices rising, of laughter carousing its way through the elongated dinning room, of those drunk from food and drunk from drink. I begin to talk of topics of no importance, until the two pieces of meat fall down before us. The fish that is set before me is of a whole, its little eye stares at me and I cover it with a napkin to avoid its plaintive stare. I push the tail to the end of the plate, Ok, now I am able to begin. Simon has already began to eat his steak, “Is your fish alright?”

“It tastes good, its only kind of freaky that it still has its head and tail, do you want to try?” and I shove the plate over to his side of the table. I continue to eat, though visibly begin to slow my pace, for although I am not full, I could never keep eating forever.

Finally, the grand finale. I order two tiramisú and two limoncello from the tall waiter whose eyes dart around the room as I speak. He has a million thoughts running through his head, which is maybe why he attempts to take every order as quickly as possible. The service industry in Italy is driven by different forces then in the States. Every day these same three waiters (the above mentioned two and a young woman, perhaps the old man’s daughter) replay the same scene every lunch and every dinner with a siesta in between. Their patience is lost on the tourists and unless you really make an effort, whether a smile or a quick joke, their eyes will always be cast at an angle above you. They really don’t care. Here they are allowed to tell the customers exactly what they think. Instead of holding back and then complaining behind closed doors, they can laugh at you to your face and sometimes they actually do. I find though, that waiters here seem to be enjoying themselves more then in the States, they never appear so stressed, for there is no service industry status quo to attain to and their salary is not dependent on tips. The food speaks for itself. There is no need for an overdose of American over-friendliness and is instead replaced by a natural amiability, dependent on the responsiveness of the patron and of course, the temperament of the server.

The tiramisú is divine. Delicate layers of espresso soaked cakes between layers of mascarpone, more fluffy then heavy, all dusted subtly with chocolate. The limoncello is perfectly chilled and seems to have anise undertones, though that could be the effects of wine persuading me to believe in flavors of imaginary origin. The limoncello clears the path for digestion, it almost brings the body back to a homeostasis after so gallant a meal. It goes down smooth, just a touch of sweetness, just the proper strength. I feel revived when I put down my cup, empty besides for the sticky drops left clinging to the sides.

I feel as if I have completed a great feat, with such a valiant effort, in pure gluttony, though I am perfectly satisfied, no more, no less. Simon calls for the bill, not once, but twice. The tables around us have emptied, though there is a family seated in the corner ordering food and men in tailored Italian suits seated to the rear, receiving theirs. Great plates of fried fish to pass, pastas and pizzas fall willingly to their table, tall bottles of waters stand in the middle as a symbol of good health. They rip off some bread and pass the basket, scoop off some mussels and pass the plate. Laughter rises, they are sharing a meal and are temporarily bound in communion of the spirit. The Italians understand this better then any industrialized and progressive country. They take their food, then take a nap, they take their wine at lunch and go drowsily back to the office, for if they care about a job well done they know that wine plays its part. One must only do what one must, no more, no less.

Italy is still in its prime though the time of the Romans has long since passed. What use is there for gilded ages, histories and definitions? The Italians know, they are submersed in the deep layers of this country and this city. Everything comes full circle. Their enjoyment has been perfected over the centuries. Their sometimes arrogant pride is visible in the streets, in the clothes they wear and by the stature of their step. I feel no shame in singing their praises, for it is their smug airs that contribute to the tastiness of this countries fare. As I said before, they will accept nothing less. So fill up your plate and let your senses spin wildly with delight, there is bounty enough in Rome for all. Mmmmm . . . is that my stomach again?

Rome, Italy
May 2007


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