Day 74: Vatican City
Okay. I had seriously been considering having the entire day for Vatican City involve going to mass and taking communion. My mother is a “recovering Catholic” and felt a little uncomfortable about the whole thing— even to the point of not wanting to “go to Mass without having confessed my sins first.” But then her friend Paula stepped up to the plate and offered her uniquely qualified services for the day. Paula is a wonderful cook with an Roman background who has spent a great deal of time in Vatican City, so when I heard that she was going to make a “Roman post-Mass lunch” which would even include papal goods from Vatican City itself, I knew we were on to something. And that “something”, in this case, means not offending nearly as many Catholics as I would have, and putting the focus where it should be: on the food.
We’re having lunch at my mom’s house, so GirlfriendBites and I bring our dog Franklin along to play with mom’s dog Beau, and thus create a small, fluffy, white dog overload. Paula is already arrived and has done some serious shopping to put together a gorgeous looking Roman lasagna. “A real, traditional Roman lasagna doesn’t have ricotta,” says Paula. “You’ve got to use a bechamel.” Mom pulls roasted artichokes out of the oven and GFB sets up the Papal artifacts on a small side table for handy picture taking. There’s a painting of The Vatican, a real stamp from the Vatican postal system, crosses, holy water and even a signed blessing from the Pope himself (“the old Pope, not the new one, who we aren’t as crazy about,” says Paula). Altogether pretty impressive. “Can I take some pictures of the garden? Not for the blog, but just for the gallery or something?” asks mom, causing me to roll my eyes as a force of habit. White wine is poured as Mom, my stepdad Jimmy, Paula, GFB and I all sit down for some appetizers while the lasagna is given time to start bubbling in the oven. Paula’s daughter and my younger sister Gabriela are playing with the dogs out back, but aren’t particularly adventurous eaters, so they’ll be missing out on this feast which already smells pretty darn spectacular.
Speck (salt cured pork), a very nice mozzarella di bufala topped with excellent extra virgin olive oil, Italian rolls, grapes, stracchino (a soft, creamy, Italian cow milk cheese), pecorino romano and roasted artichokes are all present at the table and, after consuming literally nothing since the epic China Day, it’s two-thirty in the afternoon and I’m pretty darn excited to eat Italian food. The bread is warmed in the oven, giving a hard, wonderful bite to the outside, and when topped with speck and stracchino (which tastes like a whimsical Italian version of brie) makes it impossible to stop eating. I know there’s more food coming, I know the lasagna is going to be amazing, but man-oh-man this stuff is really hitting the spot. Tender roasted artichokes with mint (both being huge components of Roman cooking), squeezed over with lemon is a simple pleasure. But like a true Italian mother, my mom (who made the artichokes) says “The quality of these artichokes isn’t good enough,” as she shakes her head in disapproval. “The markets in Italy are totally different,” says Paula, as we start comparing the symmetrical, engineered produce from supermarkets in the U.S., versus the oblong and much more flavorful stuff in small markets in Italy. “I mean, just take a look at apples in our markets,” I say. “They’re enormous! It doesn’t make any sense. Since when does one apple need to be an entire meal?” A few minutes later, I’ve managed to eat two big pieces of bread, a ton of meat, cheese and one and a half whole artichokes. Maybe I should have had breakfast after all.
Now it’s time for the main event: lasagna. Paula explains that the fresh spinach lasagna noodles came from one store, the meat from somewhere else, the cheese from another place, the tomatoes are all San Marzano and she’s been working on the bechamel for two days. But how else would you prepare for a good Italian meal? Paula also, continuing to prove how amazing she is, made a meatless version for Jimmy and GFB. Then, like an Italian (and like my mother would), she’s kicking herself for not adding mushrooms to the vegetarian lasagna which Jimmy and GFB have just tried and are already calling their “favorite lasagna ever”. A moment later, an extremely heavy mass of meat, cheese, tomatoes and starch lands in front of me. It’s a thing of absolute beauty and I have to just stare at it for a moment, admiring it in all its glory. When I bring the fork through, I can already tell it’s going to be something special, based entirely on the level of resistance from the lasagna noodles. It’s subtle, but you can tell that they have texture and aren’t just complete mush. “When you use fresh pasta, you don’t want to pre-cook them. They take in the moisture from the sauce.” I bring a bite to my mouth and start to chew. It’s a stunning, flawless lasagna, and I don’t use those words lightly.
I mostly grew up on ricotta based lasagnas as opposed to bechamel based, and must say that the latter is probably superior. Ricotta is a fairly muted cheese, particularly up against some of these strong flavors, and while it does smooth the other flavors out, it also dilutes them. Ricotta is light and fluffy, but it’s also cheese and will weigh a dish down. This lasagna is different. It has all the guilty, unhealthy qualities of any other lasagna (and then some) but the elements are more precise. It’s more refined and, ultimately, tastier. I try a bite of GFB’s vegetarian version, which is really, really good, but I just can’t take myself away from the absurdly tasty meat version. I’m absolutely, positively, gut-bustingly stuffed, but still manage to eat about six more bites until my plate is totally clean. So how good was this lasagna? Let’s just say I’m considering becoming a Roman Catholic.
I take a short break and sit on the couch to work on the massive China post from yesterday as GFB realizes that she has to head home before dessert because she has a meeting at 5. She’s still learning about Italian family culture, so doesn’t realize that if you’re having a two o’clock post-Mass lunch, you most certainly shouldn’t expect to be getting out of there before six thirty or seven. So GFB heads home, I attempt to digest and write at the same time, and then about a half hour later, I’m called back to the dining room for dessert and espresso. I return to the table to find a glass of sambuca (Italian aniseed flavored liqueur) with the requisite three coffee beans floating inside, representing health, happiness and prosperity. We cheers, take a hearty swig, then sit down to our dessert of imported Italian cookies, espresso and a mom specialty: figs, pears, grapes and pomegranate seeds in a bowl of mint, rosé and a little sugar. It’s a refreshing, delightful dessert and the ideal end to a truly great meal. We’ve already made plans to combine our families on Christmas Eve, putting Mom, Paula and me in the kitchen to make a true Italian Christmas dinner and I couldn’t be more excited. As for my decision to miss out on Mass and communion wafers, it was probably a good decision. Plus, the most important thing, as Mom put it, is “having an excuse to eat more Italian food.” Amen to that.
Food Breakdown: Wine, sambuca, espresso, a lot of appetizers, lasagna and dessert.
Distance From My House: 2.4 miles