Welcome back to Italy in 30 Days’ conversation series. This week, our own Adam Platt checks in with Elisia Menduni, restaurant critic for Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and proprietor of her own site on all things culinary Gassetta Gastronomica. Her latest book, on the cooking of Sicily, will be published in Italy this Fall.
Adam Platt: In the New York food world we’re always being buffeted by new trends, but when we think of Italy in general, and Rome in particular, we tend to think the opposite is true. We see Rome as a kind of ancient culinary museum, where everything is slow and ancient and pure, and nothing ever changes. Is this true?
Elisia Menduni: I would say yes it’s still true, although we do have a few new trends these days. As far as the area around the Vatican goes, there’s a new generation of pilgrims, let’s call them the “gourmet pilgrims.” The new Pope is really like a rock star, and he’s attracting people from everywhere, from Spain, from South America, even from China and Japan.
AP: Does this mean that you can finally get a good bowl of ramen in Rome?
EM: Ramen?! No. No. There is no international food to speak of in Rome, although I did have a nice bowl of ramen in Milan the other day. There’s some new trattorias which specialize in a lighter, more seasonal style of cooking than your classic pork and cream heavy carbonaras which are so full of fat they can give you nightmares. There is an innovative new restaurant called Metamorfosi, although the chef isn’t Italian, he’s Colombian. The style is Italian, but there’s a lot of fancy machinery in the kitchen, like all the top chefs have now, and you can find quinoa on the menu and ingredients from places like Japan. We also have these speakeasy bars like you do in New York, and in my opinion the Negronis have never ever been better. Also I’d say that we’re in the middle of a kind of gelato revolution here in Rome.
AP: A gelato revolution? We could use a gelato revolution here in New York.
EM: Well you could call it an artisanal gelato revolution, which maybe you have in New York too. One place I like is called Carapina. They have a store in Florence, but they opened here just a few months ago. The proprietor, Simone Bonini, doesn’t keep the gelato overnight from the day before like most places do. He makes his ice cream fresh every day and uses only fresh fruit, along with wonderful high quality ingredients like chocolates and pistachios. He also makes savory salty ice creams using cheeses like gorganzola and parmesan, which are not designed for walking around and licking in cones. The parm gelato is paired with Serrano ham, and the melting gorgonzola is served in a little cup with nuts and fresh apples. They are really wonderful.
AP: That does sound sort of wonderful, I have to admit. Where can I get the perfect Negroni when I come to Rome?
EM: There are two places, one is called The Jerry Thomas Project, near Chiesa Nuova, named after the famous mixologist in San Francisco, the other one is called Liter. The vermouth is house made, the gins are artisanal from some gin still out in the wilderness, and of course the bitters are made in the kitchen sink. Campari is Campari, but they use lovely fruit juices, oranges from the south, lemons from Sicily. You have these speakeasy places in New York of course.
AP: We possibly have too many of these speakeasy places, I would say. Speaking of food fashion, what about the dreaded Cronut? Has the food mash-up craze arrived in Rome yet?
EM: You can probably find an imitation cronut somewhere in the city, but I don’t really know. In Italy, traditionally, we don’t use very much butter in our pastries like the French do, so compared to Paris, or even New York, to be honest, I think most of the pastry in Rome is quite horrible. There is a chef doing a fried croissant which friends have told me about. It’s crunchy on the outside and stuffed with custard in the middle. Another popular mash-up food is the trappizinno, which is combination of our mini tramezzini sandwiches and pizza. They are stuffed with meatballs and pork and other heavy, fat fillings. They are quite delicious, but like our rich pastas and the famous Roman Carbonara, they can keep you awake at night.
AP: So what’s a better eating town these days, Rome or New York?
EM: Oh you can’t make a comparison between Rome and New York! I love New York. I dream of someday living in New York. Compared to the food scene in New York, all of Rome is like maybe a third of Brooklyn.
AP: A third of Brooklyn? That’s a rash statement. I don’t know if Alice Waters would agree with that statement.
EM: Are you kidding me?! I’m sure she would! I gain 10 kilos whenever I visit New York. I love the Japanese food there. I love everything in New York, even the pizza. Last year, Savuer asked me to do a little pizza tour. I visited 22 places. My favorite place for ambience and the “new style” was Roberta’s, but for basic quality I like Paulie Gee’s in Greenpoint. I went to Franny’s also, but the quality of the tomatoes, and the mozzerella and the pizza dough was not as high as the others.
AP: So is New York pizza actually better than Roman pizza these days?
EM: No! No, No, No! Of course not! The pizza in New York is quite good quality but it’s not as good as here. It’s also different, of course. In New York, all the pizza is Naples style, with the chewy dough, the tomatoes, the mozzarella. Roman pizza is crunchy and thin. It’s not designed for sitting and eating with a knife and fork like your Mayor de Blasio likes to do even when here in Rome. Pizza here is a street food. It’s for snacking while you’re walking around. The crust is more liquid and brittle and the best pizza chefs, like Gabriele Bonci of the great pizzeria near the Vatican called Pizzarium, will use it as a plate. You can top his pizza with just cheese or sprigs of mint. You can have shrimp or oysters or foie gras with caramelized onions. Like most things, these days, our pizzas are quite elaborate, and they can get quite expensive.