Friday, 30 September 2016

Return to Rome

The Tiber River from Trastevere, Rome

It was the children's voices drifting up from the courtyard that roused us from sleep that first morning.  A surprisingly gentle awakening.  As the days passed, I came to think their restraint was borne out of a respectful neighbourliness on the part of the parents.  Or maybe we just got lucky.
All front doors, which led straight into the kitchens, faced the courtyard.  Delicious smells of cooking wafted in from those kitchens and the ground floor restaurant at various times of the day. Tiers of washing lines, linked to a pulley system, strung around the yard.  Always, somewhere, washing was hanging out to dry.  Back home in London, I couldn't help thinking, the view of other people's washing would have been regarded by many as an affront.

Lying in bed, the sweet smell of just-baked pastries filtered in through the gaps in the wooden shutters.  The sounds and smells of a community stirring.  I was in Rome.  Not the Rome I had seen two decades ago - the architecture and monuments of Centro Storico, though we did brave the crowds to feast our eyes for a few hours - but living, breathing Rome.  This was Testaccio, a good 30 minute walk from the Piazza Navonne.

Bread Roman style in a Testaccio kitchen

I'm not going to go into detail about this beguiling part of Rome because my friend who lives in Testaccio, Rachel Roddy, wrote a whole book - Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome - centred around la vita del quartiere (the life of the quarter).  Take that as your travel book  and you'll learn more about the area and Roman food than any guidebook will impart.  Here's a taster.

Where to go and what to do?  Let's start at Piazza Testaccio, described by Spotted by Locals as "As Roman as Rome gets".  There is nothing grand about this Piazza, though they do have their newly installed fountain of amphorae finally returned to its original home after being removed some years back.  I love this square because it truly is a meeting place for local people - and for us while we were there - and is at the heart of the community.  Yes, there are signs of gentrification, and also of the recent refugee arrivals, in Testaccio.  All life is here, as they say.

Filippo at his Fruttivendolo stall
on Mercato Testaccio

Just a 5 minute walk away from the Piazza is Mercato di Testaccio   On our visit, every day started with coffee and a little something here.  It's a functional market of neat, self-contained stalls well worth getting to know.  We were lucky to have Rachel as our guide each day but you might find this short video guide useful from the website of knowledgeable Rome-based writer Katie Parla.

Pizzette at Da Artenio
at Mercato Testaccio

As a visitor I particularly liked the stall Da Artenio for Roman 'Lariano' breads and addictive Pizzette con le Patate; Mordi e Vai for traditional Roman dishes like meatballs and oxtail served up in bread rolls; and the fruttivendolo where Filippo's stall is piled high with super-fresh fruit and vegetables, much of it grown on his own land.  Beautiful fine green beans, freshly pulled bulbous fennel, whopping bunches of sweet, juicy grapes and small, fragrant pale green pears were stars of his show last week.

Roman hospitality at Latteria Studio, Rome

Mercato Testaccio is one of the markets used by Latteria Studio for their Market to Table workshops.  Based just across the Tiber river from Testaccio, in Trastevere, this photography studio and kitchen is a beautiful relaxed creative space for artists, cooks, writers and food lovers.  The workshops are a collaboration between food stylist/owner Alice Kiandra Adams, chef Carla Tomasi and writer Rachel Roddy.  They run seasonally and strike me as the perfect introduction to the life of Rome - meet, chat, shop with locals, walk over to the studio/kitchen, cook and eat - what could be better.  I just had time to join in with the 'Market' side of last week's gathering over coffee in the Market before leaving the group to their shopping while I, reluctantly, headed for the airport.

Carla Tomasi's fabulous pasta
at Latteria Studio, Rome

I knew just what a 'Table' the participants were to experience. Having visited Latteria Studio earlier in the week I was given such a warm welcome, along with an exceptional lunch cooked by Carla using produce from her own garden. The Studio has the most wonderful light and props, if that's your thing.  It's an informal space and spending time there feels like being in the kitchen of a good friend.

Peering in - The old Testaccio Slaughterhouse, Rome

Just alongside Mercato di Testaccio, is the old, and to my eye, architecturally impressive, 19th century Testaccio Slaughterhouse.  It covers a huge area and you can still see the sturdy outdoor holding pens, winching gear and cathedral-like slaughter areas.  Some of the buildings have been put to new uses by MACRO Testaccio for cultural and artistic events.  There are plans to do more in this unique historic space which abuts Monte Testaccio (or Monte dei Cocci) - Mount of Shards), the extraordinary hill of broken amphorae which dates back to the Roman Empire.  There is one gate accessing the area but sadly it's currently closed to the public.

Statue at Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini

South of Testaccio on Via Ostiense (106) stands Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini, a former thermal power station which now houses ancient sculpture and artefacts from some of Rome's archaeological excavations.

Mosaic fragment at Musei Capitolini: Centrale Montemartini

Much of the power station's equipment in still in situ and is interesting in its own right as well as providing a dramatic backdrop to the art - Tate Modern eat your heart out!

Beside the Tiber River, Leaving Testaccio

Our walk into the Centro Storic took us through Piazza Navone to the Chiesa San Luigi dei Francesi  and especially for the three stunning Caravaggio paintings in the Contarelli Chapel.  Away from the crowds, we would have loved to visit the Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman Culture) but be aware, it is currently closed for renovation.

What and where to eat lunch and dinner? Pasticceria Barberini, on Testaccio's Via Marmorata, became our regular place for second caffè and cornetto after market.  The bar is constantly busy and they make exquisite cakes to eat in or take away.  Right next door is Salumeria Volpetti packed to the rafters with great cheeses, cured meats, breads, olive oils etc.  I can vouch for the Porchetta which you can buy by the slice.  For lunch, dinner or just an aperativo, offshoot Volpetti Piu is just around the corner.  I understand the style here has recently changed and we happened to go in on the first night when the menu was still limited so I suggest you check reviews as they come out. We did have good natural wines here, excellent Pizza Bianca together with ham and cheeses from Volpetti but I believe they have more ambitious plans.

Salt Cod and potatoes at Litro Monteverde, Rome

Our best meal, other than at Latteria, was at Litro in Monteverde, a climb up from Trastevere (there is another, more central, branch).  We went for both lunch and dinner on our visit to Rome but the quieter lunch service was particularly good.  Delicious bruschette, a dish of salt cod and potatoes brought together with good olive oil, a lasagne of zucchini flowers and anchovies, a plate of Bieta cooked Roman style, a few glasses of Kata- Cantine Olivella and a lovely shot of Amaro were all memorable.  Litro is a staunch supporter of natural wine producers so were a natural choice for me and I wasn't disappointed.  My chef friend, Sam, pointed me in the direction of Litro and I'm so glad he did.  Coincidentally, Hande Leimer walked into Litro while we were having lunch.  As a certified sommelier, a member of the Associazione Italiana Sommelier (AIS) and founder of Vino Roma wine studio, she is a good judge of Italian wines and Litro, it turned out, is a firm favourite with her.

Lasagne of Zucchini flowers and anchovies
at Litro Monteverde, Rome

There were so many places to eat we didn't get to, including Roscioli in Centro Storico, and La Torricella in Testaccio.  It's good to have reasons to return.  Roman dishes to look out for are Moscardini (floured and fried tiny octopuses); Alici Fritti (fried anchovies); Gnocchi or spaghetti all Vongole (with clams); Polpette al Sugo (meatballs in tomato sauce); Lingua con Salsa Verde (tongue in green sauce); Pomodori al Riso (tomatoes stuffed with rice); Pasta e Ceci (pasta with chickpeas); and Affogato al Caffe (gelato drowned in coffee).  Also Torta di Ricotta (ricotta cake, though I doubt you'll find one as fine as this Carla Tomasi version which greeted us at Latteria Studio.

Ricotta Cake by Carla Tomasi

But what about the gelato you ask?  OK, go to Fata Morgana in Trastevere.  It was pretty good but then I can get very good ice cream back home so I confess I wasn't wowed by it.

The old Testaccio Slaughterhouse, Rome

Climbing the stairs on the last evening in our little Testaccio flat we took our time, enjoying the aroma of roasted sweet peppers drifting up from the courtyard and the chatter of neighbours.  We unpegged our now dry towels and pondered how to approach our London neighbours with the idea for a communal clothes line!

Useful guides to Rome:
Katie Parla
Rustica Retro
Spotted by Locals - Rome

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Bao Fitzrovia

Sanbei Octopus
at Bao London

I confess I've never yet joined the queue at Bao's first restaurant on Soho's Lexington Street which opened in April 2015.  Patient I am not, and the fact the queue forms at this 'no bookings' restaurant on the opposite side of the street somehow makes it even less appealing.  I'm sure this is not a peculiarity of their choosing.  Yet I've been eating the addictive Taiwanese steamed buns from the threesome behind Bao - sister and brother Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung and his wife Erchen Chang - for the past couple of years from their Saturday pitch on Netil Market and at the odd private event.  Originally there was their Classic Gua Bao (braised pork, ferments, coriander, and crunchy peanut), then came the Confit (Pork Belly, crispy shallots and spicy hot sauce) both once tasted, never forgotten.  The news of their plans for a second, roomier Bao in nearby Fitzrovia was very welcome to this resolute queue avoider.

OK, the first time I waited 5 minutes, but I was at the head of the queue.  The second time, around 2.15pm, three of us walked straight in.  This is the best kind of 'fast food'.  Service is sweet and efficient, the order is taken quickly and the freshly prepared food arrives soon after.  It's 'eat and go' food without any hint of feeling rushed.  

The menu is a little different depending on which Bao location you choose.  The very first thing I tasted here at the Fitrovia restaurant was Sanbei Octopus.  Juicy tentacles (not always a given with octopus), a luscious plum-like silky sauce with a hit of ginger and Thai basil and little cubes of crunchy beef fat. So good my pencil wrote a two in the box on my second visit like it had a mind of its own.

Cod Black Bao with Tomatoes, Plum Powder
at Bao London

My two visits also covered the Bao Classic, a Lamb with green sauce and soy pickled chilli, and the Cod Black.  The Cod, coated in squid ink and both ng and hot sauces, arrives in a less pillowy bun with a slightly disconcerting greyish tinge imparted by black sesame seed.  It's dramatic and fabulous.    A dish of different coloured Tomatoes showered in Plum Powder made, at this perfect time of year for tomatoes, the best juicy, peppy side dish.

Mapo Aubergine
at Bao London

Of the Chi Shiang Rice Bowls, the Beef Shortrib, Marrow and Eryngii mushroom came with a Soy Cured Egg and a little bowl of beef broth to mix in to your own taste.  The thinly sliced beef was tender, the rice the perfect consistency, all enriched with silky beef marrow, and I loved it.   A bowl of Mapo Aubergine was probably the best treatment of aubergine I've ever come across (a difficult fruit to make interesting, I think, but maybe that's just me) caramelised and silkily-sauced.  The rice here was a little too sticky for my taste but the big flavours of chilli and coriander, both fresh and pounded into a green sauce, made for a very good vegetarian bowlful.  A small bowl of XO Sweetcorn with Beef Butter was a sweet, savoury delight.

Puddings, at this point, come in the form of Milkshakes (sounds like there are plans to add more options).  Ordering a glass of Chocolate and Toasted Rice felt like a step back in time but it was a surprisingly good note to finish on.  I'd also recommend the Hong Yu tea sourced direct from Taiwan and served in tiny traditional tea pots and bowls.

Expect to pay around £18 a head including service for food.  Beer, wine and cocktails are available and fairly priced.  The ground floor room is flooded with light and all the seating is at a horseshoe bar plus a small window-facing section.  Downstairs is windowless and cocoon-like.  You get to see what's going on in the kitchen and there is a sharing table.

I'm sure Bao don't need to keep their little stall on Neil Market E8, but I like the fact they still pitch up there on Saturdays and that they refer to it as as their "Original Bao Bar".

If I am faced with a wait next time I find myself on Fitzrovia's Windmill Street, I suspect I may forget my aversion to queueing.

31 Windmill Street
London W1T 2JN
Mon-Sat 12-3 & 5.30-10