Another all day journey. Oh my aching feet. We marched the route in Rome that a triumphator takes, taking a few stops along the way including seeing ruins of a 3rd century BC temple under the church S. Nicole in Carcere. We also stopped at the Forum Boarium (a cattle market in ancient times) to see the temples of Hercules and Portunus. Then we went into the church S. Maria Comedin (you may know it from Roman Holiday...it's where the Mouth of Truth is) underneath which is the Ara Maxima, an altar where Hercules made a sacrifice. We then walked up the hill along the Circus Maximus toward a museum. But we had a two-hour lunch, so I tried to go to the post office to see if the card that makes my cell phone work was there, and it wasn't (long boring story) so that was an hour wasted, but I had some good pizza on my toward the Montemartini Museum, which was our next stop. The museum was originally a power plant, and they have placed lots of Roman statuary found in and around Rome in the 'machinery' setting, making it a very unique and enjoyable place to visit. I knew that the dinner at the Centro was not something I particularly enjoy, so I decided to splurge. I got dressed up and took myself out to dinner at a place near the Academy. I was there for some time, and the food was inspiring, so I asked for a pen and paper and wrote about it. It's below if you'd like to read it. Warning...it's pretty long.
Antico Arco, 30 Giugno 2004-06
I enter, wearing a light green silk skirt and tank top, black sandals and a small bag in which I carry only cash and credit cards and keys. ‘Tavolo per uno, per favore,’ I ask the woman who greets me wearing a chef jacket and bandana. ‘Just a minute, please,’ she says, letting me know that she knows that I’m an American. I am not deterred, however, and as I am led to my seat, a marroon velvet bench in a peach-colored, candle-lit room, I continue to speak Italian as the waiters, one by one, come to my table. I am given a menu and a wine list that is over 100 pages, and has its own index. I peruse the menu, make some quick decisions, none of them final, and choose a wine. ‘Can I help you, madame,’ – and I ask for a glass of Prosecco and a ‘bottiglia, per favore, Valpolicella Superiore, 2000.’ ‘Yes, one moment,’ is the reply and a darkly tanned waiter with long hair pulled into a long ponytail and startling blue eyes comes with a freshly corked bottle of Prosecco and a V-shaped crystal glass. He smiles at me, pours, and leaves. I have water (Acqua Panna Naturale) and a basket with four different breads and so begins my cena. Another waiter, cuter, with short dark hair and a goatee, approaches and speaks, quickly, in Italian. ‘Lentamente, per favore,’ I say, hoping for a slower version of his ‘waiter’ speech. He says, ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were Italian. You speak English?’ Disappointed, I reply, ‘Si,’ and he tells me he is delivering a fresh tomato gazpacho with a dollop of bufala ricotta cheese, my ‘taste’ to enjoy. The liquid is like biting into a fresh tomato, newly picked from an Italian garden, and the ricotta is smooth and ripe and tangy. I slurp it up using the flat spoon I have been given, and finish my prosecco. The head waiter returns and in English asks if I would like my wine opened now, and I say, ‘Si.’ He opens it, sniffs the cork, deems it worthy of serving, and pours a tiny bit into the large crystal glass he has placed above my knife. I smell earth, and something else that reminds me of the cherries I bought yesterday at the fruit stand on the street and devoured on the beach at Cosa. I pronounce it ‘Very nice,’ and he pours more into my glass. I have a few moments to realize the table, made of dark wood, has slits on each end through which the table runner ‘runs.’ ‘I have to remember this,’ I think, and the head waiter brings my first course. It looks like a rose on my plate, with the shadings that a rose would have, darker on the edges, lighter in the middle, but a rose created out of puff pastry and not red, but shades of beige turning to dark brown. It is wonderfully crispy on the edges, and filled with melted bufala mozzarella, sundried cherry tomatoes, and a light under-coating of what I think is paremesan mixed with basil, faintly dusting the bottom of the cheese. It is garnished with, what I’m told is, ‘a salad typical to Italy.’ I don’t recognize the greens, but they are in three ‘clumps’ with a few ripe-red tomatoes, drizzled just a bit with olive oil and salted. I clear the plate, eager for the next course, realizing I haven’t even touched my wine, so intent was I on the food. I am given a brief rest before receiving my pasta, spaghetti in ‘cacio e pepe’ (cheese and pepper) sauce. The cheese is thick, pungent, and salty, and the back taste of pepper adds a wonderful zest. The pasta, I realize, is topped with the traditional Roman fried zucchini flowers. I taste one for the first time...it reminds me of some fried spinach I had once in New Orleans – light, airy, flavorful, melting on my tongue and teasing me because there are only three of them. This is all I have ordered, and I am disappointed; it’s not enough. I ask for the menu and the head waiter brings me the dessert menu. I pretend to read it, noting the molten chocolate souffle cake, but ask for ‘the other’ menu. He seems surprised, even bordering on shocked, yet pleased. Suddenly he pours my wine for me (for the first time, I note), dims the lights, and settles in as I have already done. I order grilled duck breast in a raspberry glaze and wait anxiously, impatiently, for its arrival. I comes coated, drenched in the ripe, rich, raspberry sauce, the perfectly cooked duck breast, medium rare yet with that crispy grilled duck-fat edge that I so enjoy. The contorno is a sort of zucchini egg-roll that I can do without, but the plate is also garnished with three single raspberries resting atop a leaf each of Italian parsley. I stop, for a moment, to wonder if this is what Heaven is, as I listen to the strange techno-jazz music coming from the speaker to my right. The waiter who thought I was Italian sees me writing and boosts the lights. He looks at me, beseeching me to compliment the food, which of course, I praise with gusto. At this moment there are two bites of duck remaining and I am hesitant to eat them, knowing they are my last. The owner (?) comes in to see how my dinner has been. I praise it further and he points to the room around me, empty since a single older gentlemen left 45 minutes ago. He says, ‘It’s all yours, for about 10 more minutes,’ indicating that the Italian dinner hour is arriving soon. I must look worried, for he adds, ‘Take your time, madame, mangiata, enjoy...’ I relax, thinking, ‘They have underestimated me.’ I peruse the list of desserts and, since I seem to be indulging, choose the ‘molten chocolate souffle cake,’ which I had noted earlier. When I order, the waiter nods as if he knew that is what I was going to get. Then he pours me some more wine from the dwindling Valpolicella. Suddenly I am terrorized, briefly, by a thought: tonight I am undoing all the uphill walking I have been doing for almost two weeks! But the thought is brief, because I clearly don’t care so much, and so I return once again to the bliss that has been this evening’s meal. The room is now full and my peace has been infringed upon. I continue to sip the last of my wine and wait for ‘la dolce.’ It has arrived: a mound of chocolate, dusted with powdered sugar, seated within a diamond of chocolate sauce on a square plate. I take a forkful and the chocolate lava oozes out. Then I hear, ‘A little gift for you, madame’ from the waiter who thought I was Italian...two vanilla and two chocolate biscotti. I order a ‘digestiv’ from the owner, and think ‘God, I love it here.’