24 June 2007

A Dinner in Amatrice, Italy with Stefano

Amatrice is a small town in central Italy. It is most well known for its Sugo all'amatriciana pasta sauce. It's also the ancestral home of my friend Stefano.

Stefano lives in Rome where he passes time smoking cigarettes, reading the newspaper, and riding motorcycles (not all three at the same time). If Rome ever had an ambassador worthy of the title, it would be Stefano.

One afternoon, Stefano drove MJ and I out to the mountains to visit the little village of Amatrice and to get dinner at his favorite restaurant in town: Ristorante Roma. At the time, I didn't understand why we needed to drive several hours outside of Rome to visit a restaurant named Ristorante Roma; little did I know then that the experience would prove an evocative illumination of what Italian dining is all about.

Bulging grey clouds hung over the mountain as we made our way in the little Fiat Panda to the hillside diner. The stark white sign bearing the establishment's moniker stood in contrast to the lush evergreen surroundings. We followed Stefano to the door where we were greeted by a short man wearing a sharp white dress shirt.

The first thing I noticed was the picture of the Pope. Now, throughout Italy it is not unlikely to see a photograph of this or that Pope on any given wall in any given establishment. But upon closer inspection, I could make out that this was a picture of JPII and he was standing next to a fellow in an apron in Ristorante Roma itself. I asked Stefano who the man was standing next to il Papa; turns out it was the chef of the restaurant "He has the nickname 'Gamon' because his father likes gambling poker and when he did a good score he said as a jive in English 'come on'... 'come on'. So 'Come on' or 'Gamon' became the son's nickname".

Besides pasta sauce, the other thing Amatrice is known for is producing chefs that go on to work for the Pope. From the look of the picture, I guess il Papa was doing some hiring.

A man came out of the kitchen dressed in a black vest. Without asking what we wanted to eat, he placed a bowl of pasta and an aperitif in front of each of us. Stefano made a toast and joked something to the waiter in Italian... only to find out that the waiter was a distant cousin! This family connection turned into a joyous celebration of pasta and fish and liqueurs made of liquorices and lemon. No menus. The waiters just kept bringing whatever the chef decided to make. And I wasn't complaining.

About forty-five minutes into our meal, the room is invaded by a cacophonous band of octogenarian revelers. Trumpets, tubas, and bass drums blast through the restaurant and there is a lot of commotion and shouting in Italian. The waiters herd the band into a side room where dozens of carafes of Cerveteri Rosso are rolled in. The band plays a raucous blend of what to my ears sounds like a mixture of Italian folk music, om-pah beats, and sea shanty sing-a-longs. Stefano translates for us what they are singing; it is a song describing the joy and pleasure of the local wine. It turns out they are like a roaming glee squad bent on singing and drinking the fruit of the local vines! They sing and play until it becomes difficult to keep a beat and then straggle and stumble out of Ristorante Roma and onto the next diner in town.

This is eating in Italy. This is eating as an event.

I recently talked to Stefano about that trip into the mountains. Turns out that 'Gamon' has since passed away, but his brother 'Little Strawberry' has taken over the duties. I ask how the new chef got his nickname. "Because he looks like a little strawberry!" comes the reply.

All is well in Amatrice.


Geoff said...

I wanted to read your blog because if there's one thing a guy from Idaho knows about....it's potatos! Great blog! Coincidentally I was just talking to my partner about planning a trip to Italy and how I couldn't wait to eat in that country. Again, enjoyed your blog. Thanks!

shep said...

Great Blog...This reminds me of Lapin Agile in Montmartre. Exactly what food should be...an experience and it should be surrounded by everything that makes us human in the form of celebration. The western psyche is apt to see food as just another casual experience.

alyxquinn said...

I'm envious of your experience... I love food, perhaps more than one should, but at 95 lbs., am not physically showing my fondness of it quite yet.

Two summers ago, I joined a student ambassador program and we went on a 'Mediterranean' tour of Europe, including France and Italy. I was so heartbroken to learn that our meals were all planned for us; no ordering in guessed pronunciation, no sampling of worldly cooking... everyone received the same dishes, usually ravioli or spaghetti in Italy.

I'm so jealous of your eating 'event'! Tasteful blog (haha)!