Food and Drink

Airbnb, the Pantheon, and Gelatti

Three months before the trip, we had not made a single hotel reservation. Despite knowing our exact travel dates since last July, this March rolled around with no accommodations booked. The one thing we had arranged by March, thanks to a suggestion from a friend who had traveled to Europe extensively including multiple trips to Rome, became one of the most moving experiences of the entire two weeks:  the Scavi tour.

Before that life-changing encounter with the bones of St. Peter, which came on Day 2 of the trip, we needed to get through Day 1. Upon landing at 7:30am Roma time (still only 12:30am back home in Texas, which we had left at around 7am Texas time the day before), we had no checked bags, strolling directly off the plane and into an awaiting line of international travelers, but the line to get through the passport check inside the airport still took a good half hour. We had read and watched much of what renowned travel expert Rick Steves had to say about European travel, and his advice had been to wait until landing at the airport to pull Euros out of an ATM. That would supposedly yield a better rate than exchanging money at a bank in the U.S. or at a money changer in Europe. I have no analysis to back up his claim, but I had (and still have) no reason to doubt his wisdom. We dutifully withdrew a couple hundred Euros to get us started, knowing that the drive to the airbnb would cost 55 of them. Credit cards were supposed to be widely accepted at restaurants and shops, and it's best to use them whenever possible, but cash is still necessary - more than we first realized, as we quickly blew through most of that initial 250 Euros.

A driver awaited us, holding a piece of paper with our last name written on it, outside of the customs area at the Roma airport. Older, very Italian, and smoking as soon as we walked outside (cigarette smoke is a big player in Europe, probably more so in Rome and the rest of Italy than in Provence or Barcelona, but definitely everywhere), Massimo spoke practically no English, but our Roman airbnb hostess had arranged it all ahead of time for us, so Massimo knew exactly where to drop us off. I Google Mapped the drive to the apartment, and he took the exact route it laid out. Not that it mattered, since the cost was already set.

After miraculously not hitting anyone or anything on his drive through the exceedingly tight, ancient streets of the historic part of the city, he dropped us at the Pantheon. Literally, directly next to the Pantheon, nothing between us and it. He told us he had just texted with our hostess (as I had attempted to do but received no replies) and she would be there to greet us in a minute. Then we paid him and he drove away.

IMG_20170608_091422So there we were, four people who had been awake for close to 24 hours straight, holding eight carry on pieces, standing next to the Pantheon in Rome. There was no hotel, no lobby, no place to hold our bags until our room was ready, no one to communicate with, since our hostess was not responding to messages through the airbnb app, texts, or phone calls. We did not even know where the apartment was, even though we had its address, since the streets are not usually marked very well and our intended address was nowhere to be found. Adding to the disorientation was the realization that the blue dot on our phone maps representing our location tended to randomly bounce around from block to block, so not only did you not know where you were going, but you also did not know where you were. This should not have been much of an issue standing at the Pantheon or other landmarks and open spaces that are easily located with satellite view on the map app, but it had not yet occurred to me to turn on satellite view (and would continue to prove problematic when walking the narrow alleys surrounded by tall stone structures on each side, which was pretty much the base case scenario in Rome and Venice). Suddenly, the amazing airbnb experience that had allowed us to secure spacious, washing machined, multi-bathroomed, perfectly located places to stay in every city at prices ridiculously lower than cramped hotel rooms and which were long sold out anyway, seemed like not such a great idea after all.

There was only one thing left to try, and it was a long shot due to the fact that it was still only 9am:  find some gelato (or gelatti as the Italians call it), which Rick Steves had assured us was the best in the world (in Italy in general, though more specifically in Florence to the north). Tired of schlepping heavy carry ons, I dropped mine with my family standing up against some ancient-looking stone facade a little ways from the Pantheon and walked up the plaza in front of the 2000-year old temple to the gods and took a side street. There, on the Via dei Pastini (which would prove to be the very street/alley that our apartment was on just a few doors down), was Don Nino, open for business. Having never heard of it, but seeing that the ice cream - sorry, gelatti - in its display case looked perfectly cold and yummy, I went back and retrieved the family. A minute or three of schlepping later, and we were all enjoying either our first shots of Italian espresso or the first of many, many gelattis! Still no word from Natalia, but that no longer mattered quite so much.


Table Talk

Jackie’s idea, via Alice, via Shefaly, who has tagged me. And who am I to refuse such a long and distinguished pedigree as this meme clearly has? My only regret is that I am wholly unqualified to weigh in on a topic for cooks and other lovers of the food experience, but here goes [and the British spellings are the meme’s, not my own :)]:

What’s your favourite table?

The one at my dad’s parents’ old house in Penn Yan, NY. The house itself was over 200 years old at the time (still is, for that matter), which is ANCIENT by US standards. The table seemed older than that, though it was not, and it was long, narrow, old, heavy, polished and knotted pine, set in the kitchen, where everyone just hung out and talked. The energy of the entire large family was centered there, I think – or at least I thought, as a young boy.

What would you have for your last supper?

Are we talking along the lines of “The Last Supper,” with close friends and relations and camaraderie, all while the thick atmosphere of impending betrayal followed by painful sacrificial death lingers on the horizon? Or is the setting a prison cell awaiting execution? Or simply the last meal before departing from family for an extended or permanent leave? In any case, the very nature of a last supper, the knowledge that something was about to occur that would nullify any potential future occurrences of that meal, would result in my caring less about WHAT was for supper than with WHOM it would be shared. And at the risk of leaving out acquaintances, I would broadly say all of my family members in Texas (nothing against those in New England, North Carolina, Arizona, or California) and all of my friends living within 60 miles of me – as for the rest, I don’t think we’d have much to talk about, and it would only take away from my time with the ones who matter most.

What’s your poison?

Vanilla vodka. Which, back in the day, would have been expanded to include all vodkas. That’s why I avoid it without proper supervision and stick to all of the other members of the alcohol family instead. Mountain Dew would run a close second, but I have never lost days of my life and millions of brain cells to its after-effects, so I’m going with vodka. 

Name your three desert island ingredients.

Garlic. Sugar. Butter. I could rule the world, or at least the island, if I had those at my disposal.

What would you put in Room 101?

Strictly foodly-speaking, I would say vegetables. I do go entire days without eating any veggies, as bad for my health as that is claimed to be. I don’t necessarily abhor all of them, but when prioritizing and then allocating my eating time and effort, vegetables never seem to make the cut; there are simply too many other things I’d rather eat.

Which book gets you cooking?

I believe it’s just called Betty Crocker Cookbook, or something similarly generic. I’ve had it forever, just like the one my parents had when I grew up and taught myself to cook as a youngster (I think they thought I’d grow up to be a chef one day with as much time and interest as I put into it). Nothing flashy or gimmicky or “celebrity chef-ish” about it, just yummy basic recipes for everything.

What’s your dream dinner party line-up?

This is a tough one, because I only speak English, and the people who most fascinate me speak languages other than English for the most part. But if we could all magically understand each other, I’d invite Moses, Zoroaster, Siddhartha Gautama, and Jesus of Nazareth, Plato, and Immanuel Kant. I would hope for all of them to clear things up and reconcile their experiences to what Jesus taught, with Plato being there to process it all (since I would be unable to do so, even if they spoke in English) and put it into terms that were universally understandable to people, adding Kant to the mix as the Enlightenment figure most amenable to religion and least likely to shoot the whole thing down without further consideration, as well as the most brilliant of the German and French philosophers (debatable, of course, but one is entitled to one’s own opinion, and this is mine!).

What was your childhood teatime treat?

We don’t have “teatime” in Texas, but we do drink iced tea, which was unheard of in the North when I was a kid. Chocolate chip cookies, preferably homemade, were the best snack treats that I recall.

What was your most memorable meal?

It would have to be a composite of all of the Thanksgiving dinners I’ve had at my parents’ home growing up, along with the ones at both sets of grandparents’ homes in Penn Yan as a little boy. No one memory of a specific meal comes to mind, but I can vividly picture the table settings, the faces, the dishes (always the same, depending on whose house it took place at), the Dallas Cowboy games on tv, the Willie Nelson Christmas album (“Pretty Paper” was the name of it) that my parents always broke out at Thanksgiving… .

What was your biggest food disaster?

It wasn’t much in the way of disasters, but one anniversary when my wife and I were cooking steak and lobster, we lost track of the steak, it caught fire from some fat drippings, smoked up the house, and we had to run the flaming steak over to the kitchen sink to rinse it off. Good times.

What’s the worst meal you’ve ever had?

Never had a “worst” meal.

Who’s your food hero/food villain?

At the risk of sounding too sentimental, the food hero is my dad. Our place was where all of the friends hung out, for one reason and one reason only: they knew they’d get fed, and it’d be delicious. And to this day, no matter whose home the gathering is at, dad’s still the one doing all of the cooking for all of us down to the grandchildren, breakfast lunch dinner and snacks, seemingly enjoying every second of the process.

No such thing as a food villain in my book, as anyone who prepares or provides food for others can’t be all that bad!

Nigella or Delia?

Being in America, and never watching any food channels or shows, I have no idea who either of these people are, apart from reading what others on this meme have written. So no comment.

Vegetarians: genius or madness?

Militant vegetarians are clearly psychopathic, but the peaceful ones who do it for their own reasons (the parallels to religion here are just jumping off of the page) have my respect and admiration – even though I would NEVER, EVER forego eating meat myself, nor hope to understand those that do.

Fast food or fresh food?

Fresh is overrated (I eat vast amounts of frozen and canned food) with the exception of fruit, which must be fresh; give me fast, easy, no-mess food every time.

Who would you most like to cook for?

Anyone who enjoys meals made with eggs, chicken, garlic, or butter.

What would you cook to impress a date?

I think Italian dishes are most impressive to a date, with the vibrant sounds, smells, and colors involved.

Make a wish.

That everyone in the world would stop imposing their wills upon any other person, with or without their permission.

Being the anti-social introverted blogger that I am, I am tagging no one (or everyone) to continue this meme.  But my deepest thanks to Shefaly, who tasked me with what I thought would be a thoroughly unfulfilling rumination on food and what has instead turned out to be a really enjoyable excursion filled with memories of some of the best times of my life - all of which, in some way or another, involved food!