Docent Profile: Maureen Fant

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Eating Out of the Shadows: Touring Roman Cuisine with Maureen Fant

A few months ago we welcomed Maureen Fant into our network of docents. Although trained in classical archaeology, Maureen spends more time in Roman osterias eating artichokes and debating the merits of cacio e pepe than she does excavating. Her guidebook Trattorias of Rome, Florence, and Venice was published by Ecco last year; and next spring Williams and Sonoma will publish her book on Roman cuisine as part of its “Foods of the World” series. These days, in addition to writing about her culinary adventures in Rome for such publications as the New York Times travel section, Maureen leads a pair of Context:Rome food-themed itineraries, including our small-group annotated lunch and a private cooking lecture/lesson. We caught up with Maureen during ferragosto, the monthlong vacation holiday in August when the city empties, and got her thoughts on eating as the Romans do.

CR When did you first come to Rome, and how did you get interested in Roman (and Italian) cuisine?

MF I first came to Rome in 1968 as for an undergraduate semester at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies. My interest in Roman food developed within days of my arrival. The twenty students in the group lived in a building rented from a convent, and the nuns cooked our meals. The food wasn’t exciting, but it did teach us Italian habits. Of course, for excitement we went out and explored Roman restaurants, which were endlessly fascinating and, back then, very reasonably priced for anyone with a few green dollars.

Also, cooking was one of the only extracurricular activities a graduate student in Classics could justify, and so I took an inordinate interest in Italian cooking. A few years later, when Marcella Hazan’s first book came out, I actually began to learn something about it.

CR Why was that so important?

MF Because the success of Classic Italian Cooking marked a turning point in Americans’ awareness of the meaning of Italian food. That book gave a method to what American Italophiles like me had been groping at. Marcella emphasized fine ingredients, simple procedures and not too many flavors competing on the plate at one time. She also shifted the geographic focus northward from Campania, Calabria and Sicily to Emilia-Romagna.

In 1968, after I returned from Rome, I served spaghetti alla carbonara to a middling-sophisticated friend, who later confessed that he had spent most of the evening worrying that I had forgotten the sauce. Like many people in those days, he thought that if the spaghetti wasn’t red, something was missing. Today people worry about whether pancetta is an acceptable substitute for guanciale in carbonara. We’ve come a long way.

CR Tell me about your relationship to Italian food. How would you characterize your palate and taste?

MF Although I’m happy to go to Chinese and Indian restaurants in London and Lebanese in Paris, not to mention delis in New York, in Italy I stopped craving the exotic years ago. I find Italian food completely satisfying in all its many manifestations. I love fancy Italian restaurants — where the chef is a creative genius who still loves his mother’s cooking and knows that if the meal doesn’t satisfy stomach and emotions, it doesn’t matter how many forks it took to eat it. But I also love simple trattorias and discovering new regional and local foods — and there are always new ones to discover. And I love the seasons. I love watching the year march along at Testaccio market—the thrill of the first puntarelle in the fall, the first figs in summer ….

CR With respect to the rest of Italian cuisine (and maybe other continental cuisines) how does Roman cuisine fit in? What makes it unique?

MF Roman cooking has, until very recently, had a bad press both in Italy and abroad. I see two main reasons for this. One is that Rome is not a service-oriented city. The people can be very rude, and waiters can be very brusque. They don’t necessarily mean anything by it, but the behavior can be off-putting. Add that to the often uncharming surroundings, and a general laziness in the kitchen, and customers become unwilling to make the effort to really understand Roman food. The other reason (or maybe it’s all the same reason) is that, well, people don’t understand Roman food. They don’t get it. Rome is known for a few dishes that use innards. Well, every Italian region uses innards. But Rome also has a centuries-long tradition of superb vegetables. Some people might even define heaven as a place where you have so many artichokes you run out of things to do with them. Well, that’s Rome. But the cooking tends to be simple, with not too many ingredients in one dish.

Cacio e pepe has become very fashionable lately, and it’s nothing other than a pasta sauce created directly on the cooked pasta with grated pecorino cheese and crushed black pepper. But let me tell you, it’s not easy to make well, or to find two people who make it exactly the same way.

CR Where do Rome and the Lazio region stack up against the rest of Italy?

MF Most dishes are less labor-intensive than elsewhere. There are fewer difficult techniques. But there are some superb ingredients: olive oil from the Sabina, pecorino romano cheese, mozzarella di bufala (part of southern Lazio is in the official production zone), zucchini, broccoli, puntarelle, and all those artichokes, not to mention the baby lamb.

CR What has been your greatest culinary experience?

MF I can’t choose a single experience. I’ve been very lucky—or better, privileged—to have been able to travel around Italy tasting local foods and the work of creative geniuses as well. Certainly seeing Parmigiano-Reggiano made was a life-changing experience. That may be when I really realized that Italian food is something cosmic before which the correct attitude is one of humility. Then there are those moments when I’ve tasted a food and realized I’ve been eating shadows all my life and have finally met the real thing. That happened with boiled shrimp at a restaurant in Sardinia, with a potato (yes!) in a potato and lobster antipasto in Pesaro, and with peas at Antonello Colonna in Labico, outside Rome.

CR What do you think about the new low-carb craze in the U.S.?

MF Some of my best friends swear by it, and I’m no nutritionist. But I’m suspicious of any regime that eliminates entire categories instead of simply reducing quantities in a balanced diet. Every time I read a diet book, I am struck by how they are aimed at people with truly terrible food habits who seem to require extreme solutions, and I realize how
healthful our Roman diet is (except at Christmas and Easter, when the sweets come fast and heavy, and if you have cornetti at the bar). We eat fresh fruit grown nearby and always in season, salads that give new meaning to “high-fiber,” plenty of legumes (OK, sometimes with pork rinds), tons of leafy vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, not much meat. We should give up the fabulous local whole-wheat bread? We should give up pasta? Forget it. I’ll accept eating less, but not different.

CR What’s the biggest mistake American tourists make when they eat in Italy?

MF Americans are doing quite well in Italian restaurants. They arrive very well informed. Maybe you could say that most people still don’t fully respect the structure of the Italian meal. They know that pasta is a first course, but they don’t grasp that Italians eat one food at a time; they don’t skip back and forth. They don’t start the meal with salad. They don’t, of course, mind if someone asks for a salad as an antipasto, but they would definitely look askance at someone who wanted a side order of salad with their spaghetti, except in the sort of restaurant where obsequiousness is practically listed on the menu. Americans always create chaos by ordering courses out of order, or everybody at the table wants a different course and the same time. Many people try to impose their will on the restaurant, which is understandable, but they miss a great deal by resisting the Italian way.

CR What else don’t we grasp?

MF Fish. Too many Americans don’t like fish that tastes fishy, which Mediterranean fish tends to. On grounds that food is supposed to taste like what it is, Italians regard this as a good thing. This is a major cultural gap. At the other extreme, nonsqueamish Americans nowadays want their fish seared, while Italian fish is usually cooked through, unless it’s marinated. Also Italian diners often like to do their own fish surgery.

CR Your pieces for the New York Times often include a secondary character, your regular restaurant companion Franco. What does he add to your adventures?

MF Franco is essential to my food escapades. In addition to having a healthy appetite (to put it mildly) and enviable metabolism, he is marvelously curious and will eat practically anything. In restaurants he scans the other tables and will challenge the waiter if he sees someone being served something we weren’t offered. He grew up in Rome and is extremely partial to tripe and coda alla vaccinara. And fish heads.

CR What makes a good restaurant, or a good Italian restaurant?

MF After all these years of Italian restaurants, by which I mean, of course, those in Italy, I have no patience with the New York–London model of large, loud, overpriced, full-of-itself, fast-turnover restaurant with waiters who think you are interested in their extracurricular activities.
My ideal restaurant is probably family-run, and run with passion and humility. The best restaurateurs in Italy today come from a strong regional or local tradition—and we haven’t talked about the geographical aspects of Italian cooking—but are far from stuck in a centuries-old rut. They have high-tech kitchens and wine cellars. They travel and study what others are doing. They experiment. And they dream.

CR Can you give an example?

MF I just wrote about a restaurant on the Bay of Naples called Taverna del Capitano, which is a perfect example. The whole family works in this beautiful restaurant way out on the Sorrento peninsula, in a very unglitzy village, nothing like Positano or Capri or Ravello. But they keep refining their work, they keep improving. Even the olives they serve with the aperitivo are local the best you’ve ever tasted. They recently installed a new wine cellar, and it was literally modeled on a dream of the owner. A wine lover who went to sea, the Merchant Marine, Salvatore Caputo, the owner of the restaurant, dreamed of a ship dashed on the rocks with a gaping hole in its side from which wine bottles were spilling out. His new cellar, which is actually above ground, is constructed as an architectural fantasy, the hold of a wrecked ship. You enter through the hole, but it’s all state of the art behind the wood and whimsy. The ideal Italian restaurateur dreams and makes his dreams come true.

CR You mentioned humility.

MF Yes, humility before the fine ingredients, which good restaurateurs consider it part of their job to find. A good Italian chef feels his duty is to show off not his technique but the food. As I said before, food is supposed to taste like what it is. Once, at a wonderful fish restaurant on the Adriatic, I tasted a very serious antipasto of lobster and potato, but what stays in my mind is the potato. I felt as though I’d never tasted the flavor of a potato before. Those are great moments.

CR What about customer relations?

MF When the mechanisms are working right, there is a wonderful collaboration, complicity, between chef or waiter and diner. Your meal becomes the most important event of everybody’s day. The more you ask and comment, the more interest you show, the better it gets, which is why I keep trying to get foreign visitors into the Italian way of thinking about food. When the whole team—chef, waiter, diner—shares a notion of what makes a good meal, it’s magic.

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