I had never been to the American Academy in Rome. I missed the Alice Waters visit in spring and never followed up on the insisting advice of friends, fellows and bloggers to sit down at the AAR table and and enjoy the fruits of its collaborative dining program. I'd been putting off savoring the delightful fares prepared by Executive Chef Mona Talbott and her busy staff of assistants, interns and supporters of the Rome Sustainable Food Project for too long.
So yesterday I broke the spell. I walked through the heavy gates of the Academy's monumental main entrance, and timidly followed my steps as they echoed in the stunning courtyard lined with marble busts and bas reliefs.
Memories of teenhood naturally occupied my mind as I noticed the house next door. A beautiful two-storey townhouse nestled in a corner of the Janiculum Hill, where my mates Claudia and Joana once lived with their parents Celeste Maia and Robert during their stay in Rome. Growing up here, and living in apartment buildings, it's rare to experience a "house" in the middle of the city. Sloped roof, wooden floors, personal handrail on the stairs, children's height measurements etched in a door frame, back door, garden... a house. I loved that house. Most of all I loved the olfactory impact it had on me each time I first walked in: the aromas of Maia's Mozambique/Portuguese fusion cuisine mixed with the adorable smell of oil paint oozing from small metal tubes and unfinished canvases in her studio.
Peeking through the hedge as I neared the Academy's main building, I took a moment to observe the house. Not so big as I remembered it (funny how size and scale invert as you grow up). It's undergone a little renovating, gotten a fresh hand of paint and a lazy gardener has let the surrounding lush forest slack a bit. But it still exercises its fascinating charm on me. I continue straight ahead.
End of digression.
Light drizzle of rain. Warm lighting invades the cold winter from the cozy salone to the right of the main staircase. I catch a glimpse of Mona Talbott tending last minute tweaks to the buffet table laden with trays of spiced and nutty cookies, turning a perfect salver of minuscule fig-newtons clockwise by 2 degrees, brushing a crumb from the white linen tablecloth...
Downstairs, the panel is ready. The room is packed, interns proudly occupy the front rows. Kids high on sugar and beauty, giggle behind door jambs. The room falls silent. Mona Talbott introduces the book BISCOTTI, written and baked a quattro mani–four hands for a magic duo. Fifty recipes. Fifty love letters to the palate. Each memorable little cookie infused with the history and conviviality of la cucina romana, rich Sicilian confectionery art, Chez Panisse, American childhoods, tall glasses of milk, and solid international friendships. All coconut kisses, pistachio morsels and sesame Reginas aside, the best part of the afternoon tea and book presentation, is meeting Mona's co-author, Mirella. A shy and graceful donna del sud.
Sicilian-born Mirella Misenti worked in the Academy's kitchen as dishwasher. As told beautifully in Mona's introduction of BISCOTTI, Mirella was never a professional cook. But like many of us Italians, grew up cooking and baking alongside her mother, nonna, aunts, etc. Possessing the passion, pride, and perfectionism necessary to qualify as pastry chef, she was "promoted" in the field by Mona. Happily wearing a different apron, Mirella began making her native island's biscotti, and not just for fun, or for staff snacks. Mona describes Mirella's Sicilian pastry knowledge and cookie contributions as elegant and inspired. They took their rightful place in the American Academy's daily production.
As I drive back home, the rain has subsided. I smile at the pleasant irony of having bumped into many friends, made new ones and worked out extraordinary coincidental acquaintances and schoolmates from my academic past in a setting like the Rome American Academy.
Signed copy of the book and stash of biscotti tucked in my handbag, I linger on Mona's kind words, "Without Mirella there would be no Rome Sustainable Food Project Biscotti book––she was the key ingredient."
That's why I believe this is not only a committed and socially involved recipe compendium. It's a book about friendship, love, and how a cookie can indeed save your life.
|Image © Annie Schlechter|