The founder and mastermind behind the Berkeley cradle of food revolution Chez Panisse Restaurant, activist of the locavore movement that has been shifting food education and eating habits across the nation, and ultimately the Rome Sustainable Food Project, was coming to Rome for a benefit hosted by the very American Academy Rome kitchen miracle she performed 6 years ago, and I was going to be a part of it.
The American Academy Rome and Alice Waters appointed executive chef Mona Talbott, sous chef Chris Boswell, and a varied team of cooks and interns, to provide tasty and healthy meals for the Academy's fellows and scholars using fresh, organic, regional and seasonal produce and herbs grown for the kitchen on the Academy property. Before this, the Academy's food was historically a nightmare. After 5 years since the birth of RSFP, Mona decided to return to New York, leaving Chris Boswell in charge of the well-oiled kitchen. One of the reasons I support the RSFP by signing up as a Friend of the Academy (an annual donation of €75) was so that I could attend the many events hosted here, but mostly to enjoy the labor of love of Mona, Chris, Mirella and the rest of the kitchen staff on those weekdays when Friends (and friends of Friends, up to 10!) can come eat a buffet lunch composed of garden produce cooked with love for only a handful of Euros.
Back to the dinner. So here I am, climbing the Janiculum Hill under a full moon, and entering the candle-lined path of Villa Aurelia, a sage-smelling trail that will ultimately lead me to being in the same room with one of the women that mostly influenced my way of foraging, cooking and providing healthy meals for my child. My heart is fluttering, and it's not because of the uphill workout. Well, that too.
Cocktails are served in a beautiful frescoed room of the second floor, lit by ginormous chandeliers, soft notes waft from a grand piano and I immediately spot Ms Waters chatting with another guest. While I sip on a very good drink made with whiskey, ginger ale and rosemary, I glance over to the table that's been set for us in the main dining room.
Ok, not as intimate as we had expected, but still, breathtaking. Candles flicker and fruits from the AAR garden adorn the table, place cards are hand drawn, picturing seasonal veggies. Almost too perfect.
The bread baskets overflow with Roscioli buns, wines are poured generously and the meal is nourishing, prepared by no other than Mona Talbott, who has come back to the AAR just for this occasion, what a lovely surprise to see her there! Pictured below is the evening's menu.
The seating arrangement is decided on a draw, I happen 2 seats from the guest of honor and next to me is a lovely young lady named Luisa, who works as photo editor for the NY Times and is now living in Rome with her husband, a graphic design fellow at the Academy and their 4 year-old son. To my other side sits Vikki of In Rome Now, a helpful online resource I often use. Small world.
Between courses, Alice Waters addresses the guests and speaks enthusiastically of Italy and its food education, habits and values. Her soft-spoken, slight Southern drawl clashes with the iron principles she so stubbornly stands for, but I guess that makes sense. She has only words of praise for Italy, the Slow Food movement founded by Carlo Petrini, and all the wonderful options we are given here.
Except, I'd like to say something, but I don't dare. I'd like to whisper that it's not really a bed of roses, that way too many supermarkets and bad eating habits are common here too, not only overseas. I'd like to say that the image of this dolce vita lifestyle, with nonna's recycling of leftovers and solid morality in the grocery shopping list is sadly not happening.
The average family does not have all that much choice. Sadly there is no chance to forage wisely, no trace of the community gardens Alemanno promised Waters during her last visit 2 years ago... nor of the edible schoolyards purportedly commissioned in every public school of the city. Niente. I'd like to say it out loud that it's still brutally expensive to shop at the farmers markets and Italian CSA equivalents because mass distribution is killing us... I should say something (bites nails)...
But I don't. I remain silent because I'm hopeful. Maybe the revolution brought in the kitchen of the American Academy will spread like a sweet virus, and all discount supermarkets, antibiotic-spiked animals, dioxin-rich mozzarella and Monsanto will magically disappear in a cloud of vapor. I see Katie squirming in her seat, I'm sure she feels the same conflict. I take another sip of Sagrantino di Montefalco and let Alice Waters finish her speech without interruptions.
Vervain tea and biscotti are served in the inner sanctum: the library of Villa Aurelia. I loved the Nuciata c'addauru, a Sicilian candy bar that's like a walnut brittle made with honey and spices, but pressed between two bay leaves, which are eaten whole. I'm trying to capture the awesome lingering flavor combo (while dislodging laurel bits from my teeth) when a gentle and prosperous Cecilia Tessieri takes the floor. In a charming broken English she poetically tells us about Amedei and her family's artisan craft in Pontedera... and the chocolate tasting trays are passed around. Yes, and Im in heaven.
Outside the library window is a terrace, and beyond that terrace, Rome blinks her million lights, proffering her black velvet décolletage. Spectacular, I feel so thankful to be here.
With far too many assorted alcoholic drinks in me and blood sugar three times over the decency level, I skip down the sage path and say my farewells.
I'm half way home when I realize I didn't say goodbye to Alice Waters.
All grainy iPhone photos taken by me, save for the opening portrait, courtesy of Chez Panisse