Nov 20, 2012

Food Trucks in Rome

I first started hearing of construction site–meets–Hollywood film set roach coaches turned into gourmet gatherings in L.A., by friends and family who raved about top chefs going mobile, and mouthwatering tweets that informed hungry patrons at which corner the best Asian taco truck would park that day. The food truck buzz was too loud to ignore, so taking advantage of my nephew's wedding in Texas this past July, trip that included some quality time in California, I decided to investigate the US food truck scene in the only way possible. Eating my way through it.


First up I hit Dallas, and found an astonishing street food scene. Not all fried green beans and ribs, here I tasted some of the best Korean fusion and tacos north of San Luis Potosì. If the term "kimchee fries" says nothing to you, look up ssahmBBQ.com. Austin showed some pretty nice food on wheels – can't forget the fried chicken, shrimp and avocado coated in an almond, sesame seeds, cornflakes and chili panure – as did Houston, with it's superlative Tex-Mex and sensational food-truck meetups advertised in the lifestyle section of the paper.

Then it was San Francisco, with its illuminated food culture and eating activism. The city's food trucks went beyond fusion and value meals, these put actual white tablecloth restaurant chefs on the expandable/collapsible kitchens for some serious high-end, gourmet mobile eats, like the former organic farming students that run a rotisserie truck that serves 
heritage pork, free-range chicken and local lamb. Awesome! 
At the Monterey weekly farmer's market, the tandoori oven on wheels fed flocking crowds some of the best chicken and chapatti I've had in a long time. Next in line I checked Los Angeles, another epiphany: Reuben sandwich trucks, breakfast food trucks, bacon-with-everything trucks, fried chicken and waffles trucks, BBQ burger trucks, cold stone ice cream trucks, thai-mex trucks, lobster sandwich trucks, sustainable trucks running on vegetable oil, dumpling & samosa trucks... each selling all kinds of awesome grub. 

Every single pop-up wheeled enterprise I tried, offered great food that was cooked well, and cost reasonably little. Each business I ate at had a Facebook page, a Twitter account, QR codes and catering gigs lined up 'til 2014. These people understand the importance of communication, image and hard work: they dish out an average of 300 lunches a day, and besides creating a new food trend, they keep their clientele informed and happy, raise good cash, and most importantly, are bringing people back to dining.

photo © www.cousinsmainelobster.com
I began to feel a little envious. Seriously, why can't we have that here? Can't we replicate this genius phenomenon in Italy too, where food can be good but lacks international variety, the economy is in a down-pointed vortex, and any food fad tagged USA is a sure hit (well, except for Starbucks)?

Does the average Italian Joe that lunches out need to necessarily sit at a table, read his meal off a menu (albeit scribbled on a chalkboard) and perforce use silverware? Is the food truck concept too alien for Italians? Might the idea of a mobile cuisine be scary to the locals, who tend to associate it with the dubiously painted and hygienically–challenged panini-gelato-pizza carts that charge €5 for a bottle of lukewarm mineral water, and that Roman rodents are so fond of? Or can present day Italy, habitual to street food and regular historic invasions by foreign cultures, actually become the next food truck frontier? Mauro Uliassi, a cheerful Michelin-starred chef from Senigallia, is probably the first trying to make it happen, with his mobile food caravan.


photo © dissapore
At Torino's recent Salone del Gusto - Terra Madre world food extravaganza, Uliassi, who wisely focuses his efforts on street food, parked his little "StreetGood" kitchen cart in the middle of Lingotto's Padiglione 2 and sold fried morsels and gourmet sandwiches to the audience. All food coma and festival stupor aside, I think his was one of the best ideas present at the Salone del Gusto. He proved that good, affordable food can be brought to the many, and be available via roving kitchens.

I interviewed a friend and fellow expat foodie living in Rome who dispenses wine pleasures with her Vinoroma wine tasting venture, and that is strongly invested in the Rome food scene. When I asked her opinion on food trucks having a chance in Rome, the response was more than enthusiastic. It sounded like a business pitch. This got my metaphoric glands salivating.

So here I am calling out to you, my fellow expat friends living in Rome, with an idea. I'm looking for partners in a crazy venture. I want to start a Rome food truck movement, in a moment in which Italian food is in dire need of a revolution.

I am speaking to you. You who will sell a limb for a decent burrito. Yes, you right there stubbornly believing Rome will one day deliver a properly toasted bun for that 25% fatty burger you crave. You, with the Asian noodle fetish, and you there, in constant unfulfilled Rome ethnic food lust: if you haven't surrendered, come to me. Let's pool ideas, let's get serious, brainstorm, talk Kickstarter and buy that old Airstream van in the Cinecittà scrap heap. The required start-up capital should be minimal. Let's get this Rome food truck scene moving, and let us "stranieri" give Rome the dream. Starting with fulfilling our own, down in the streets.

foto © allbarnone

Nov 4, 2012

Dinner with Alice Waters

I received and invitation by my darling friend and dining guru Katie Parla a few weeks ago that I could not turn down, simply because it involved good food and the promise of an intimate conversation with Alice Waters.
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

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