And so it rained.
Throughout our time in Rome we had been waiting for the rain. It was supposed to start the night we arrived, and yet conditions remained dry. Until this morning. But really, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We had a cooking class that was to take up half the day.
We walked across the Tiber into the neighborhood of Trastavere, where things seem far more residential…and maybe a smidge less touristy. The challenge would be finding this place, because Cooking Classes in Rome looked to be run out of a house in the neighborhood on a small side street…at least that’s what I got from the website. In truth the operation is run from a storefront, but inside it feels like a warm home. There are pictures on the walls of cooking classes past and a large dining table in the middle of the main room.
We were welcomed in by an American named Erica…originally a Michigander, which made Lauren happy. The table on this particular day would be full, with fellow cooks in training from Germany, Hungary and the U.S. All said there were ten people, half of whom were named Nicole.
Chef Andrea showed up as we were enjoying some coffee and breakfast pastries around the table. Erica and Andrea are married…Andrea is not American, he’s from Rome and full of amazing insights to Roman cuisine.
He struggled to get in the front door, both arms strapped down with bags and bags of food. Everything we were about to cook had just been picked up from the local market. After a few minutes of introductions we moved into the kitchen, we heard the rundown of what makes Roman food so different and special. Andrea also spent a lot of time stressing the importance of locality and seasonality. For that reason we’d be carving artichokes for one of the courses. If you’ve never carved an artichoke it’s an adventure.
I’m not going to go over every detail of the class…I’m not looking to give away any secrets. But here’s what we made: stuffed Roman style artichokes as the appetizer, home-made bow-tie pasta with a fresh mushroom and sausage sauce for the first course, chicken cacciatora with a side of roasted potatoes with rosemary and sautéed flat beans with cherry tomatoes for the main…and the desert was tiramisu. I ate a lot of the tiramisu.
Here’s what you need to know about the class: it’s very hands-on. Whether butchering chickens (don’t worry you’re not killing chickens) or properly cleaning mushrooms fresh from the earth or making pasta from scratch I picked up a bunch of new skills in the kitchen. The class isn’t going to teach you to be a chef, but it will give you an appreciation for cooking…and maybe inspire you keep learning once you get home. And because of Chef Andrea’s focus on locality, you’ll learn a lot about Roman cuisine and Roman culture.
It’s been said many times on this blog: eating is at the core of travel. We all eat. We all eat differently based on where we are. So if a person is what they eat, a key way to understand them is to eat what they eat. At the very least you’ll get a taste of their culture.
Chef Andrea was very good about “showing” and then letting everyone “do”. I’ve been to a lot of cooking classes that are a whole lot of show without the do…or, even worse, the do without the show.
When we finally sat down to eat it felt like an accomplishment. We were about to consume the spoils of a great victory. The class also offers a wine pairing with each course, Lauren and I opted out because we had a busy afternoon and evening ahead. Everything was delicious…and because we had spent the last few hours with these people it was a very relaxing friendly meal. There were students experiencing travel for the first time, photographers
offering the eye of perspective, a few just visiting Rome for the weekend, some looking for the next step in another land and at least one who was absolutely obsessed with Bon Jovi. All in all it made for great dinner conversation…such that we got carried away and stayed longer than the class actually ran. But in true Italian fashion there was no rush to get anyone out the door…because that’s all part of the experience.
Lauren and I were the first to leave, because we had a laundry list of things to do on our last night in Rome. Before we left though, Erica gave Lauren a list of shops to find some of the great ingredients we used through the day…she also gave us a list of restaurants and at least one tiramisu spot to find.
As we walked out the door the rain was finally letting up…it seemed perfect as we walked through Trastevere on a hunt for some of the spots on the list. Collecting things along the way we worked our way back up to the Pantheon. We stopped by the other night, but it was closed. I really wanted to get inside, since that didn’t happen in my last trip to Rome.
The Pantheon is also important to me as a Washingtonian. So much of our architecture is inspired by this building: The Capitol Building, Museum of Natural History, National Archives, West Wing of the National Gallery of Art and most obviously the Jefferson Memorial. Walking into the Pantheon is the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to appreciating the classical
Romanesque influences around Washington.
Like all the great Roman buildings still intact, or partially intact, the Pantheon is still here because it was turned into a church. Being inside and seeing these Catholic symbols littered about the building I can’t but help to feel sad for what once was. There’s a certain silliness in making this a church, with it’s high unsupported domed roof with an oculus leading to the heavens. This was a temple to all the gods of Rome, putting crosses and portraits of the Virgin Mary inside doesn’t change that.
And that’s why the Pantheon is important…because it’s not a testament to Roman polytheism or to Christianity…but instead to human power and the use of symbols to solidify that power. Making the Pantheon a church was a way for the Church to show it reigned in the absence of Roman power. Taken in that context the Pantheon is very much a living building. On this night it felt a little more alive as the moisture in the atmosphere outside succumbed to the wicked ways of gravity and fell into the building through the oculus. The rain reinforced the idea that the reclamation of forces bigger than all of us combined are never far away. Still though, for about two millennia this was the largest unsupported dome in the world. The Romans knew what they were doing.
We headed back across the Tiber to a shop that Lauren wanted to get back to on Via Cola di Rienzo. I probably would have put up more of a fight but I wanted another shot at that gelato. And so we walked. While we were in the shop the skies opened up and Lauren, with hopes of making things faster, had me wait in line while she went looking for one other item. Our plan was to rendezvous at the gelato shop.
Back outside and without an umbrella I darted from awning to awning hoping to dodge the raindrops. It was not an effective strategy. By the time I made it to the shelter of the gelato shop I was thoroughly soaked and Lauren was MIA. I ordered and paid, she still wasn’t there. So I went outside to look (under the awning of course) and I heard Lauren shouting from down the street. She was soaked.
“I was missing!” she said grabbing her gelato. She had walked out a side entrance of the shop and ended up on a completely different street. We finished the gelato as the rain subsided and then headed back towards Piazza Navona for dinner. We had already made reservations at a restaurant we scouted the night before, and we wrestled with whether we should just break them and try one of the eateries Erica had listed for us. Ultimately proximity was the deciding factor, we were just across the bridge from the place with reservations…and we had done an amazing amount of walking in the last three days. In fact, I kept track. In three days we walked 17 miles.
The dinner was alright, not to the level of what we’d experienced over most of the trip. But I think a lot of that was due to my still being full from our earlier dinner at the cooking school. Still though it was a nice romantic spot to enjoy the last night in Italy with Lauren.
We stopped by the Trevi Fountain on our way back home…seeing as we were in bad moods the last time we were there we didn’t want to jinx any possible return to Rome. And so we returned to throw our coins in again to curry favor with the fates. Even at the late hour the fountain was busy, although nothing like the mobs that are there during the day. It’s touristy, and it’s awesome.
Coins deposited we took our time wandering through the streets of Rome back to our hotel. Again I had fallen in love with this city, with this country. For Lauren this would go down as her favorite trip abroad, and I’m inclined to agree with her. From the canals of Venice to the streets of Florence and Rome there’s something around every corner to stir the heart and inspire the mind. And obviously there is the romantic appeal, the notion that one of the biggest moments of our lives will be forever frozen in time in this country. The next morning we flew home to Washington, where the broad streets seemed out of place. Buildings a few hundred years old now seemed brand new. Meals seemed rushed.
For a moment we had returned to our native landscape seeing it as a foreigner. That is the true mark of an excellent trip.