New Series Alert: Baba's Eat Ali
Your guide to eating like a Roman
Welcome to this new chapter of Food Republic!
Let me introduce myself briefly.
I take pictures for a living. Mostly movie stills and portraits. I love movies. I also love to shoot what I see around me when I travel, or when I eat. In fact, I love eating. I love food. I love to cook. A lot. I’m pretty good at it, too!
I am no avant-garde chef but luckily I live in Rome, where I get easy access to the freshest ingredients and the ancient wisdom of combining them in the most simple and effective way to create what is known as “Italian cuisine.” I always wanted to blend my passions into a single creation and to share them with everybody else. I also thought it would be nice to pass on some of the traditional knowledge I come across in the wonderful and weird country I live in, straight from the source.
By the way, people call me Ali Baba. Or more simply, Baba. Like the fat brood-hen from the movie Chicken Run. Hence, Baba’s Italy. Baba’s Eat Ali. Got it? Alright.
I am NOT Italian though. I’m Swiss, from a small provincial town known for an international film festival. I moved to Rome about 20 years ago to work in the movie industry. This gives me enough passion to be true in what I do and at the same time enough detachment to keep me from taking sides, as opposed to what all good Italians love to do: turn everything into politics.
I would like to take you through different food areas and give you a bit of background on the origins of their recipes, maybe tell you some stories and from time to time, tell you about places I eat at and cooks that I meet.
I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy making it.
Ready? Let’s go!
#01-Traditional Roman first courses
Cooking Italian is pretty simple. It’s based on a few seasonal ingredients and therefore varies enormously from region to region. To me it’s all about the freshness of the ingredients and the simplicity of the preparations, which doesn’t mean there aren’t complex textures, flavours and preparations in Italian cuisine, it just means… there’s no nonsense in it!
Here’s why I say this: a while ago I was looking at a YouTube video in which two thirty-something bored wives from somewhere in the Midwest were explaining how to make next year’s tomato sauce, presenting it as some sort of bible of downright organic Italian cooking. So, between countless afternoon gin and tonics (don’t get me wrong, I love drinking and cooking, but this was plain old spring break getting drunk…), they proceeded to fill a huge pot with virtually everything they found around them. Different kinds of tomatoes (anything goes), garlic AND onion (pure blasphemy), coloured peppers and other vegetables (please?!), hot peppers AND paprika (Italian what???), and what not. By the end of the video they were so drunk they could barely speak, but were still able to put the cherry on the cake by putting all this mess through a blender! ARGH!
I don’t want to get into the perfect tomato sauce right now (it will surely come) but that’s what I call pure nonsense. It’s like shrimps on pizza. Like grated parmesan on seafood pasta. Like meatball spaghetti. Or like fettuccine Alfredo with cream!!! I mean, you can cook anything you want, just don’t call it Italian.
I realize I might sound pretentious here but I don’t care, really. I know what I’m talking about. Italy IS pretentious anyway, in everything it does. Why shouldn’t it be? It’s got the best of everything, and for the longest time! If you wish to eat Italian like the Italians do, and maybe learn something about italy in the process, you will follow me here.
Related: Photo Gallery: Baba Eat Ali First Courses (for larger versions of the photos below—some may call it food porn—please visit this gallery or click on the images to enlarge)
For this first trial the recipes start from one main ingredient which is GUANCIALE, a sort of bacon made from pig's cheeks or jowls, which gives a very distinct flavor to the preparation.
First off, some good old TAGLIOLINI CACIO E PEPE, maybe the most typical and simple of all Roman pastas. Its ingredients are Roman pecorino (salty and strong), freshly ground black pepper, pasta cooking water and fresh tagliolini (thick spaghetti made with eggs).
Here comes another roman staple, RIGATONI ALLA GRICIA. It's made with guanciale, Roman pecorino and black pepper. Although the original recipe doesn't include them (and many people would have me hanging from a tree for this) I like to add some onion to the guanciale for the preparation, as you can see.
The "gricia" is the forefather of the more worldly famous "Amatriciana" and there are various versions of its history. Some say it comes from "Grisciano," a town close to Amatrice (where the Amatriciana comes from...) bordering the regions of Lazio, Umbria, Abbruzzo and Marche. Others are convinced that it was concocted by some Swiss immigrants that lived in that same area and came originally from the alpine canton of "Grigioni" ("Grischuna" in its original language), where they had used bacon for centuries and in almost every recipe. Being Swiss and somewhat of a patriot myself, I like this version better and for all I know the name of the town Grisciano might very well have the same origin as the recipe... but anyway, here it is in all its tasty simplicity and grandeur.
This was before the Americas were discovered by Europeans. When Columbus started bringing back tomatoes from the colonies across the sea some bored farmer up in Amatrice decided it was time to invent "fusion cuisine." He had these tomatoes on the table that were about to rot and didn't really know what to do with them so he just threw them in the gricia pan and let them melt into a sauce. His wife had just made some fresh bucatini so they mixed everything up and the BUCATINI ALL'AMATRICIANA were born. Check them out. Again for this recipe onions are not contemplated but I like to add them to the frying mix before I add the tomatoes.
(Ed. note: Marc Vetri has a pretty bad-ass recipe for his version of this dish, which he graciously shared on Food Republic.)
One dish that was always very popular in Rome and found enthusiasts even among the ecclesiasts is SPAGHETTI ALLA CARBONARA. Now this is interesting because this is a very poor dish that the "carbonari" (the "coal burners," literally, but a large group of revolutionaries active in the 1800s went by the same name) used to make at lunchtime. They would bring ingredients from the country, carrying them in their pouches or pockets: eggs, pecorino and of course our beloved guanciale, all mixed up on the spot in a pan with some pasta. This recipe ended up on the cardinals' plates daily at the Vatican's osteria! It is a very rich meal; keep in mind that at that time it was created, poor people used to have just one meal a day and it had to sustain them for their hard work. Church people instead ate whenever they liked, so it comes as no surprise that the images of these holy men usually show well-nourished, fat bellies underneath all their godly vestments.
As I mentioned before, one cardinal eventually got sick and tired of the same old carbonara (I have the feeling that this guy was a snob and didn't care much for peasant food like pecorino and guanciale, but that's just my opinion) and promptly ordered the vatican's chef to concoct something more worthy of his dignified palate. The chef gathered some reggiano parmesan (sweet as honey if compared to the Roman pecorino), some prosciutto di parma (same as above as opposed to the guanciale), a chopped onion, a couple of eggs, some butter and a bit of cream to keep the cholesterol level high and there he went — the FETTUCCINE ALLA PAPALINA was born!
That cardinal was Edoardo Pacelli (one of his grandsons became famous recently for two very admirable achievements: winning Big Brother's Italian edition and reaching an I.Q. of -27) and shortly after the invention of this insane dish he became Pope Pius XII (Papa Pio XII). So they decided to call this fat-infused first course FETTUCCINE ALLA PAPALINA, fettuccine pope-style. You won't find it in any Roman restaurants, possibly because Pope Pius XII became infamous for being an ally of Nazi Germany during WWII or maybe because, despite the intentions of the chef to make a more angelic dish, it is far too heavy to be commercialized. I tried it anyway just to give you (and myself...) a taste from the past. Even though I did use soy cream to make it lighter, I can confirm it: it's heavy stuff.
That's all for now. Come back soon for more of Baba's Eat Ali.