A Toast to My Italian Self-Worth
My first amatriciana was in a trattoria I happened upon, a local family-style place with maybe ten tables. I was killing time, slowly meandering my way toward Stazione Termini to get back on a plane to LA. It was a Sunday. I was hungry but not very bold. I had just had a month and a half in Tuscany with friends in a farmhouse at Tenuta di Spannocchia, a long-awaited, very-first-time-ever in Italy. It was autumn, 1995. Tenuta di Spannocchia was then a little-known, once-noble land complete with aging barons in residence near Sienna, not far from San Gimignano. The rustic accommodation was far outside a small village, where the local residents were still immersed in old Florentine/Sienese rivalries.
I had planned everything, drove everywhere. Organic meals cooked by capable women in stone galleys, gregges of sheep in the Sienese fields, star-studded black nights in the autumn-gilded Etruscan countryside. Friends arrived to share the rambling, rustic medieval place; single or in pairs they ate, drank, fell in love and moved on.
Weeks were spent rambling through small Tuscan villages. Evenings we shared communal meals in the large stone dining room of our castle base. I was their host, the first to arrive and the last to leave. Tenuta di Spannocchia was an academic study destination for students and professors of archeology – Etruscan specialists come from around the world for a week or more to dig in the surrounding Tuscan fields and villages, looking for clues.
At last, in mid-October I took an overnight in Chiusi to change trains to Rome. I sat alone in this modest trattoria on a side street in the Esquilino. I’d never done this before. Sitting alone in any restaurant would have been hard enough. I had been to Paris, Prague. But a Sunday in Rome just felt different. Autumn 1995 was the centennial year of my grandmother’s birth (though I didn’t know this at the time).
Fresh white tablecloths, wide-paned windows looking out over the street, and a few families already seated. The trattoria was an urban family affair with a natural light that imbued the centuries-old columned room. The white-aproned owner, an ample women in her early 60s, crossed the room to my table. A matriarch auntie? L’amata nonnina? She looked down on the young, solo Italian-American to ask what the poor thing wanted to eat.
Friends arrived to share the rustic, rambling medieval place; single or in pairs they ate, drank, fell in love and moved on.
She recited a few pasta dishes, only one of which I recognized by name. I nodded, ordered the simple pancetta and tomato sauce. But, thinking again, I quickly asked, Could I have it on the rigatoni? A soft frown slowly panned across her face, Say again? You want l’amatriciana with the rigatoni? Me as novice, my voice versus her commanding presence, asking for something instead of taking what was given, like a good granddaughter would.
Years later it’s not an ample auntie in a white apron but a heavy-bellied, heavily tattooed chef holding forth on the floor. I had just arrived in Rome on business. It was very hot, I was hungry and still alone on a Monday night in a real Roman neighborhood I barely knew. I had three restaurant recommendations for dinner and I chose him. A few outside tables were already full. He made me wait at the door. Just another moment longer and I would have bolted. Shown the board, I asked for a quick clarification and then sat down, choosing a table other than the waiter’s suggestion. Water. Wine. The board and the chef reappear.
Allora, what should it be? I countered, Dimmi tu. He eyed me, The carbonara, l’amatriciana or la gricia? A non-tomato (sauce) alternative to the famed Roman plate. He saw I was eager. His sullied apron and tattoos now called the shots. Should we jump right to l’amatriciana, then? Before my nod could even descend he had whisked away the board and that was it… The plate arrived. Perfectly fatty amatriciana on rigatoni giganti. And I was home.
Cent’anni is an old Italian idiom. A toast to friendship and prosperity, a toast to family and history; to the lives of those who came before us and the lives we make one hundred years from now.
Amatriciana, now and has been, my favorite pasta dish since that time I first ate it alone in Rome. Things become your favorite when you have a positive experience from an elder or parental figure (like a substitute for your long-lost grandmother, in my case.) Cento anni, 1895 to 1995.
Cent’anni is an old Italian idiom. A toast to friendship and prosperity, a toast to family and history; to the lives of those who came before us and the lives we make one hundred years from now. The elder zia-auntie-grandmother in 1995 in that Rome trattoria, treating me like a VIP for letting me change the pasta to what I really wanted, in my broken (actually non-existent) Italian, who first gave me ‘the look’ but let me have it on the rigatoni anyway. That became my permission, my mantra. My (Italian) self worth. Whenever anyone asked what my favorite dish was, or what I wanted, I instinctively went for l’amatriciana.
Was it a sort of Italian subconscious? Yes. I was subconsciously raising a glass to myself with each answer. The Italian cent’anni.