“Cat Got His Tongue?”


Pizza and goats

Supplì al telefono

Nostalgia is never an entirely pleasant sensation, especially when you’re being nostalgic about the present. But this is what happens when you’re leaving a place you’ve lived for long enough to have developed a complex attitude to it. It happened to me in New York City on the eve of my departure: suddenly the rundown storefronts on 10th Avenue began to look otherworldly, poetic, somehow different than they’d looked before. The same is happening now as I stroll through Rome as through a museum exhibit, knowing that in a few weeks it will no longer be home.

I can think of nowhere else people go — except France — for the sole purpose of eating their way through a vacation. There is more art in Italy per square foot than any other place; there are mountains, beaches, an enchanting countryside, medieval castles, ancient stone homes, hilltop townships and historic centers full of fountains and churches and arches that stretch back to Roman times. There are roads that will take you north and south, up to Europe and down to the edge of the Mediterranean. But what makes people really happy is a plate of spaghetti with garlic and oil.

My earliest memories of Rome are, predictably, food-related. They begin when I was seven, slurping grattachecca (a snowball) and chewing coconut slices while hanging around St. Peter’s Square with my family. My father had grown up just down the street. That was when I was introduced to the supreme Roman street food, supplì (or “rice balls” in the parlance of American pizza purveyors), and pizza rossa, which my father could never order in the United States because no one understood why anyone might want pizza without cheese.

At eleven I spent a summer here. Pretty much all I did was eat and read Garfield comics, toting around my Walkman and a handful of cassettes (Bill Hailey springs to mind). I refused to speak Italian, which is surely one of the reasons my parents sent me to Italy in the first place. I was an enigma to my relatives; the only words they could get out of me were the parolacce. I remember stunning people with blasphemy before I could say, “Mi chiamo Marc.” I went home supersized in August, and my family re-branded me “mozzarella.”

Not on pizza

Ten years later there was another spurt of visits with a friend, then with my then- girlfriends. We always followed the same triangular route: Rome, Florence, Venice, Rome. (We once ended up in Greece, but that’s another story). It turns out that all of my cousins did exactly the same thing, year in and year out, a kind of Grand Tour for second-generation Italian-Americans.

I once ordered, to my great embarrassment, pizza with goats. We were sitting in the lovely Piazza della Maddalena, near the Pantheon, and I was showing off a bit. “Vorrei una pizza con capre e alici.” The waiter smirked, catching my error. “I think you mean capperi, capers. Unless you actually want goats.” That’s largely how I learned Italian, through table talk.

But to get back to that supplì, or rice ball, I mentioned earlier. In my book, this is the quintessence of the Roman nosh. A few observations:

    1) It should never cost more than €1.

    2) It should never be larger than your fist.

    3) It should be fried, not baked.

    4) It is not an arancina, which is a similar — but entirely different – rice ball specialty from Sicily. The most delicious supplì are simple, tomato-and-mozzarella-based affairs, though an elegant variation I’ve encountered substitutes squash for tomato.

I suppose I should mention a few things I don’t eat, just to cure the distant reader of envy. My aunt once offered me golden fried mule testicles. How do you turn those down? Tripe is a favorite of many, but might be unfavorably compared to stewed bicycle tire. Lard, or fatback, is up there with pickled pigs’ lips on my list of nausea-inducing delicacies. Add sanguinaccio, or blood sausage. Non-kosher atheist that I am, I still find the Levitican injunction against eating blood insuperable. It’s just sort of gross.

Finally, this is as good a space as any to lament the demise of Rome’s best pizza, which just happened to be kosher. It was not excellent because it was kosher, but because it was unique. The pizzeria was called Zi’ Fenizia, and it was in the Ghetto for years before moving to a lukewarm location near Fontana di Trevi. They served only cheeseless pizza, and their best creations were sopping with tender marinated vegetables, called concia: eggplant, peppers and zucchini.

Everybody I took there raved about it. I was a regular customer until they lost their kosher certification (read: community infighting); then, in the worst-calculated move in pizza history, they began throwing ham and cheese on everything. They called it “giving tourists what they want.” Anyway, they lost heart and the pizza lost its raison d’etre. It was a case of commercial suicide.

And all I could think was, “Do vegetables even need kosher certification?”

– From The American

Happy Darwin Day 2011!

I don’t have a great deal of time this morning – or really any morning – to blog (thus, Twitter). So, to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 202nd birthday and his enduring contribution to modern creationism (anyway something about apes – I can’t be bothered with the details), here is an intelligently designed cartoon depicting the errors of modern evolutionary thought for which Darwin is so deliciously to blame. Via Atheist Cartoons. (I’m sure this will pop up on a thousand other blogs today. Enjoy.)

Mark Twain on New England weather

I’ve been ruffling through my bookshelves, preparing to box up my library (again!) for the impending move. It is at such times that I come across the most interesting passages. The following comes from Mark Twain’s Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales, and I dedicate it to all my New Englander family and friends who have been struggling of late with a snow-shovel.

“If we hadn’t our bewitching autumn foliage, we should still have to credit the weather with one feature which compensates for all its bullying vagaries – the ice storm: when a leafless tree is clothed with ice from the bottom to the top – ice that is as bright and clear as crystal; when every bough and twig is strung with ice-beads, frozen dewdrops, and the whole tree sparkles cold and white, like the Shah of Persia’s diamond plume. Then the wind waves the branches and the sun comes out and turns all those myriads of beads and drops to prisms that glow and burn and flash with all manner of colored fires, which change and change again with inconceivable rapidity from blue to red, from red to green, and green to gold – the tree becomes a spraying fountain, a very explosion of dazzling jewels; and it stands there the acme, the climax, the supremest possibility in art or nature, of bewildering, intoxicating, intolerable magnificence. One cannot make the words too strong.”

Let’s all get smashed on homeopathic heroin

This weekend the 10:23 Challenge will be held across the world. That’s exciting, because any opportunity to poke a little fun at homeopathy is worth taking. I do it all the time, and the effects are strikingly similar to those of a full bottle of 30C Belladonna. Well, they’re a bit stronger really. Typical side effects include snickering.

I’ve been having a little fun myself on Facebook debating homeopathy with friends. It appears everyone knows it’s pretty much just a huge matzoh ball floating in a sea of schmaltz, but I’ve also heard a few voices claiming it still must not be entirely worthless.

Why? Because millions of people believe it works? Because it’s just a placebo dressed up for a dinner party? It’s true, the placebo effect is unpredictable and – ahem – mysterious, but I can’t see how that would give homeopathy any credit. Riding on coattails and all that. It’s the same as people who defend prayer by saying it makes people feel better. So does masturbation. What’s your point?

Perhaps you’re reading this and asking yourself, “What the hell is homeopathy anyway?” It’s not herbal medicine, if that’s what you were thinking. It’s a bit like taking a magic pill any time something ails you. People lie and tell you it does extraordinary things that science can’t detect or explain. And that it takes a while to begin working, and you can’t expect resuts right away. And so on and so forth. Stories. Anecdotes. People say this, people say that. “Malarial-shaped holes.” Bollocks, in short.

Have a nice weekend.