Prior to becoming Pope Francis, Jorge Bergoglio was Cardinal and Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he spent almost his entire career overseeing churches and “shoe leather priests” … those who hear in their heart and do what they hear.

Having been to Argentina, beef is usually the first thing I think about…..either smoky and slow-cooked over an open fire (Asado) or at a Parilla, flash grilled over a white-hot wood fire (I can attest, either way is wonderful).

So it was no surprise when I began to wonder just what the dining preferences of a new Pope from Argentina might be in Rome. Wonderful, thick, fire-grilled Porterhouse steaks (Bistecca Fiorentina) can be found throughout his new home. Would he indulge?

Well, apparently the answer is no. I’ve been unable to find any kind of restaurant trail established by him in Rome. It seems likely that he has maintained his habits from Argentina, where he’s reported to have eaten very simply, usually at home. The Argentine newspaper, La Nacion, wrote that Jorge Bergoglio’s lifestyle was “distinctly austere and frugal…frequently dining on just fruit, salad and skinless chicken breasts.”

When in Rome, however, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has had no trouble whatsoever navigating the indulgent culinary minefield that the Eternal City has to offer – especially at one of his favorite hangouts, Cecilia Metella.

Dolan has noted that cardinals and bishops have the dining run of the town and can still remain somewhat anonymous, while when someone becomes Pope, that all ceases and the Pope takes his meals at the Vatican or at public and charitable events.

This is about the extent of my knowledge of the church hierarchy’s eating habits, but one thing I know is that they have a pronounced taste for fashion. And Ground Zero for clergy-flavored sartorial splendor is GAMMARELLI – THE OFFICIAL TAILOR TO THE POPE. It’s been around since 1798, and appears as influential as it’s ever been. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI was voted by Esquire magazine as “The accessorizer of the year.” Guess who outfitted him?

I don’t think any important vestments at Gammarelli are off the rack. All are custom made and meticulously fitted by a seasoned group of highly skilled cutters, tailors and seamstresses. The only exception is when the College of Cardinals has gathered together in the Sistine Chapel after the death of a Pope to elect a successor. At that time Gammarelli swings into full action mode. They need to be instantly ready to dress the new Pontiff and since they have no idea what size he’ll be, they fabricate three separate sets of Grand Papal Vestments – small, medium and large – to have at the ready once the white smoke appears from the Sistine Chapel chimney.

I was in their shop recently and I asked how it all worked. They told me that whenever new vestments are needed, “The priests, bishops and cardinals come to Gammarelli to be fitted. When the Pope needs new garments, Gammarelli goes to the Holy Father.”

They also told me that most cardinals have two complete sets of their iconic bright, fully saturated red garments. When I inquired how much money might be involved, they said, “Five to six thousand euros for the pair” – or $6,000 to $7,000.

I have no idea what the Pope’s garments must cost, but I don’t think $50,000 to $60,000 would be far off – maybe more…maybe much, much more. Just check out the bejeweled Pope Benedict parading down the main aisle of St. Peter’s. Or for that matter, check out the “decked-out” Lenny, the chain-smoking American Pontiff from the HBO series, The Young Pope, announcing himself to the cardinals. It looks as if his inspiration was Pope Pius….

Did Gammarelli craft Lenny’s garments? I didn’t ask. It was probably Wardrobe Central in Hollywood.

So now comes the fun part.

Gammarelli is a great place for gifts. The shop is located right behind the Pantheon and right next door to the HOTEL SANTA CHIARA.

You can pick up a Zuchetto – the little skull cap – available in red for a cardinal and purple for a bishop.

The wide-brimmed hat is called a Galero and was worn by cardinals. Now it’s used when a cardinal dies. One month to the day after the death, the Galero is raised to the roof of the cardinal’s home cathedral and stays there till it falls or deteriorates. You probably don’t want to buy one of those…..too creepy.

They sell chalices…but who needs a chalice. Cuff links? Maybe.

Cologne? Sure. (What do they call it? ”Salvation, by Gammarelli”?)

But the best go-to, take-home gift has to be SOCKS. I know, because I’ve been buying them for years. In fact, when I walked into the store this last June – on my first visit in several years – the proprietor pointed at me and said…”Socks!”….YUP!…. Red for the cardinals and purple for the bishops. They run about $20 per pair.

So…when in Rome? Pay them a visit. They are helpful and friendly.

Finally, as I looked at the bright red shiny shoes in the window, I could not help but think, “The Devil may wear Prada, but the Pope wears Gammarelli.”



Confused & Confounded

In my post last week, I noted that Joanne and I had taken more than a ten-year hiatus from visiting Italy. It’s not that we no longer liked the country…. quite the opposite…. I just didn’t want to become jaded and numb to the surprise and adventure it promises travelers.

So last month when we took our grandkids, it was refreshing to watch their eyes pop and jaws drop at the splendor of it all: the history…the ruins… the architecture – and, of course, the food.

I was reminded how fascinated my partner Pete and I were with everything Italy when, years ago (in advance of opening Pronto Ristorante), we attended Marcella Hazan’s cooking school in Bologna.

Under Marcella’s tutelage I learned that there was a rather strict protocol about the progression of a proper Italian dining experience at the ristorante’s … not so much at the trattoria’s. And as we visited Rome and the Vatican, with all of the clergy wandering about, I was not about to break any rules and get on the wrong side of “you know who.”

Over the course of that trip, we observed in detail what Marcella taught us. When dining in Italy, for example, one adheres to a structured sequencing of dishes that departs from the American norm of appetizer, main and dessert.

First some information …..

Cuisine in Italy is hyper-regional. Classic Roman dishes like Cacio e Pepe pasta and pasta Amatriciana stand apart from signature Florentine specialties like Ribollita and Bistecca Fiorentina. And Tuscan cuisine is a marked departure from that of Sicily. I also observed that the cuisine in these regions rigidly follows what’s in season. We did not get strawberries in November.

Water is not automatically served. We paid by the bottle, with a choice of still or bubbles. Secondly, we were charged for bread. That appears on your bill as “pane e coperto.” It’s usually two or three bucks American ….. per person.

Away from the touristy places, we found that service is not rushed. In fact, we generally had to ask for our check (“Il conto, por favore”).
And to our surprise and delight, there was no tipping. Service was included in our bill. Always.

In America, the evening meal frequently starts with cocktails. Not so in Italy. Here, one usually starts with wine.

Then the progression begins. First the Antipasti – modestly sized plates of items like Bruschetta or Prosciutto and Melon. Or in Tuscany, perhaps Wild Boar Salami or Papa Al Pomodoro (thick, thick, Italian tomato-bread soup that you eat with a fork).

Next comes the Primi – typically small bowls of pasta, maybe three or four ounces.

The Primi is followed by the third course, called the Secondi, or what we know as the entrée – meats or fish, often simply grilled (except in Milan, of course, where the bucket-list dish is Osso Buco with Risotto Milanese, laced with saffron and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese). Most dishes come à la carte, so if you want a side dish, look for the Contorni offerings.

The drill continues with the Dolce, or dessert. Panna Cotta or Baba Rhum, perhaps? Or maybe just a fresh peach in the summertime. In years back, Joanne and I most often had chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese simply drizzled with a little aged Balsamic vinegar. Finally, to cap off the long evening we would share an order of Biscotti for dipping one-by-one in Vin Santo dessert wine. Oh yes, sometimes we ordered Limoncello instead. Limoncello can be dangerous.

All of which leads me to our recent trip…about which, I have to admit, I’m more than a little puzzled.

Things have changed over the past decade, and I’m not certain what to make of it. Perhaps if we’d continued to visit year after year, I wouldn’t have noticed a culinary creep. But after such a long time away, I was startled by the accumulation of changes to the Italian dining routine. I have no concrete conclusions, only observations that don’t appear to have much connective tissue with one another.

First, let’s stipulate that there are boatloads of Americans in Italy these days – more than I remember from past visits in June.

Now, one of our favorite restaurants in Florence has always been SOSTANZA. It still is. But here’s the deal: Sostanza has lost some of its cachet. They now take reservations, whereas before they did not. Indeed, patrons used to line up outside before Sostanza opened in hope of snagging a spot. Part of my buzz was watching with delight from our table as the pour souls vied for the remaining tables (Is that Shadenfreude – taking pleasure in others’ misfortune or struggles?)

And so it was, with confirmed reservations, we arrived at Sostanza and were seated right away, with no one outside to cast envious eyes on us. And although the small dining room eventually filled, there were empty tables through most of the evening. Was that because now, ten years later, Sostanza had started accepting reservations? I don’t know.

But I do know this: The signature dish at SOSTANZA has always been the kilo-and-a-half (about 3 lbs) BISTECCA FIORENTINA, a two-inch thick Porterhouse steak of Flintstonian heritage. Of course we ordered it. But what came to our table was a much smaller RIB EYE steak masquerading as a BISTECCA FIORENTINA. It was very, very good, but NOT very impressive to look at.

Why would they do such a thing? Again, I just don’t know. Too expensive these days?

Another dinner and another mystery: this time at our favorite Tuscan restaurant in Rome, GIRARROSTO TOSCANO (Okay, okay, I know. I tried and failed to replicate Girarrosto about ten years ago, but Eden Prairie would have none of that.)

To my delight, Girarrosto has not tampered one bit with their Bistecca Fiorentina. Nor have they downsized or diluted anything else on their menu. Girarrosto was just exactly as I remembered it. Check out the image of their Bistecca below.

What was not exactly as I remembered was that the place was virtually empty. Along with our group of seven, there was another couple seated near us, and what appeared to be an American tour group of 15 – 20 people. Why? Why? It’s so good! (I’ve been recommending this place for decades, and it ALWAYS delivers).

Rome is not noted for an abundance of seafood restaurants. But one of the few – and very, very best – is QUINZI & GABRIELI. They have remodeled since Joanne and I were last there, but the seafood remains as it always has: pristinely fresh and perfectly prepared.

Just like Girarrosto, however, the restaurant only had a smattering of customers on the night we visited. What’s wrong here? These are all top-tier restaurants that deliver on their promise. Are they out of touch with today’s consumer? Has the Italian economy cratered so badly that the locals are trading down? But why aren’t they at least filled with Americans? Although none of these places is cheap, neither are they crazy-nuts expensive.

Some other observations…..

Here’s something that has changed. Three times on the trip, I was annoyed when servers asked us to leave a tip on top of the service charge included in our bill (“The owner, he keep everything,” we were told in beseeching tones).

As I noted earlier, Italians usually start their evening meal with wine (or perhaps a low-alcohol aperitivo of Campari & soda. But I noticed that several patrons along the way started with a Negroni (Campari, gin and sweet vermouth – a boozy cocktail indeed). Maybe because it was warm, I observed more than a few folks sipping on gin & tonics or maybe vodka & tonic). Were they Americans? Don’t know.

But something else was noticeably different. Fewer restaurants were serving pasta as a Primi before the main, and more were heaping it up AS THE MAIN COURSE. Have Italian restaurants discovered what Olive Garden figured out decades ago – that the masses really like great big bowls of over-sauced five-cheese tortelloni or fettuccine Alfredo topped with chicken breast? One thing’s for sure: I saw more pasta main courses at tables than I did proteins on the plate.

What’s next? Will Italian restaurants dispense with the aperitivo and embrace popular cocktails like Olive Garden’s Italian Margaritas (made with Jose Cuervo tequila) or their signature Milan Mai Tai?

Will they start offering breadsticks? (If so, you can be damned sure they won’t be free).

So which is it: Have the American tourists prompted Italian restaurants to offer jumbo martinis and entrée-sized pasta platters? Or are they just knuckling under and being shrewd operators by giving folks what they want? “Turn on the green light. The man wants a green suit.”

To be perfectly honest, I am flummoxed. Were my observations just a one-time blip? Or have Italy’s ancient culinary traditions stepped on to the slippery slope?

One thing that Marcella taught me was that spaghetti and meatballs should NEVER, EVER appear on the same plate together.

But I do remember dining at Olive Garden not long ago (this is what you do as a grandparent) where, to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed my lasagna topped with meatballs – something that would cause Marcella to burn truck tires in the street. Then, three weeks ago, for the first time EVER in Italy I spotted a diner eating Spaghetti & Meatballs. Lord have mercy.

But even with all of this….I ate like a satisfied pig.


Return to Rosetta

During our BUCA days, Joanne and I led culinary teams to Italy two-to-three times a year – always to Rome, Tuscany and Naples, occasionally to Sicily. This went on for about 10-12 years.

So last month when we took our grandkids to Italy, it had been at least 10 years since Joanne and I had been there. And I think during the course of those 30-or-so visits, we probably ate at most every significant spot (and some not-so-significant ones) that these cities and regions had to offer.

And so it was, on this trip, that some of our favorites were still around while others had closed up shop.

Among our favorites, we were delighted to find that LA ROSETTA, located near the Pantheon in Rome, remains in business. It’s been around since 1966 and was the first ALL SEAFOOD restaurant in Rome.

On Sunday, June 17, 2018, we went back.

My memories of our visits to La Rosetta are delightful. The surprise of the amuse bouche (before I even knew what an amuse bouche was)…shared antipasti plates of “crudo (raw fish), the freshest and briniest oysters on the planet…thin slices of “just-caught” swordfish carpaccio…as well as a morsel of crispy fried monkfish liver in a roasted pumpkin puree. And to top it all off – you know how “star-struck” I can be – on our last visit, Kathleen Turner and her daughter were at the table next to us.

We enjoyed dishes I never could have imagined, like a chicory salad with anchovy dressing. It was at La Rosetta where I first tried “cacio e pepe” (kinda like fettuccine Alfredo except with cacio sheep’s milk cheese instead of Parmigiano Reggiano, and what seemed like handfuls of freshly cracked black pepper).

Platters of simply grilled langoustines, lobster and crab are also embedded in my flavor memory.

Well, on Sunday night we went back for the first time in 10 years. It was a beautiful night and we were fortunate to snag one of the coveted outdoor deuces with a vista of the Pantheon about a block away.

Dinner started off well enough with a bottle of well-chilled and crispy Frascati from just south of Rome.

For the antipasti I tried to share a plate of deep-fried anchovies alongside porcini mushrooms. Joanne would have none of it (well, none of the anchovies; she had no problem snarfing down the accompanying porcinis). She followed with a small arugula salad and ravioli stuffed with crab, leeks, ricotta, ginger and lime. I opted for the black pepper-laced cacao e pepe (as good as I remembered it). Next came grilled sea bass and red snapper, accompanied by more freshly foraged mushrooms (note to readers: there are worse times to schedule an Italy trip than during porcini season).

Now, La Rosetta is not cheap. And here was the problem: The amuse bouche never came (perhaps it was forgotten – or just purposely cut from the La Rosetta experience). The potted white flowers on our table were hopelessly wilted and beginning to turn brown…perhaps dead. Our menus were dirty, torn and dog-eared. And the service? Lackadaisical, a little aloof and not caring.

I flirted with the notion that maybe I was fantasizing and romanticizing our visits from ten long years ago. But no. The flowers were actually wilted. And the menus were, in fact, dirty and shabby. And our server really didn’t seem to give a shit.

I wondered if it was simply an off-night. Restaurants aren’t known for scheduling their “A Teams” on Sundays.

Then again, was our server’s lack of attention to detail a reflection of management’s shortcomings? After all, we never even saw a manager during the entire evening. Had the “disease” spread throughout the restaurant? You have to ask yourself: If the menus are dirty, how clean will the bathrooms be? How about the kitchen? If no one cared enough to keep the flowers on our table from wilting, could they be bothered to keep the lettuce in the cooler fresh?

Based on a single visit, I can’t answer such questions with any certainty.

So would I recommend La Rosetta to you?

Yeah…I would. My memories are so fond from years ago that I just find it hard to believe that the place could slip so much. I think that the ownership has not changed and as I said: the food was good.

Just don’t go on Sunday night.



The Scoop (or the Paddle) on Gelato

Joanne and I just returned from Italy with grandkids in tow. And of course we dragged them – occasionally kicking and screaming (not really) – to all of the must-sees: the Colosseum, Roman Forum, St Peter’s, the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, etc.

And while these icons certainly caught their attention, they were rivaled by two other attention-getting experiences – namely FORTNIGHT, with their eyes on their IPhones as they teamed up with their siblings to build massive forts, battle against hordes of monsters, and craft and loot giant worlds (I like to think it improved their understanding of the Roman Empire).

The other thing that grabbed ‘em – without fail – was GELATO.

It was a treat on a hot afternoon and a reward after a long day of touring. Asking the kids to rank order their favorites always fueled an animated discussion. And the threat of withholding gelato provided a powerful inducement for our bambini to behave.

And so it was that as we toured the cities and ancient sights, their eyes were often glued to their IPhones while their taste buds and antenna were tuned to sensing the closest GELATERIA.

Since my video game knowledge never got past PAC-MAN and THE FROGGER …… I’ll talk a bit about gelato.

First of all: a little primer on gelato vs. ice cream. They are different. Both good but simply different.

Both contain milk, cream and sugar. Ice cream frequently contains egg yolks. Gelato does not and uses more milk and less cream. It’s also churned at a much slower rate than ice cream, thus incorporating less air, leaving gelato denser, silkier and softer.

Because of the cream and egg yolks, ice cream contains butterfat in the range of 14 to 25%, while gelato is in the 4 to 9% range. With less butterfat coating your palate, flavors intensify. Also, gelato is kept and served at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream – 7 to 12 degrees vs. 10 to 15 degrees. The warmer temperature of gelato causes your mouth to become less numb from the chill and better able to allow the flavors to shine through.

Because it contains less fat and air, gelato costs about 30% more than ice cream. But the good news is that gelato contains about 20% fewer calories.

In Rome there were two important gelaterias in our neighborhood near the Pantheon: DELLA PALMA and GIOLITTI. Each offered about 150 different choices. They were equally good and just a few steps from one another. What they have in common besides the outstanding quality is the incredible artistry in how they display the product – positively jaw-dropping. Check out the visuals below. (Our grandkids sampled 47 different varieties.)

So what about kids in Italy? Well, besides exposing them to the ancient history of the Roman Empire and the cultural history of the Renaissance, our grandkids were troopers when it came to the many Roman, Tuscan and Milanese foods they tried for the first time and loved. Among their favorites: Porcini mushrooms, Bistecca Fiorentina, Tuscan chicken liver crostini, risotto Milanese and pastas and pizzas of all stripes.

We didn’t indulge, but there are numerous cooking classes for kids, both in Rome and in Florence — pizza making and gelato making.

Which brings us back to gelato and some “inside baseball” information. CAUTION! There are two dueling ways of serving up cones: THE SCOOP vs. THE PADDLE.

You want to buy from the shops that use the paddle. The scoop is often used by lesser gelaterias as a way of keeping costs down by controlling the smaller size of the ball of gelato they serve. The paddle method slathers the gelato generously (get three flavors, and the cone will almost topple. Further, the price is often about the same as the smaller scooping joints.

Joanne and I watched with amusement as our grandkids progressed during the trip from the safety of familiar flavors to absolute culinary adventure – starting timidly with chocolate and strawberry and the comfort of Nutella, Twix, Snickers and Mars renditions, then stepping up the pace to include profiterole, watermelon and blood orange. Passion fruit, green apple and Sicilian fruit took ‘em to the next level and by the final few days they were sampling fig and puffo (cotton candy gelato). Topping off the adventure: BLACK SESAME SEED!

I found gelato to be extremely democratic, cutting across all lines from young and old, famous and locals, Arnold and Magic, Audrey and Gregory, princes and priests, not to mention nuns making gelato a habit.