I only recently heard of a small(ish) vegetable shop, a greengrocer’s as we once would have called it, receiving merited acclaim for the high quality of its produce. It is called Piccola Bottega Merenda and is located in the Tuscolano area of Rome, just down the road from where I live, more or less, in Frascati. All the produce is sourced from small holders/farmers and little old ladies who go foraging, and all the vegetables are completely and only seasonal. As to their freshness, the shop has not installed a refrigerator, the veggies get sold within the day or maybe two days. They also sell top notch cheeses, and a selection of charcuterie, as well as dry goods and other staples, drawn from brands that are either organically certified or else just bloody good. I noticed, for instance, that they sell my favourite olive oil: Quattrociocchi. Not to mention an array of mouth-watering cheeses.
Anyway, the reason I ended up going there last Friday was a bureaucratic one. I needed to pick up a legal document from a public notary office in Rome. I knew that their opening hours in the morning was from 08:30 to 12:15 p.m. and got there at around 11:00.
Only to find it closed.
Friday being the last day of the month, the office closed at 10:15. Picture me, neck craned, doing a double take, double blink, OMG I don’t believe this!, I have just wasted a whole morning practically, Oh woe is me, o me misera! Seriously? a public office is not open to the public after 10:15 ? Just because it is the end of the month? Why bother opening in the first place?
Thankfully, it was a beautiful warm, sunny day. It’s a crime to get one’s knickers in a twist when the weather and the time of year are are prompting you it to notice that it should be a joy to be alive. And so I resolved to turn this ‘down’ into an ‘up’ and, why not?, pop into the Piccola Bottega Merenda on my way home and do some shopping there. I was having friends over to dinner the next day so it made a lot of sense.
Finding parking near the shop proved to be very challenging and I had to resort to a bit of devil may care nonchalance as I parked our car vertically alongside a zebra crossing, which is not allowed as we all know. The avenue, however, was a wide one and cars could cross the road no problem, as could pedestrians on the zebra crossing. Fearing an umpteenth ticket, on the other hand, I knew I would have to make the visit a short one.
The Piccola Bottega Merenda is run by the couple Giorgio and Giulia and from all accounts very lovingly so, showing respect both for the farmers and the end user. All the fruit and vegetables are seasonal and they eschew refrigeration. The produce will have been sourced from within driving distance and as fresh as can be. It is situated in the Tuscolano area of Rome, South-East, not far from the Cinecittà film studios. It is a very lively and populous area of Rome and serviced by the B Metro Line (underground). My husband once shocked me by explaining that the population of the Tuscolano is greater than that of Florence! The Tuscolana Road starts just after San Giovanni and goes all the way to Frascati. In parts, it is built over an ancient road, far more ancient than the famed Via Appia, and the road in question is the Via Latina. The neighbourhood itself, however, was built entirely after the Second World War and so is somewhat ‘modern’ by Roman standards, and not exactly ‘cosy’ or historically interesting, or even – let’s face it – particularly attractive. Just a lot of modern apartment buildings flanking a main road. Practical (lots of shops and well connected to the centre) but not exactly charming.
I can’t see central Rome residents going out of their way to come to this store; central Rome residents are almost afraid to leave their 3-kilometer comfort zone, it’s really quite amusing. When they find out I live in Frascati (a perfectly respectable commuting distance of 17 kilometers to Termini Station, and a 30 minute train ride unless I am driving) they open their mouths wide as if I were talking about outer Siberia. But the San Giovanni residents shouldn’t have too much of a problem? Little by little, it seems to me, this Tuscolano neighbourhood has been drawing attention to itself, gastronomy wise, for a few years now. Not least because of the famous butcher Roberto Liberati, who has now opened a second store at Rome Termini Station’s eatery section Mercato Centrale (http://luckypeach.com/inside-roberto-liberatis-butcher-shop/), for the former Michelin-starred restaurant il Giuda Ballerino (which is now housed in the Hotel Bernini) and for ‘Sforno’, considered to be one of the best pizza places in all of Rome. I am told that Ali Baba is one of Rome’s top-end Kebab destination and that too is in the Tuscolano area. The Tuscolana fishmonger, Pescheria Marcello, is considered to be one of the best in the Capital. So there. This quartiere might be a parvenu compared with the rest of Roman neighbourhoods but its palate is honing itself in a very good gastronomic direction.
The first thing that struck me about the Piccola Bottega Merenda was its modest size, made all the more noticeable by the amount of happy shoppers in it, both young and old. Secondly, as I said, its charcuterie and cheese selection ! Fabulous! They offered reblochon and red Leiscestershire besides other good Italian cheeses, not so easy to find in Rome. And then there were the vegetables. I especially fell in love with the wild salads, the ‘misticanza’. Time was at a premium for me, nevertheless, since I had parked the car in such a cavalier fashion, hence I just got on with my shopping, paid, and quickly hurried away. I was unable to take more than a couple of photos of the cheese and salumi selection, one of them pictured above, the other below.
When I got home … I felt so enthusiastic, so full of energy. All I wanted to do was cook the gorgeous vegetables.
I had bought: carrots, artichokes, fennel, potatoes, and wild salads – all of them blissfully in season. From another greengrocer’s, afterwards, I had also then bought bell peppers (capsicum), courgettes, aubergines and basil … I hope that Giorgio and Giulia won’t admonish me for this unusual, for me, seasonal breach in food shopping. All I knew was that I had an incredible yearning to make some favourite warm-weather recipes.
I finished these carrots with chopped parsely before serving them the next day.
Braised fennel … béchamel sauce.
Finished off with plenty of freshly grated parmigiano.
Sweet and sour courgettes, with raisins and pine kernels, mint leaves just before serving. Sicilian style.
Deep fried, in olive oil, slices of aubergine. I had placed the slices in salted water for an hour. And then squeezed them very hard and patted them dry with kitchen paper just before frying.
While they were frying I was making a tomato sauce.
And then it was time to assemble the parmigiana di melanzane, the aubergine, mozzarella, parmigiano, basil, and tomato sauce layered dish. Once assembled, it needs to be baked but is better eaten at room temperature. Even the next day.
The beloved potato cake of Campania … known as the ‘gattò di patate’, with cheese and ham in it. Also needing to be baked.
I enveloped the two large red peppers in aluminium foil and roasted those too.
And that’s what the stove top looked like, the night before the evening after. My yearning had been satisfied.
The roasted peppers were finshed off with garlic, olive oil and chopped parsely.
I made a pasta sauce with the artichokes (including garlic, evoo, sausages and white wine) …
Buffalo mozzarella alongside some unseasonal cherry tomatoes ….
Chicken and veal meatballs. Gozzaroddi.
Wild salad leaf insalata. Notice the yellow flowers.
And last, making no sense whatsoever geographically …
A Persian rice and chicken recipe, with saffron and sour cherries. Chicken Tah-Chin.
Our guests brought good cheer and wines and flowers and two saintly children and all in all it was a lovely evening. The menu made no sense whatsoever but there was a ‘sensibility’ within me, a deep desire to cook and nurture, that was above any rationality. Le coeur a ses raisons che la raison ne connait pas (The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of …).
And what lovely flowers. Spring is indeed in the air.
P.S. If you are interested in any of the above recipes, here are some links.