As an Indian boy from a village in Northern Kerala who grew up on fish-curry and paratha (technically, porotta in Kerala), my notion of Italian food was late and simple. ‘Late’ because I had my first pasta only at the age of 23 or something. And ‘simple’ because I thought Italian food was only about Pasta and Pizza.
Read: Lengthy drive-in beaches and communist symbols. Read more about the beaches of Northern Kerala.
During my travels, I have discovered that Italian cuisine was much more than that. I didn’t need to travel to Italy to dine at Italian restaurants in HongKong, Singapore, European cities outside Italy, or even the metro cities of India – there were plenty of Italian restaurants anywhere I went in the world. But as most Italian travelers I met told me, this was not authentic. I had to try Italian food in Italy to feel the full-range of the flavours.
So, I finally booked a flight to Rome. Just to try ‘authentic Italian cuisine’. Ok, I exaggerated a little bit there.
Thanks to years of travelling in Europe, and my couch-surfing episodes, I already had some friends in Rome. They played the dutiful tour-guide role for me, taking me to the most visited tourist attractions of Rome. The pantheon, the Colosseum, the Vatican and anything else that was prominent on the tourist map. And then I told them my pet peeve: I wanted to eat something authentic in Italy.
What I got in return, was a lesson.
While eating out in Italy – my friend Enrica educated me – I had to first decide what kind of eating establishment I wanted to eat in. There was the Ristorante, which were usually upscale with printed menus and fancy seating. Then there was the Trattoria, which was usually family-run and had a very informal atmosphere. There were also specialized establishments. Like Bruschetterie which specialized in Bruschettas, Gelatarie which specialized in Gelato, Paninotecas which specialized in Paninis, Pizzerie which specialized in Pizzas, and Spaghetterie which specialized in Spaghetti.
And then, there was the Osteria.
The search for an Osteria in Roma. Andiamo!
It was tough to define an Osteria, even for my Italian friend who tried to define it to me. In the old ages, Osteria (or hosteria, a hosterie) was a house where men and horses stopped for a drink, some cheap local food, and lodging. The closest English word I can think of would be a ‘tavern’. In modern times, Osteries have ditched the lodging part. They remain as very informal places which serve wine and food.
I had no idea what to expect, and neither had I read or heard about an Osteria before. So, I simply followed my friend. It was almost like a treasure hunt. We first took the Metro to a station called Pyramide, and met with more friends there. One of them drove us to the Casilino-Mandrione neighbourhood. In a quaint little street called the Via dei Savorgan 99, I finally found where I was being taken to.
I was at Betto e Mary. An Osteria that holds almost a cult prominence in Rome for its traditional food, most of which is very rare to find and may cost many times more in upscale restaurants. And they made it very clear on their door that this was going to be a completely different culinary experience than anything I have ever heard about Italian cuisine.
Anti-capitalistic and rustic. What’s not to love?
We passed through the rather Spartan dining room towards the internal garden. But not before admiring the very anti-capitalist interior, communist symbols, some eclectic wall collection (including an LGBT flag), an actual wood oven, and even the kitchen, where we saw customers mingling with the cook. Yeah, they actually popped in to have a high-decibel – yet good-natured conversation – with the guy who was making their food!
We took a seat, 5 of us. And since I was the only one who had no idea about what to order, I waited for a menu. I was pretty sure that I would need help from my friends to translate the menu. But then I was told: there is NO menu!
This was the Osteria experience. People have been dining here for decades, if not years, and they did not need a menu to begin with. I let my friends order for me. They only wanted to know if I had any dietary requirement.
“Do you eat meat?”
“I eat everything.”
They recommended the La Pajata, with carbonara sauce. I didn’t know what it was, but they asked me again.
“Do you eat any kind of meat?”
“Hell yeah”, I said. “But I think I will skip the cheese. The stomach hasn’t been good with lactose recently”
That’s when the waiter came down and sat next to me. He had heard some of the conversation, so he looked me dead in the eye and said:
“If you want your carbonara without cheese, you can make it at your own home. We don’t do that here. Because carbonara without cheese is shit!”
So, if you get the drift, there is no master-servant social diktat here. The waiters at Betto e Mary see you as just another human being. And the newcomer that I am, I was even given some light-hearted bullying.
I laughed. I loved the vibe of this place! “Ok, I guess I don’t want to eat shit then. But go easy on the cheese!”
He smiled. The ordering process was done.
To read: For more soothing conversations in Italy, the time I heard Pope Francis speak.
The Italian cuisine that you have never tried
Before my pasta would arrive, I first had to go through the pleasure of the first course: the antipasti. A bottle of local Gjulia birra was ordered, along with some wine. This was during my drinking days, so I took the beer. And along came a few plates of antipasti.
Read: Trying out the Trappist beers of Belgium!
I’ve had antipasti before only at fancy Italian restaurants, and my idea of antipasti was olives, mushrooms, cheeses, and some cured meat.
Oh boy, was I in for a surprise?
There were simple ones. Like the Cavolfiori Fritti, which was fried cauliflower. The carciofi fritti in pastella, which was a harmless fried artichokes in pasta. The scamorza inpanata, with scamorza being an Italian cow’s milk cheese.
And then there was the straccetti di Cavallo con rucola e parmigiana. A handful to say, but delightful in the mouth. That was rockets, Parmesan cheese and horse meat. Yeah, horse meat! I’ve tried Horse meat in Jeju before, but I did not expect to find it here in Italy.
It was all delicious! And then came my carbonara.
The Rigatoni con la pajata (Rigatoni with Pajata), had me curious. What exactly was pajata? The pajata was the intestines of a calf which has only been fed it’s mother’s milk. In fact, I had to arrange the dish to make sure that the Pajata was on top.
The others in the group got their main courses too. On the left below, is the Radicchio Grigliato (grilled radish). And the remaining plates contained abbacchio a scottadito. Abbacchio is a very Roman way to call lamb and scottadito means burned finger – as you are supposed to eat this with your fingers.
The dining went on amidst all the banter. The very informal nature of the establishment lent its vibes to the patrons, and there was loud laughter everywhere. The waiters joined into most of them, sometimes even making fun of the patrons. Actually, most of the times.
Amidst all this, we finished our very traditional meal. I felt full with all the cheese that I had just had. That was compensated by some delicious local Amaro, basically an after-dinner digestif. It had a bitter-sweet flavor and a low alcohol content, but it washed down the food really well.
Over refilled shots of Amaro, the conversation at the anti-capitalist diner continued. I thought it would never end, because no one came to give the bill unless we called them. And no one was in a hurry to collect the money too.
I wouldn’t have expected anything else at this place.
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