If I tell you that one of the biggest influences on the way I cook has been the original cookbooks by Marcella Hazan, I’m not really revealing anything earth shattering. Her books, Classic Italian Cooking and More Classic Italian Cooking taught a whole generation of us what it meant to cook Italian. Even though I had half grown up eating and cooking Italian food in Italy as a child, it was the paper back copies of these fundamental books, bought while I was studying in Florence, that served as the basis for my next 30 years in an Italian kitchen. Working my way though recipes like…well, I probably don’t even have to list the most famous recipes because we all know them by heart.
So you can imagine the complete shock, pleasure and fan girl screaming that went on when I received my first comment from Marcella on Facebook about 4 years ago. I had posted one of Marcella’s recipes on my blog, changing it a bit to suit my taste and the season, and not only did she read it, she approved of it and left me a sweet message.
Like much of Marcella’s writing, her Facebook presence was a collaborative effort. While Marcella was the whiz in the kitchen, it was her husband Victor who often helped translate – literally and figuratively – food into words. So a few months ago, when Victor reached out to me directly, saying he was coming to Rome, and could we meet for dinner, I was ecstatic.
But where to have dinner with someone who not only knew more than I did about Italian cuisine, who meant so much to my culinary life? Of all the restaurants in Rome, what restaurant should I suggest?
Something traditional, for sure. But also something that carried memories as well. And I remembered that Victor had mentioned having dined with Marcella, decades ago, at Nino’s.
My own personal history at this Tuscan restaurant in the center of Rome goes back a long way too. Located near the Spanish Steps it is a place that I always associate with my father since this was the place he always chose when we were in the neighborhood. While I can still pretty much recite the menu from memory, I actually hadn’t been there for years. So choosing it as a place to meet one of my culinary icons was a bit of a risk. Would it still be the same? Maybe it had turned touristy? What if they had redecorated? Would the menu still feature those dishes that I knew and loved, and that only Nino seemed to have?
Luckily, not a thing had changed. Not the wood paneled interiors, not the flask of beans boiling in the window, not even the waiter. Well, actually, the waiter, who I remember as being young and somewhat flirty is now grey haired and the senior man in the dining room (and they’ve hired a new and flirty younger waiter). But even though I know I’ve changed just as much in the years since I had been there, he greeted me warmly and handed us the very same menu I remembered so fondly.
I chose my dinner from memory: a sformatino di zucchini with a fresh tomato sauce is like the best and lightest zucchini souffle. Very 1960s in my mind, as was the vitello tonnato I had for my main course. Victor was very excited by the fact that they had brains, which arrived fried perfectly – creamy on the inside and crisp on the outside. Domenico ordered the house speciality, the Zuppa Francovich, a hearty Tuscan bean soup served over a piece of toasted bread and named after an artist who used to come here.
Since it was kind of a special occasion, we all ordered dessert, which were similarly old fashioned. Victor dug into a eggy creme caramel while I followed my favorite waiter’s advice and ordered profiterole. Covered in fudgy chocolate sauce, I can’t remember the last time I completely gave over to something this rich and good.
As much as I loved catching up with an old restaurant that hadn’t changed one bit, the best part of the evening was getting to know Victor. I can’t say I’ve known him for years, but because of his voice through Marcella’s cookbooks I certainly felt as if I had. We talked about food of course, and Marcella. I caught him up on some of the newer places in town, while he spoke of past trips to Rome. Favorite recipes, old restaurants and new friends. And Nino’s turned out to be pretty much the perfect choice for all of this.
Via Borgognona 11
Fmore information on dining in Rome and Italy download my app, EAT ITALY. EAT ITALY is a free app, and contains guides to Milan, Rome, Florence and Venice (and an ever expanding list of regions and cities) available as in-app purchases for both iPhone and iPad. And if you don’t have an iphone? There’s always my book, Eating Rome: Living the Good Life in the Eternal City