But if you can indulge a Prick, can we have a bit of a discussion about pasta?
Now while there is almost nothing more obnoxious than someone coming back from a few weeks in Europe all full of cultural cringe and knowing superiority and wisdom about how great our country would be if we had more Continental attitude, less Continental packet mix, bear with me.
Because the fact is that most of us – the Prick included – have been doing pasta wrong. For years.
We put too much sauce on it.
We overcook it.
And did I mention we over-sauce the stuff?
For while, frankly, food was a bit more of a challenge in Italy than it should have been – the beaten track over there is far and wide and hard to get off – we had some cracking meals, and the pastas were often nothing short of revelatory.
Whether the very modernist sea urchin spaghetti at the wonderful Romeo in Rome’s Prati district or that humble lunch of an eight Euro pici with wild boar ragu in Orvieto or a particular tagliatelle buried in white truffle shavings enjoyed in Montalcino, the greatest pastas we had both proved the aphorisms above, and were a far cry from that normally on offer back home.
But perhaps the greatest pasta we had in Italy was a number done at Ristorante al Moro, down a back street near the Trevi Fountain. The place is old school and to get there in the evening one has to brave hordes of tourists and touts and hawkers for whom selling novelty splat-pigs and laser pointers while keeping a weather eye out for the caribinieri remains a life several orders of magnitude better than whatever kept them busy where they came from. Non-locals and non-regulars get stuck in the back room with the Anglophones and couples out discreetly with people they might not ought to be out with who asked to be hidden out of view, but nevermind: If you go, you’ll simply resolve to become a big-time Italian-speaking pezzonovante and one day be seated in the big room.
For while the Roman food scene is not big on innovation (save for the aforementioned Romeo and probably a few other joints) it can be hard to find a place that does the traditional brilliantly. Al Moro hits the mark, from its hand-written wine list and Olivetti-typed menus to the ancient front-of-house crew who look like what would have happened had Fellini ever done a mash-up of Big Night and Cocoon.
And then there’s the pasta – specifically, the house specialty, Spaghetti al Moro.
The simplest of dishes, just pasta, eggs, pork, cheese, and crucially, chili, it is carbonara, but it is at the same time definitively not: Indeed, when we reported to Marta, our incomparable hostess at the incomparable Residenza Scipioni – when in Rome, stay there – we’d had a “version” of carbonara, she looked at us with an incomprehending mild horror. “No, no, it’s not possible. This is not carbonara.”
They really do take their food traditions seriously in Rome.
Mrs Prick and I did some back of the envelope calculations and worked out that with a good number of the, say, a hundred seats between three rooms ordering the dish over two seatings (minimum) a night for Christ knows how many decades the restaurant must have turned out between half a million and a million plates of the stuff over the years. As an illustration of tacit knowledge and proof of the old 10,000 hour rule, it is hard to go past.
Yet one can also, with a bit of practice, recreate the dish in home. We will never turn out as many covers as Al Moro at Stately Prick Manor by way of practice but it is possible to come respectably close to the original. Nor is it particularly complicated; tonight young Nick With a Fork did about 80 per cent of the work on it and did a damn creditable job too, so much so that before too long it’ll be his signature dish around the share house.
So how is it done? Put a big pot of salty water on the boil. Then, your mise: In a big bowl, whisk together six or eight egg yolks and a good handful of pecorino cheese. Cut some guanciale, pancetta, or – personal favourite – some really good, smoky gourmet bacon into lardons and put to the side. Heat up a wide, high-sided saucepan and chuck in a bit of olive oil.
Throw the pork into the pan, and a packet of pasta – good dried spaghetti, one made with bronze dies to hold the sauce (Garofalo is our house brand) – into the water. Keep the pork moving, and get it a bit brown. Throw in a cup of white wine and, crucially, a couple of pinches of dried chili flakes and cook for a couple of minutes.
Get ready to drain the pasta, making sure it is really al dente, not just a little, but almost to the point where it feels like it will be undercooked. This is key: It will continue to cook, and pasta most Australians and Americans consider to al dente is in fact a sloppy, flaccid mess compared to how the Italians do it.
Hold some of the water aside before draining: Like Lebowski’s carpet this really pulls the dish together, and the biggest discernible difference between this version and the restaurant’s is that a home pot of water won’t have boiled a ton of pasta over the course of the night and thus won’t have quite as much of the starches that add body to the sauce.
Throw the drained pasta into the sauté pan and toss well. Add a bit of the water, and throw the whole affair into the bowl, tossing, adding water to loosen, and a good whack of black pepper. Plate up, remembering that this is a deceptively filling dish and that our New World idea that pasta should be a never-ending bowl of abbondanza is a nonsense anyway.
The finished product should be silky, elegant, Roman, just a bit spicy. Think Sophia Loren on a plate, and you’ve got the right idea.