David Rakowski - When in Rome...

So there I was, living in Rome in the "lap of luxury" for a year. Through some strange combination of luck, skill, talent, and timing (probably #1 and #4 far more than #2 and #3), I was a Rome Prize winner for 1995-96, and with that came a dormitory-type room at the American Academy in Rome (except that the ceilings were 14 feet high), a studio where I could write music (in a building where Galileo had once had an office), and lunch and dinner six days a week. Since my wife Beth had a full-time teaching job, she could only join me during school vacations, and it was during her Christmas vacation that I had My Best Meal Ever.

Now it was bad enough having to get through September, October, November and December without seeing Beth; the quality of food we were served at the American Academy was so-so—pretty good for dorm food, not so good if you prefer food that you can digest. We actually looked forward to Sundays when we had to fend for ourselves meal-wise, to take advantage of this so-called superior Italian cuisine. Since our stipends were so meager (1,000,000 lira a month or so -- $604.60 at the time) -- and they had to pay for supplies, travel, Sunday meals, meals for our spouses, and toilet paper, we usually didn't go for the tony restaurants, but the more intimate family-style (read: cheap) restaurants nearby.

When my wife finally arrived, I took every possible opportunity to show her my new Italian words (many of them pornographic), especially in the context of her favorite Italian activity: shopping for shoes. Of course, my Italian was sufficient to talk about body parts with a 4-year-old, or to ask how to get to a supermarket, but certainly not sufficient to talk shoe nuances with a salesman (and my wife probably didn't know that I was telling them that her size was a 37-1/2 -- I think our conversation went something like "ah, so you are someone who can speak Italian!" "Middle, middle." "What is your wife's size?" "The book has said that the size of my wife is 37 and a middle." "Tourist books give the wrong sizes. I'll get a 39. So how is the fit?" "My wife has said that she thinks that it is so narrow. Do you sell the same thing more wide?" "She needs to walk on it a little more." "Oh, now my wife has said that they are a little perfect. We are wanting to buy the shoes." "You're welcome."), or which brand of olives was the tastiest, or which was the fastest way to walk to the Vatican. But my big coup de grace was having found the best pizza within walking distance of the American Academy.

On this particular night, in the second week of January of 1996, my wife and I and 6 other fellows or spouses of fellows wandered down the hill for our Sunday dinner at the San Calisto pizzeria; it's in a not-too-heavily traveled area near the 4th century (so they tell us) Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. I had been to the San Calisto once in September, and was impressed by the sizes both of the pizzas and by the "birra rossa"—a red beer from a company called Lutece (probably Alsacian). For some reason that night, the beer went down more smoothly than ever, tasted even better, and hardly left much of a buzz. My wife made the same comment about the beer.

So the Roman (or, more specifically Roman/tourist/local) way of ordering pizza is to get a whole one for yourself—at San Calisto, it's about 14 or 15 inches around—on a thin Italian crust. It looks imposing and way too big for humans to eat, but the lightness of the crust makes it go down easy—like the red beer, by the way. And it's not sliced; you cut it yourself, the way you might cut a big steak—okay, a REALLY big steak— with a knife and fork. For some reason I was feeling a little goofy that night and I ordered in an exaggerated falsetto, and the Italian waiter answered in the same goofy falsetto. In fact, every time I went back, the same waiter would always greet me in a falsetto, which would set the tone for the whole evening, sometimes for other patrons as well.

I decided to try a "fra diavolo" and Beth ordered the "rugheta e gorgonzola" pizza. I had had a "fra diavolo" pizza years ago at Bertucci's Pizza in Boston, and liked it: it was a normal pizza with sweet sausage and some spicy pepper stuff in the sauce that reminded me of the taste of pepperoncini peppers (which is redundant, but you get the idea). Other fellows got other kinds of pizzas—another fra diavolo, a Neapolitan pizza, a tomato and cheese pizza, and so forth.

Beth's pizza turned out to be a white pizza: no pizza sauce whatsoever. It was covered with gorgonzola cheese and lettuce much in the shape of dandelion leaves—rugheta, as it turns out, is "rocket", as they call it in England, or arugula. The gorgonzola is, of course, a VERY strong cheese and arugula a VERY strong-flavored lettuce, and the combination was...shall we say, quite unusual, but also quite heavenly. Of course, the cheese --especially now that it was melted—was heavy enough such that no one human could finish a whole pizza—so Beth started trading slices of hers for the lighter ones. And I got a slice, too. As for my "fra diavolo," it was simply the most simple and heavenly combination imaginable, and in such a large portion: a regular pizza with mozzarella, some spicy sauce in the tomato sauce (like at Bertuccis), and about five long pieces of spicy hot sausage covering the surface. The sausages actually looked like pennies after you put them on the train tracks and a train goes over them, and were the color of pepperoni.

It wasn't just that the hot sauce, the sauce, and the spicy sausage were a heavenly combination by themselves—they were. It was also the gorgonzola and arugula chaser, and, by this time my terza birra rossa granda—my third large red beer—that somehow interacted chemically with these other two pizza flavors to make the most amazing flavor combination I've ever had in my mouth. All this and Beth and I only spent about 55,000 lira. After Beth went back for her spring semester, I could never find anyone brave enough to order the gorgonzola and arugula pizza again. When she came back in June, we went straight to San Calisto—they had the same pizzas, but no longer carried the red beer. And you know, Beck's is just not a great beer to have with pizza.

David Rakowski -

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