Spring-y Saturday in Testaccio

In the past week or so Rome has apparently made the decision to skip right over Spring and jump directly in to Summer, and I'm not complaining. The temperatures here have been warm -- still pleasantly, not yet infernally so, that's reserved for August -- and the days have been jacket-free and sunshine-y. My seasonal set of freckles have reappeared, I've prepared my trusty summer dress collection, and I've gotten started with my first gelato of the season (chocolate + pistachio cone). 

I feel a little less inclined to spend so much of my weekends cooking and baking when summer arrives; as much as I love my kitchen, I'd rather not be inside when the weather is so nice. This past weekend I took a much needed break from blogging and spent my time out and about in my marvelous adopted city -- and so today, in exchange for a recipe, I've got a blog post about a Spring-y Saturday in my favorite neighborhood in the city, Testaccio. If you're visiting Rome any time soon, consider all of the below as recommendations during your stay here.

Ahh, Testaccio! Even though I'll always love the Prati neighborhood of Rome where I live, Testaccio is the zone where I probably spend most of my free time. It's a few minutes walk from where I work, the area where some of my favorite restaurants are located (Flavio a ve l'avevo detto! Nuovo Mondo! Da Bucatino!) and where most of my socializing happens. It's a neighborhood with an incredibly rich history, too. In the times of the ancient Romans, much of the trade done via the Tiber River happened in Testaccio, and the remains of the clay vessels that contained much of the goods being traded -- known as amphorae -- were, back in the day, recycled in a certain sense, broken down and artfully stacked to construct the artificial hill known as Monte Testaccio (after all, it wouldn't have made sense to occupy space on a ship with empty vessels, especially ones that had contained olive oil, for example, and would soon be rancid). Not surprisingly, the hill is therefore a source archaeological evidence as to the every day life of the ancient Romans; below, you can see a photo of the outside of the hill below. Right smack in the middle of a busy intersection, you'll also find the Pyramid of Cestius, or an Egyptian-inspired pyramid was built between 18 and 12 BC as a tomb for Gaius Cestius (see photo above!) Right beside it you'll find Porta San Paolo, or one of the gates constructed within the 3rd century Aurelian Walls; there is a (free) museum housed within the gatehouse that teaches you all about Via Ostiense, the road that left Rome through Porta San Paolo and connected the city to the important sea port of Ostia Antica in ancient times. Ancient Rome aside, Testaccio went on to become one of Rome’s traditional working class neighborhoods, but over time has been revamped, reinvented, and transformed in to a neighborhood with a sort of hipster vibe, and a genuinely cool place to spend your time (in the past few years I've also noticed more and more tourists here -- the secret's out). 

But let's talk about modern day Testaccio! My favorite place in the whole neighborhood -- and most certainly one of my very favorite places in the whole city -- is the Mercato Testaccio, or a market packed with stands selling fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, cheeses, and baked goods, not to mention a bar selling coffee and pastries and still others selling food; if you happen to stop by, I highly recommend Mordi e Vai, which sells some of the best sandwiches you'll ever eat (I have mentioned them on this blog before) and Le Mani in Pasta, or a little corner of the market that sells fresh pasta to go (the menu changes daily, but is all always consistently delicious). The market is open from Monday to Saturday from early in the morning until around 2:30 in the afternoon, but as of fairly recently stays open until late at night once or twice a month, as part of a new event called Testaccio Open Day, where all the usual vendors are open, and there's live music and even a dance floor. 

The non-Catholic cemetery (also known as the Protestant Cemetery or in Italian, the Cimitero Acattolico di Roma) is a very old cemetery (established in 1716) that, as the name suggests, contains the graves of not only Protestants but also many Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims, among other faiths. Now: it may seem strange to include a cemetery in my Spring-y Saturday off, but the non-Catholic cemetery isn't your usual cemetery; it is an incredibly peaceful, beautiful place, full of flowers, trees, and a serene silence that you don't generally find in the capital. It doesn't convey the expected air of sadness, but rather one of tranquility and calm, and its one of my favorite places in the whole neighborhood. The cemetery contains quite a bit of history, too; it is the final resting-place of the poets Shelley and Keats, as well as many painters, sculptors, authors, scholars, and diplomats (while wandering through I also found the grave of a man named Chester Holmes Aldrich, from my home state of Rhode Island -- photo below). If you look closely, you'll also notice narrow window-like spaces built into the walls of the cemetery; these go all the way back to ancient times, before the space was converted into a cemetery, and were used by archers who would protect the city from any potential attackers (photo below). Its built adjacent to the Pyramid of Cestius (see above) and right beside it you'll find a small park with a beautiful view of the pyramid, plus lots of green -- hard to come by in Rome, again -- and cemetery or not, it's a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon. Bonus: the cemetery is also a sanctuary for stray cats, who are very well taken care of by the cemetery administration.

Since I wasn't at home baking this weekend I got my dessert fix from Pasticceria Barberini, a mainstay of the Testaccio neighborhood, where you'll find some of the best pastries in the capital. We opted for a tiny lemon meringue tart, a mini strawberry and cream tart, and my personal favorite, a little tiramisu served in a chocolate cup. Bonus: Barberini also makes a mean cornetto -- Italy's answer to the French croissant, if you're not familiar -- and is a great place to get breakfast in the morning. If you find yourself in the Testaccio neighborhood, do yourself a favor and stop here!

Ahh, Tram Depot! Tram Depot is a tiny, outdoor bar in the heart of Testaccio; it is closed during the colder months of the year, and therefore its reopening signals the start of the Spring and Summer, sunny weather, and all things nice. It is located near the stops of a few main tram lines (hence its name) and is also adjacent to very green, shade-filled lawn, complete with benches, flowers, and trees (again, another rare patch of green haven in the city). The bar makes a mean Spritz and offers my favorite snack, taralli, as a (free) accompaniment, and at night the bar is decorated with lights that add a festive touch. Bonus: you can also get coffee and breakfast at Tram Depot in the morning, making this the perfect stop on my morning walk to work.

I'll be back soon with some recipes! In the meantime -- have a good start to the week everyone!

Roasted Asparagus + Three Cheese Pizza

I'm opening this post by 100% stating the obvious here, but here it goes: Italy is not, by any means, at all, lacking in good pizza. Pizza -- along with gelato, pasta, cheese -- is synonymous with this country, a constant, consistent presence no matter where you are (while you'd be hard-pressed to find bucatini all'amatriciana outside of Rome for example, you'll find pizza in any and every city in Italy). It's abundant and accessible here, found in the form of pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) where you can pick up a piece or two of your choosing (margherita? salsiccia e funghi? pizza rossa?) to take away or eat on the go, your wallet only a few euros lighter and your belly a lot happier. If it's a pizza tonda (round pizza) you're after, never fear, there's no shortage of those, either, whether it be enjoyed in a pizzeria with friends (my go-to is a margherita con la bufala) or in the comfort of your apartment as a quick and convenient take away dinner (especially if you're like me and have a pizzeria just around the corner). Pizza here is convenient, universally loved, and consistently delicious, the ingredients fresh, the sauce:cheese ratio perfect, and the crust, whether it be thick or thin, both the perfect vehicle and complement to the ingredients that flavor it.

And yet this post is about pizza, pizza that I didn't buy at one of the above-mentioned, numerous pizzerie, but one that I made by myself, at home, crust and all. Which begs the question: why did I make my own pizza at home when I could have spent a few euros to buy one? Indeed, you'll find no other pizza recipes on this blog in the four years I've had it -- with so much good pizza to choose from in Rome, I'd never bothered making it from scratch.

Ehem. It was a combination of things, I suppose. Spring arrived, and all the best Spring veg -- fave, peas, and asparagus (!!!) had appeared in the market along with it. I saw asparagus and ricotta pizza mentioned in an article by Kara Elder for the Washington Post's new site, Voraciously, and the idea stuck with me. And most convincing of all, I came across this super lazy, very intriguing pizza dough recipe from bread master Jim Lahey, which consists in stirring flour, water, salt, and yeast together in a bowl and leaving the whole thing to rise overnight -- no kneading required! -- before heaping it all into the pizza pan the next day for baking. I had my toppings, I had my mysterious dough recipe, and so I gave making pizza at home a try, and wow, what a pizza it was, you guys. The (absolutely genius) crust was fluffy and flavorful and slightly chewy, and perfect topped with crispy, olive oil-tinged asparagus, whose flavor had become intensely sweet thanks to the roasting. And the cheeses! The ricotta was dreamy and smooth with a hint of lemon and a kick of pepper, the mozzarella mild and melt-y and gooey, and both were countered splendidly by a sprinkle of sharp assertive Parmesan which turns golden brown and glorious in the oven. All together, it made for a darn good slice of pizza (or three, or four) especially on a lazy, Spring-y Sunday afternoon. 

But back to our question: could I have gone to buy pizza for dinner instead of making it myself? Of course! But take my advice here: try making pizza at home, at least once. There is something undeniably rewarding and kind of cool about making it with your own two hands (see also: pizza bianca) especially when it's this ridiculously easy and the result is this incredibly good. Think about it: it takes just 5 minutes minutes to prep the dough the night before, and when you come home the next day, dinner is halfway done. Once you've added a few toppings the whole thing spends about about 20 minutes in the oven, and voila'! You have a delicious homemade (!!!) pizza in under an hour. No matter what the pizza situation is where you live, I highly, highly recommend you make this one, and please, feel free to experiment and use whatever toppings you wish (though the ones suggested here are pretty darn delicious). This very well might become your new favorite recipe, as it has mine. 

A couple of notes: There are different quantities of yeast listed below based on when you want to make this pizza dough -- thanks to Deb Perelman for posting about this. If you make it 22 hours in advance (starting the evening before for dinner the next day) use 1/8 teaspoon yeast. If you are making it 12 hours in advance, use 1/4 teaspoon yeast. If you are making it 6 hours in advance, use 1/2 teaspoon yeast.* Finally, on all trial runs for this pizza I found that the crust never got really brown and remained quite pale, despite being cooked completely -- this could be my oven or could be the dough itself, but just a heads up if you find its the same for you. When testing this pizza, I made it different ways; I used store-bought from the tub ricotta on one test run, and a nicer, drier variety of ricotta from my local cheese shop in other. The results were different in terms of the consistency of the cheese (store-bought is a little softer while the cheese from my cheese shop was firmer) but both worked perfectly well. On still another test I mixed all the cheeses together and put the asparagus on top, while in another I divided up the cheeses (ricotta; asparagus; mozzarella; Parmesan) with the asparagus on top of the ricotta and below the mozzarella and Parmesan. Both versions worked wonderfully, I leave the choice up to you. Feel free to leave out the lemon zest if you'd like, but it adds a nice bright sunshine-y hint of flavor. Finally, a sprinkle of basil over the top is nice, if you want a little garnish. 

Looking for more asparagus recipes? I've got this Frittata di Spaghetti e Asparagi, this Asparagus with Gremolata and Burrata, this Panzanella Primaverile. Looking for more Spring-y recipes? I've got this Frittata con fave e pecorino, this Pasta con fave, pecorino, and guanciale, this Torta Pasqualina, and these Carciofi alla giudia.


Ingredients for the crust:
3 cups (390 grams) flour
1/8, 1/4, or 1/2 teaspoon dry yeast, depending (see note above)*
1 1/4 cups (294 mL) water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt 
Olive oil and cornmeal for the pan 

Ingredients for the topping:
A bunch (6 ounces or 168 grams with the tougher bottoms cut off) asparagus; both thicker or thinner variety is fine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cups (about 300 grams) ricotta cheese
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 cup (about 84 grams) freshly grated mozzarella cheese
5-6 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Basil for garnishing

Directions for the pizza dough:
In a very large bowl, mix all the dough ingredients with a spoon. The dough will be craggy and rough; this is fine, but if it feels excessively so, add another spoonful or even two of water. Cover bowl with plastic and keep at room temperature for approximately 22, 12, or 6 hours (see Notes above) or until the dough has more than doubled, and looks like the dough in the photo below:
For the pizza topping: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (170 degrees Celsius). Take your bunch of asparagus and cut off the tough ends. It should weigh about six ounces when you are done with this. Cut it into pieces crosswise. Place it on a baking sheet and toss it with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a little salt and pepper. Roast the asparagus for 20 or so minutes (this may take less time or more time depending on if you have the thicker or skinnier variety of asparagus) or until golden brown and delicious. While the asparagus is roasting, prepare take your pizza dough out of the bowl and place it on to a lightly olive oiled 11x13 inch pan, that you've dusted with a little cornmeal. Stretch it out to cover the pan and set aside. 
Next, stir together the ricotta, the lemon zest, and a little salt and pepper in a bowl. Spread this on to the pizza dough. Place the asparagus on top of the ricotta then sprinkle with mozzarella and then the Parmesan. 
Bake the pizza for 20-25 minutes or until the cheeses are all melted and the crust is cooked and golden brown on the bottom (see my notes above -- it won't get too too golden). Let cool slightly and then dig in. Serves 4.