November in Cincinnati. I return from a trip to Rome in time to catch one last, lingering bit of summer -- a cluster of warm, sunny afternoons more Mediterranean than Ohio. These lazy days slow my post-vacation reentry and keep my head swimming with visions of churches, cobblestone streets and, most importantly, the amazing food of Italy. Ah, Roma ... zucchini flower and anchovy pizza, mountains of hazelnut and zabaglione gelati, spaghetti with oil and garlic and tender little clams.
Crumbling ruins, the Catholic Church and nice shoes aside, Italy is a place that's fundamentally all about food. And in no place is this more evident than an out-of-the-way, ex-restaurant in Rome called Sora Margherita (I say ex-restaurant because it was closed down a few years ago, deemed too cramped and a fire hazard.) The owners, thumbing their nose at the government in true Italian style, promptly reopened as a private club -- more precisely an "associazione culturale," or cultural association -- open to all.
To eat there, you must either produce a membership card or fill one out to be admitted as a member on the spot.
Sora Margherita is tiny and chaotic, not for the fainthearted. Getting in and out of your chair is a knee-knocking challenge; diners sit at tables with strangers, and there are only two menus for the whole place, handwritten each day, that get passed from patron to patron. An hour and a half spent in this swirling, fragrant chaos, food pouring out of the kitchen like a river, glasses clinking, waiters calling out and joking around, people smiling and talking, will give you a deeper sense of Italian culture and history than a month trailing around museums and ruins.
The food is transcendent. Artichokes are a specialty, served steamed and marinated and deep fried into tasty crisps. For my pasta course, I had astoundingly light and flavorful agnolotti served with a simple sauce of fresh ricotta and olive oil with ground pepper. The main course was a memorable grilled lamb and a plate of two huge meatballs in red sauce. Dessert was a homemade ricotta tart with stewed cherries. The bill for two, including tax, tip and wine, was only 58 euros ($68).
I know I'll think of Sora Margherita the next time I go to a fancy restaurant that feels like a tomb and costs a fortune or a bushy-tailed server tells me his name and hands me an elaborate menu with 18-word entrée descriptions. Given the choice, I'll take a Sora Margherita any day: vital, good, accessible and simple.
With winter coming on, my plan this year is to live like a Roman -- adhering tightly to friends and family and making sure my pasta is always warm and plentiful. "Amici e maccheroni, se non sono caldi, non sono buoni," goes an Italian proverb: "Friends and macaroni: If they're not warm, they're not any good."
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