Today’s post is by Valerie Sisco, Culture with Travel Food Correspondent
Long before I ever visited Italy, I dreamed about eating authentic Italian food made from local ingredients seasoned, prepared and cooked Italian-style. I’d heard that it was the country’s wide variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables that make their dishes so fresh and flavorful, and I hoped to try as many as I could.
When I booked my travel for a spring foodie tour, I couldn’t wait to dine on fresh pasta topped with garden tomatoes, sample the enormous Rome artichokes I’d heard so much about, and eat homemade tiramisu flavored with rich Italian coffee. I figured I’d probably discover dishes that were unknown to me but I didn’t expect to find a secret sustainable garden in Rome where dining on the abundant harvest is special, scrumptious and by invitation only.
The Rome Sustainable Food Project is an endeavor of the American Academy in Rome, started in 2007 under the guidance of Alice Waters, founder of the renown Chez Panisse in California. Although the food project is relatively new, the Academy has existed since 1895 as a center for study and research in the arts and humanities, offering fellowships in history and culture.
Before the food project’s creation, the Academy’s kitchen turned out lackluster meals that left its residents hungry for the food Rome was known for. Now a member of Rome’s Slow Food Community, the Academy grows a variety of fruits, vegetables, olives and herbs for its menus, along with food sourced from nearby farms and organic suppliers to provide meals for the students in residence.
The guide of my Rome food tour, author Elizabeth Minchilli, is a member of the Academy and arranged a private tour of the gardens and buildings for our group, along with an invitation to lunch.
Before boarding the bus in central Rome that would take us to the Academy on the Janiculum Hill, our group swung by the markets in Trastevere to see the bountiful selection of fruits and vegetables, along with the colorful group of fishmongers and cheese sellers, just to whet our appetites for our imminent organic feast.
When we arrived, we were ushered into the dining room to eat with the Academy’s residents at communal tables. Since none of the group’s Italian was fluent enough to read the menu posted on a chalkboard, Elizabeth translated what was waiting for us as we moved through the buffet-style line and gathered around a large farmhouse table.
There was soup with potatoes and chickpeas, a variety of salads — spinach and lentils, celery with lemon, escarole with raisins and pine nuts, a main dish of pasta with lamb, and for dessert a table of vanilla yogurt with honey and citrus fruit.
Although I’d only eaten lamb one other time in my life, it felt rude to decline. So when in Rome I decided I would eat what the Romans eat, and that included lamb pasta. I was rather glad I did when the American chef stopped by to see how we enjoyed the food and tell us that the menus are inspired by what’s in season and the kitchen cooks it up Roman-style.
After a tour of the vegetable gardens, bordered by a grove of olive trees and an orchard of fruit trees, our group visited nearby historic Villa Aurelia, also owned by the Academy and used for private events. As I walked the hidden pathways and beautifully landscaped gardens of the villa perched high on a hillside with a birds-eye view, it really did look like all roads do lead to Rome.
I imagine I’m like most visitors to Rome, who hope for an authentic experience in food and history to make a treasured memory to hold onto long after returning home. But the exclusive invitation to come to a table laden with the delicious Rome-grown food of my American dreams is a forever keepsake of the eternal city.