La Cucina Romana

A restaurant on the outskirts of Rome redeems one writer's take on Italian food.

By / December 2011

The village of Ariccia is nestled into the green hills of the Castelli Romani, just 20 miles outside the city of Rome. Beneath an old stone bridge there, at the corner of a busy piazza, you’ll find L’Aricciarola, an unassuming restaurant dating from the late 1800s. There are tables outside and in, under rafters and under umbrellas in the sun. The air blowing through open windows is fragrant with smells of tomatoes, herbs, and roasting meat.

The first time I ate at L’Aricciarola it was at the initiation of the young teammates on the water polo team I had joined in an effort to make friends and brush up on the local language. One day after practice, my teammates, having made it their mission to turn me into a proper Roman, announced they were taking me to their favorite restaurant. I thrilled at the invitation but I was highly suspicious. My experience of Italian food in Rome had been little better than my experience in the States, only the so-called Italian version was much pricier than the slop served at the faux-Italian joint in the parking lot of my Target back home.

After a two-hour practice one afternoon, having worked up a ravenous appetite, the twenty of us piled into four cars and headed into the hills. We seemed to be traveling back in time. The busy city faded into quiet vineyards, olive groves, and ancient villages where men with ancient faces sat in front of ancient cafes sipping granitas in the late afternoon. We crossed a long arched bridge over a steep, rocky valley. I felt lulled into reverie, and then we arrived.

L’Aricciarola was hopping. Farmers and shopkeepers mingled with urban Italians up from the city for the day. I was the only foreigner. From the outset, the message was clear: I had become privy to the best kept secret in Rome. My teammates staked a claim on a long table and then hightailed towards a large glass case across the room. Ahh, the glass case! Twenty feet of culinary bliss. Although L’Aricciarola has a menu and serves fine local pastas with rich red sauces, people flock to L’Aricciarola for the glass case and the antipasti (inadequately translated as the “appetizers”) on display inside.

Ariccia is famous for porchetta, and porchetta was the first thing I spotted under the glass. The enormous pig, roasted to perfection, was being cut into slices and flanked on all sides by local salamis and hard cheeses, mostly pecorino, a sharp and flavorful cheese made from the milk of sheep from the nearby hills. Moving down the glass I asked for olives, prosciutto, grilled eggplant drizzled with olive oil, spicy cheeses, bursting borlotti beans soaked in red wine vinegar, mozzarella filled with ricotta, chicory, artichokes, roasted potatoes, stuffed peppers, and fried mushrooms.

On a platter in the middle, I spotted for the first time the dish that continues to pop up from time to time in my nighttime dreams: balls of smoked buffalo mozzarella wrapped in a strip of crispy prosciutto crudo, stuffed with a walnut, and grilled to melting.

Back at the table, I rejoined my friends and as I chowed down on antipasti and endless baskets of fresh, soft bread, I soaked in the Romano atmosphere. L’Aricciarola is a place where your chair is always bumping the chairs of the table behind you and the servers are constantly squeezing between and tripping over customers, but no one protests. A place where people are happy and noisy, where people drink the sweet house wine without pretense. A place where the crowd can and will break into spontaneous song in the local dialect and everyone except for you will know the words by heart. A place not found in guidebooks, a place to make memories and friends.

But above all, L’Aricciarola is a place to eat, a place to savor regional Italian cuisine how it was meant to be.

 

Chris Watts is a contributing write for EthnoTraveler.

 

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