It's hard to go anywhere in Italy and not return home with a new outlook on your cooking. I'm lucky to have been many times, each visit bringing fresh ideas to the recipes I develop and the ways I approach life in general. It's easy to say that the Italians have it down.
Here's the thing about Rome in particular: it's so beautiful, everything tastes good. You probably know that if you've been there, or anywhere for that matter where the history is rich and the people care about their food. There is an everyday commonsense feeling to the extraordinary food and drink Romans consume, just as they speed by the Colosseum on their Vespas while we foreigners gawk at its magnificence.
This last time I went to Rome, just a few weeks ago, I returned with five pieces of cooking inspiration — nothing new like an ingredient I hadn't heard of, or a crazy recipe to wow my friends, but rather reminders of the Italian way of cooking and how I gravitate toward this way of cooking in my own life.
1. If you find fresh, in-season artichokes, buy them. Invite people over and eating nothing but. Yes, the Roman variety is different than what we grow in the States, but if they're procured from a good source and are recently harvested, a simple steamed or fried artichoke can be life-changing.
2. How very civilized it is to have an aperitif tradition. Alcohol or no, the practice of sitting down to a drink at the end of the day while dinner cooks, or before going out to dinner, is a great way to place some punctuation between the work day and the evening. For a few summers now, my aperitif of choice has been an Aperol Spritz, and this trip to Rome only reinforced my love for this cocktail.
3. Think of your ingredients as a palette. Pierluigi is a seafood restaurant on a tiny Roman piazza near the Campo de Fiori, with nuns scurrying to and fro, birds singing in a bright blue sky, where the food is topnotch. Just look at that salad! It's like a painting, the simplest stuff, but so well composed. Red from cherry tomatoes, green from arugula, purple from onion (they could have used yellow onions or scallions for a similar flavor but of course the purple makes all the difference), and pink from the shrimp. This is one I'm making at home.
4. There are infinite flavor possibilities for gelato (or ice cream if you prefer). Once you have down a formula that works for you, there is no end to the inspiration. Savory, sweet, simple, complex. I've used my gelato machine more in the last month since coming home from Rome than ever before.
5. Pasta: just a little, before the main course, with a rich but simple sauce. Although it's hard to maintain over a extended period of time, the Italian tradition eating a large lunch with pasta before the main course made me resurrect this tradition at home for big celebratory meals. Forget bread on the table, and forget giant bowls of pasta for every person. Make it a tease.