Spring has gathered its forces and doused Pittsburgh with an extra gallon of sunshine, crisp air, and storm-blown nights. Time to enjoy the ultimate treat for a stay-at-home mom. I left the confines of my play room walls to journey to Rome. At least my ears journeyed there. I met a friend for lunch who has just returned from a year in the cradle of the modern world. As we enjoyed an al fresco lunch at Girasole in Shadyside, she regaled me with tales of limoncello sipped slowly on piazzas, a Pope sighting amidst waving fronds on Palm Sunday, and the incongruity of Steelers jerseys sported in front of the Trevi fountain. The spring Pittsburgh sunshine migrated across our table. A dog tied to a nearby table barked; its owner tossed it a piece of pasta. My daughter stared down a boy saddled in a high chair across the patio and opened and closed her fist in an unrequited wave.
We chose Girasole as the location for our reunion lunch, because how could we discuss Rome over anything but an authentic Italian repast? Numerous friends have recommended Girasole for its appetizing simplicity, and our lunch did not disappoint. I loved that the menu focuses on seasonal specialites, and when requested to provide guidance on the menu, our waitress proceeded to recommend almost every dish. While she assured us that “spinach and ricotta ravioli in a tomato cream sauce” was the most popular dish, we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the house salad. A delectable concoction of “Mixed greens, tomatoes, red onions, garbanzo beans, olives, and gorgonzola in a sunflower vinaigrette”, we were mopping our plates. “Sunflower seeds,” my friend mused. “I’ll have to remember that.” When a (recent) Roman resident wants to take home some ideas from a Pittsburgh meal, my ears perk up.
While the menu and food were refreshing, what I enjoyed most was the intimate setting as we stretched our legs on a brick patio and soaked up the first warmth presaging summer. Girasole is located in a grotto-like lower floor just off of busy Walnut Street in Shadyside. Stumbling upon it feels like discovering a secret hideaway, although by the looks of our fellow diners, this is one secret that’s not carefully guarded. The tables around us bustled with business men dictating into chunky Blackberrys, chic shop girls in black leggings and scarves, moms and grandmas juggling shopping bags and babies, and our friend the dog-owner whose patient beast panted in the sun during his owner’s meal.
As my ears transported me to Rome with my friend’s tales, my fingers stroked a bit of Italian treasure. Ever attuned to my list of “favorite things”, my dear friend brought me a gift from Rome that is handily beating out “whiskers on kittens” and “brown paper packages tied up with strings.” However, crooning “Il Papiro‘s In Cucina Recipe Book” lacks some of the lyrical grace of kitten whiskers, so I won’t be rewriting the song anytime soon. I weighed the artfully wrapped package and mistakenly assumed that it contained a journal. “It’s so much more!” my friend cried, and she was right. Instead of blank pages waiting for writer’s block to burst, In Cucina encourages me to record my favorite recipes on pages both heavy and smooth. My favorite feature, and it has stiff competition within the book, is the calorie chart. “Albiocche (Italian for apricot),” it informs me, is 31 calories. “Polpo” (octopus) is 57 calories. “Cervello” (Italian for brains) will cost me 156. And “mascarpone” (Italian for mascarpone, go figure) comes in at 453 delicious diet-busting calories. The recipes I select to record within this gift of a book will have to be as special as the book itself. It will fill slowly.
Hearing and touching Rome floods me with memories of my last “trip” to this ancient, intoxicating city. For the first months of my daughter’s life, when confined to my house by diapers, snow, and insomnia, I found solace in the pages of Anthony Doerr’s book, Four Seasons in Rome. His memoir, written in arresting prose, shares his year’s experience in Rome while raising twin boys. Digesting his word-craft leaves me convicted that he is easily one of the most talented writers today. I share these lines from his book in hopes that his words will bring Rome to life:
“A breeze seethes in some locust trees at the head of the alley and their little leaves fly past us, a blizzard of gold. Through a doorway I can see a dim kitchen, copper pans hanging against whitewash. A woman stares into a sink, ensconced in steam, her hair stacked in a complicated tower. Sixty hours ago I was buying Pampers at an Albertsons supermarket in Boise. Now I stand near the ghost of what, two thousand years ago, was supposedly an amphitheater flooded regularly by the Emperor Augustus to stage mock naval battles. We stare at clothing shops, a bookstore, try to imagine the keel of an imperial trireme slicing past above us.”
My friend and I finished lunch and left the little grotto that had become my Roman home for a few hours. Walking to our cars, we lapped a woman leading a frazzle-haired dog, squeezed beside diners on the sidewalk of Cappy’s Cafe, brushed past multiple signs urging “Go Pens.” The sun intensified its heat. Pittsburgh worked its spring charm on me, and I thought, “It’s good to go to Rome and come home again.”
For an armchair vacation to Rome, check out Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr. To spear a taste of Rome on your fork, enjoy lunch for two (less than $25) at Girasole in Shadyside. For the real deal, my Roman authority, Catherine, recommends a week’s stay in the ancient city followed by a relaxing (and organic) culinary weekend at Fontana del Papa.