I had the good fortune to be in Rome three weeks ago for a short trip in preparation for leading a group of Latin students there in March. Rome had been on our itinerary five years ago when Dillon and I traveled to Italy, but near the end of our trip, and after six weeks of travel throughout northern Italy, we made the regrettable decision to cancel our plans in Rome. I was not teaching Latin at the time, and it just seemed too much to take on. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Of course, Italy is no garden of Eden. So often, non-Italians idealize and romanticize Italy, as generations have done, at least since Goethe. I remember being crushed on our first trip when I realized that Italy was just a place, not some sort of magical, alternate reality. Italy possesses graffiti (tons in Rome), ugly apartment complexes, some mean people, trashy shops, and bad food. Often, things don’t work, strikes shut down the trains, things aren’t clean, and no one seems to care. Think of neglected New York in the 1970s and 1980s, and this is close to what it’s like to be in many Italian cities (minus the violent crime). Especially to Americans, who are so used to efficiency and problem-solving, Italy can seem more like hell than heaven.

But that is, after all, why we travel. We don’t (or shouldn’t) travel abroad and expect American sensibilities. As deeply committed as many are to American values, it is helpful to remind ourselves on occasion that most of these values are only preferences, not absolute truths. Is efficiency more important than beauty? Is it healthy to try to control all the miniscule details of our lives? Is it better to spend money caring for a sick person or to clean a monument? These are questions worth considering, and traveling abroad forces us to confront these questions and many others.

I was humbled myself when I ordered a dish I had prepared many times and thought I knew well – spaghetti alla gricia – only to find a rendition very different from my own. Spaghetti alla gricia is sometimes described as a version of spaghetti all’ amatriciana without tomatoes; that is, with only guanciale and onions. Only, in the dish I was served at Armando al Pantheon, a small, thirty-seat trattoria just a few steps from the Pantheon and serving mostly locals, there were no onions! It was an excellent reminder of just how minimalistic most cooking in Italy is. Armando’s version contained just a few pieces of rather mild guanciale, sautéed very lightly in olive oil, and finished with black pepper and pecorino romano. Later, when I asked Katie Parla — an acquaintance and private tour guide in Rome — about this, she explained that all “alla gricia” in Rome is made that very way, no onions! Try as hard as one might, it’s hard to replicate a thing when not fully immersed in the culture which created it. Not that onions and guanciale don’t make a lovely dish. It’s just not “alla gricia.” I stood corrected and humbled.

Of course, Italy does offer many moments of bliss and divine contentment. Although I’ve been served mediocre gelato in Italy, the vast majority is exceptionally good and can take one’s breath away. Luckily, we have at least one place in the US which makes it correctly and equals the Italian. The espresso in Italy is also astounding. Italian coffee can only be compared to ambrosia, the food of the gods. It is not correct to think of it as just “stronger” than American coffee; it is also more concentrated, like the difference between a fresh tomato and a sun-dried tomato, or between fresh and smoked salmon. I’m sure mediocre coffee exists in Italy, but I’ve never had one.  For me, this loss is the hardest thing about going back to the States.

Just as hard to give up is the Italian overflowing of life which somehow infects one’s spirit. In the Piazza di Spagna on a Saturday night around 11 pm, one is nourished by the bustle and activity, the laughter and the conviviality of those who walk and congregate there: parents with their young children, an aspiring Romeo wooing his beloved, two friends arguing over football. One takes in this scene and wants to join in, to feel as the Italians do. Ultimately this might be their greatest gift to the world and one worth experiencing. In the end, perhaps efficiency and order aren’t the most compelling values after all?

Recipe for Spaghetti alla Gricia

Guanciale is really essential for making this dish. The best guanciale available in the US is from La Quercia. It is sold by DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia and I believe La Quercia ships as well. Whatever you don’t use can be frozen and then cut off as needed. It doesn’t get rock hard. Guanciale is strongly but distinctively flavored in an unforgettable way.

1)   Bring four or more quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons salt and the spaghetti.

2)   While the pasta is cooking, lightly brown thinly sliced guanciale (or pancetta or bacon if you must) in a little olive oil.

3)   When the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the pan with the guanciale along with a little of the pasta cooking water, a pinch of salt, freshly ground pepper, and a generous amount of pecorino romano cheese.

4)   Toss and serve at once.

Spaghetti alla gricia