A block away from my apartment in Rome, next to the barber and the stop for the 44 bus, is a small, red restaurant called Home Baked. When I first eyed it two months ago, I assumed it was just a normal café, the name due to the Italian love of English phrases like “Snack Bar” or “Happy Hour.” But Home Baked serves “American” food — you can get a latte there, or a bagel, or a bacon-egg-and-cheese. When my professors were introducing the neighborhood the first day of class, one of them mentioned Home Baked, and quietly advised us to “not let it become a crutch.”
I harrumphed at his warning, not because I thought it was wrong, but rather because I assumed it could never apply to me. I was in Rome, for Jupiter’s sake — why would I waste even one meal on American food? I couldn’t even fathom why Italians would go there, when they had cappuccinos and cornetti on every corner.
But then again, I often find myself becoming obsessively, even fanatically locavore here in Italy. Not in a slow-food, “These onions were grown a mile away away and the chicken’s name was Beyoncé,” kind of way. It’s more a heightened sense of regionalism, an acknowledgement that Italy is, in a sense, made of many different countries.
For a long time, this was a literal truth. Italy was fragmented into various city-states. There was a Kingdom of Sicily. There was a Republic of Venice, whose power ebbed and flowed like its famous canals. Rome was, naturally, an independent territory ruled by the Pope. These mini-nations had their own governments, their own armies, their own culture, even their own loosely related languages. What we think of as “Italian” today is really just the dialect of Medieval Florence, which Dante famously wrote in.
This system continued until the 1860s, when the various Kingdoms were pieced together (after many battles) to form one, Frankenstein-like nation. So vast were the cultural, economic and linguistic differences between the new citizens that one statesman, Massimo D’Azeglio, claimed “We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.” And after decades of television, highways, education (and fascism), Italy has succeeded somewhat. But there remains an intense spirit of regional identity, with many people considering themselves Neapolitan or Roman or Sicilian before Italian.
With all of this in mind, I always make a point of sampling the delicacy of any new city or region I travel to. In this food-obsessed and fragmented country, those two descriptors can be one in the same. And in the last month, I’ve made quite a journey.
I started out in early March, in Calabria, the toe of the boot-like Italian peninsula. In the small town of Paola, where my bus had stopped on a windy afternoon for lunch, I hunted for something — anything — to eat indigenous to the area. Ducking into a small salumeria with two friends, I cautiously approached the counter and asked the grizzled proprietor if he had any ’nduja (ahn-doo-ya), the uniquely Calabrian cured pork spread made with red chilis. He broke out into a huge smile, and replied that he had a jar of his homemade version. A few euros later, and I received a plate with several slices of toast, thickly spread with dense, artery-red ’nduja. The fat seeped through the bread and glistened on my fingertips, as I took less-than-delicate bites and felt my lips glow from those incredible peppers. It tasted like Calabria.
Two days later, I took a ferry from the lapis-lazuli waters of Calabria, onto the periwinkle shores of Sicily. I could devote a bakers dozen columns to everything I saw and ate there, but my first meal felt the most emphatically Sicilian. In Taormina, a seaside town in the northeast corner of the island, at a restaurant named “La Grotta Azzura” tucked away in an alley, I waited a half-hour before the pasta arrived to the table on a silver platter. Our scruffy Adonis of a waiter tossed the linguine before doling out the portions. The long noodles were coated with a silken sauce of cherry tomatoes, flakes of swordfish, and caperberries the size of gumdrops. It was one of the most intense things I had ever tasted; those tomatoes, jiggled in a hot pan until they burst, were the most tomatoe-y tomatoes I’ve sampled. It tasted like Sicily.
My next stop: Ann Arbor. I flew back there after Sicily, and in the days leading up to it, all I could think of was the food there. Not with dread or disgust, but hungry anticipation, like a man about to be released from prison. And yet, I wasn’t craving American food, but rather the cuisines of Vietnam, China and Mexico. My entire frigid week there, I ate nothing but bibimbap, burritos and baozi. It tasted like America.
Italy and America are very different, gastronomically speaking. Not simply because disparity in ingredients or cooking methods, but more a matter of focus. If I could narrow “Italian” food down to one ethos, it would be making things taste like themselves. An orange in Palermo tastes like a whole grove of oranges. A slice of prosciutto in Ravenna tastes like the pig was eating other pigs. I can only narrow down American food to an ethos of non-narrowness. Whatever it sacrifices in terms of intensity of flavor, it regains in diversity, for better or for worse.
Since I’ve come back to Rome, I always look at Home Baked a little differently, trying to imagine what an Italian might think of it. Maybe they really do think of it as a foreign invader, peddling fodder for flabby tourists. But maybe it’s an amusing little addition to the status quo, an occasionally fun treat, never a member of the family, but a good neighbor, nonetheless.