Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: The Dogs of Rome

I generally only read police procedural mysteries if they are set in another country (i.e. not in the US). Fortunately, there are a number of good police mystery series set in Italy: Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series [set mostly in central Italy], Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series [Sicily], Magdalen Nabb's Marshal Guarnaccia series [Florence], David Hewson's Nic Costa series [Rome], and, of course, Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice and my personal favorites.

A British author living in Rome, Conor Fitzgerald, has a new series set in his adopted city: the first, "The Dogs of Rome," is available in paperback in the US and the second, "The Fatal Touch," will be published in hardcover here in June. I started reading "The Dogs of Rome" less than a week ago and, particularly in the last two days as the action in the book has heated up, have devoured it. (Fortunately, the semester has just ended, and I have time for such reading shenanigans.) Our hero is an American who has lived in Italy since he was a teenager and is now a commissioner in the Roman police. The case: an animal rights activist -- who has a high-level politician wife but a mistress with connections to the Roman underworld -- is brutally slain in his apartment. Commissario Alec Blume and his team of Roman detectives must find the killer.

The book begins well, slows down a little over-much after the opening action, but then finds a good pace. Quite purposefully, the author takes his time letting us get to know Commissario Blume. Blume's a hard nut to crack, and about halfway through the book, we find out why. Around page 275, the author pulls a fast one with point-of-view that if done badly, could have ground the story to a halt, but instead, catapults it forward. (That's about the time I realized I Could Not Stop Reading!) If you're looking for the Rome of the Colosseum and art historical masterpieces, you won't find it here; Fitzgerald sets us squarely in the grittier neighborhoods of Rome and amongst its sketchier inhabitants. Earlier in the book, I was missing the types of descriptive setting details that Leon does so well in her Venice novels, but these pick up as "Dogs of Rome" moves along.

An aspect of the book that I appreciate: Alec Blume *is* a hard nut to crack and we don't get to know him quickly. I'm weary of books by male authors whose heroes are thinly disguised fantasies of what they themselves would like to be: where we learn in a matter of pages how gorgeous, smart, and irresistible to women the hero is, and we keep hearing it allllll the waaaay through the book. (Et tu, Robert Langdon?) Fitzgerald does not do this. We are not sure what we think of Blume at first. We do not know him, and nobody tells us what we are supposed to think of him. We don't even learn how old he is or what he looks like until the book is well underway, and as the story rolls along, small details tell us the most about him.

This one's a winner. I read it in the comfort of my air-conditioned home, but I wish now I'd saved it for the airplane trip to Italy. It would have kept me happily engrossed all the way to Rome.

Government-required disclaimer: I purchased this book with my own hard-earned money; it was not a freebie sent for review. The Raving Italophile does not accept freebies sent for review on this blog.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Perfection on a Plate

Rome's history is filled with twosomes. Romulus and Remus. Saints Peter and Paul [the city's patron saints]. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. And...cacio e pepe.

Tagliarini cacio e pepe. Spaghetti cacio e pepe. Linguine cacio e pepe. Some shape of pasta 'cacio e pepe' is guaranteed to appear on the menu in any self-respecting Roman ristorante or trattoria--good luck finding it somewhere else, because it is truly a Roman dish. You can translate the name as pasta with cheese and pepper, but calling it 'pasta with cheese and pepper' is like saying the Sistine Chapel has Bible pictures. Cacio e pepe, my dear amici, is so much more. In Rome, the cheese in question is likely to be "Cacio di Roma," a sheep's-milk cheese reminiscent of its cousin Pecorino Romano but softer and not quite as salty. Perhaps your local trattoria mixes in some Pecorino Romano for good measure. Your local trattoria may have a little butter in the pasta, or it may rely solely on reserved pasta water as the binder for the sauce. It certainly has plenty of fresh spicy black pepper (hence the 'pepe'). For some mysterious reason, it took three trips to Rome for me to discover this scrumptious dish, and I credit a server at the incredibly unpretentious hole-in-the-wall Trattoria Gino e Pietro on the Via del Governo Vecchio for this revelation.

I've tried to replicate pasta cacio e pepe back in the U.S. but without much success. True, I don't have access to Cacio di Roma and have to make do solely with Pecorino Romano. But something else is the problem, and I believe it's the water. The water in Rome is, quite simply, the best water of any city in the world. Always has been: think of the ancient Romans and all their aqueducts bringing water from the mountains down to the city. Romans then and Romans now are justly proud of their water supply (which easily deserves its own blogpost). The water here in Florida, meanwhile, is vile. Ten years living here, and I still can't get used to it. It's an over-chlorinated, over-who-knows-what-else mess. It leaves rings and spots anywhere it can, and even filtered, even in its reserved-pasta-water form, it sure can't do what it is supposed to for pasta cacio e pepe: melt the cheese into an even creamy tapestry. Instead, you end up with odd little specks and too many naked noodles.

Unfulfilled at home, I load my tummy when I go to Rome, as if to stockpile my tastebuds until the next trip. Last year, I was in Rome for seven nights. And I ate cacio e pepe at three different restaurants for three of them. Buon appetito!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Pieta's New Neighbor

According to news reports this morning, the newly beatified Blessed John Paul II will no longer have his tomb in the crypt of the church, where most of the popes buried in St Peter's can be found, but instead will be reinterred in the Chapel of the Pieta (aka the first chapel on the right as you enter the basilica). In being 'promoted' to the upper church, he joins a small number of other popes upstairs -- all Italian, as far as I can tell from the plan in my trusty Blue Guide -- including Blessed John XXIII (beatified by John Paul II in 2000, the pope who called the Second Vatican Council); Leo XI, one of the Medici popes; and flanking the Cathedra Petri at the east end of the church, Paul III Farnese (who called the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and supervised the completion of Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel) and Urban VIII Barberini (who supervised the completion of the basilica and commissioned many works inside the church, including the grand Baldacchino by Gianlorenzo Bernini that covers the high altar).

Selfishly, I hope that the new tomb means the Chapel of the Pieta will become more accessible to visitors. Ever since Michelangelo's glorious statue was attacked and badly damaged by a crazed Hungarian in 1972 -- fortunately and amazingly, it could be repaired -- the Pieta has been kept safe behind thick bulletproof glass. One of the great disappointments of going to the Vatican, however, is realizing you have to see the Pieta not only from behind this glass, but from a fair distance. It is impossible to appreciate Michelangelo's extraordinary talent (all the more extraordinary when you realize he was only 24 at the time!) the way the statue is presently displayed. There must be a way to preserve the statue's safety while still making it accessible to viewers, and I hope the Vatican has found it. Michelangelo, I have to believe, would want it that way.

In case you're wondering, not all of the popes are buried in St Peter's basilica. Two of the most famous are to be found elsewhere in Rome: Julius II (aka Cardinal della Rovere from "The Borgias"--oops! is that a spoiler?!), the warrior pope who tussled with Michelangelo over the Sistine Chapel ceiling, is buried at the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, St Peter in Chains, in a tomb fashioned by Signore Buonarroti himself. And the hated Alexander VI Borgia? He's in the Spanish national church in Rome, as is his pope uncle Calixtus III, the church of Santa Maria di Monserrato on the Via Giulia.