Dining as the Romans doOkay, so this is another in the seemingly endless expatriate paeans to foreign culture published in the post-Year in Provence era. And yes, Alan Epstein is tickled pink with himself at having pulled off living, even making a living, right in the heart of Rome; he finds it hard to get through a paragraph without tossing in a little vernacular Italian to remind us of his fluency. Even so, it's hard not to like As the Romans Do: The Delights, Dramas, and Daily Diversions of Life in the Eternal City, not only because Epstein truly loves his adopted city but because unlike Peter Mayle and so many of his ilk, Epstein writes from within the cultural circle, not from without; and if you've grimaced at the clumsy ethnocentrism of some of those faux innocents abroad, you'll be far more comfortable in the armchair of this transplanted Romantic.
More seriously, if you have ever visited Rome and fallen under the spell of its ageless and yet proudly ancient mysteries, you will be nostalgically moved at Epstein's succumbing to the same seductions. There is still a bit of the gee-whiz in his descriptions of Roman food, social customs, architecture, etc. But he backs his passions with a wealth of detail, a touch of history, and a flourish of cinematic color. And his habit of tossing in hilarious asides with editorial abandon is itself entirely Italian. In fact, the most Italian thing about his writing is its reluctance to stop for a period.
For instance: Epstein sighs over the simple pleasures of everyday dining, "more satisfying on a day-to-day basis than the miscellaneous cooking that passes for the American variety at this point, or the vaunted, sauce French kind. (Mention French cuisine to a romana, and she will wave her hand and remind you that the French were still barbarians who ate with their fingers when Catherine de' Medici arrived in 1535 to marry the king, introduce the Renaissance, and teach the francesi how to cook at the same time.) Just give me a plate of delicious risotto con zucca e piselli (rice with pureed pumpkin and peas), or spaghetti al pescatore at Luna Piena in Testaccio; or fettucine with tomatoes, basil and mozzarella at Gran Sasso on Via di Ripetta near the Piazza del Popolo, where Mom cooks in her blue apron and slippers in full view of the diners, and her two sons deliver the food . . . " And on and on, page after page, until you are either starving or infuriated or captivated. Or, in equally Italian fashion, all of the above.
But after all this fervid extravagance, Epstein frequently makes a surprisingly succinct point: "Romans eat out to duplicate the experience of eating in, not to experience something new, exotic or foreign." Why, yes, exactly.
If Epstein does sometimes go overboard, as when he details the invariably perfect hair, makeup, clothing, and style of the Roman women (although, in fact, they are almost uniformly stunning and do carry themselves with more disarming confidence than anyone except perhaps the Parisians) well, chalk it up to one of his previous professions matchmaker and "relationship counselor." He may be a sort of motivational speaker for following your dream, but he's earned it. He and his wife Diane were engaged within a month of their first date, married seven months later, spent an extended honeymoon in Italy, and embarked on a three-year campaign to become permanent residents of Rome. And five years later, they're still ecstatic.
Wine made easyRomans are anything but wine snobs: A typical trattoria meal is priced to include some sort of antipasti, pasta, meat, or seafood and a carafe of wine, red or white. Table wine, vino paisano, whatever except in the fanciest of (American-influenced) restaurants, wine is easy come, easy go down.
Among the most popular table whites is Orvietto, which is produced in the neighboring province of Umbria. A blend of four grapes, predominantly what's called procanico (trebbiano), it's most often drunk young, when its green notes are crisp and punctual, but it can be allowed to mellow for a couple of years to deepen its browner undertones.
Antinori's 1999 Orvieto Classico has a broomstraw pallor and a short, very crisp frontal assault of grapefruit, kaffir lime, pineapple, and cedar; at $11 a bottle, it definitely suggests an end-of-summer cocktail party. If you're curious about Umbrian Chardonnays, try Antinori's 1999 Castello della Salla; at about $12 a bottle, it's an easy house wine, good now and probably deepening for another couple of years (although it will never be a really chewy wine). Narrow but complex, it presents a crisp heirloom apple nose and a complimentary front, with hints of grapefruit and toasted almond; allowed to warm a bit, it develops an ephermeral smokiness, a bit of nougat, and ripe pear. The finish is short but refreshing.
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post. This column reflects her dual interests in travel and wine.