January 24, 2013
We had the best cafeteria food when I lived in Rome. There’s this saying: There are no bad meals in Italy, just some are better than others. Our cafeteria proved that out. We had full, proper Italian meals. Soup or pasta for the prima, a meat or vegetarian seconda, a vegetable side (mmmm… rosemary roasted potatoes), fruit or yogurt for dolce (even though we all argued that we should be allowed fruit AND yogurt because they belong to different food groups). There was also a salad bar, which was the only thing that was hit or miss, but tomatoes go out of season in Italy, too. Yes, it was a proper cafeteria. Although these were individual courses, they were all on our tray at the same time.
Now, when I say we had “soup or pasta for the prima”, I mean that we had a choice between the zuppa or the pasta. Most meals, I opted for the pasta. So did most of my friends. (We always whined at how the servers doled out the ravioli. If I remember correctly, we each got three. But again, it was just the first course. And once everyone was served, we could always go back for seconds.) But some days I didn’t particularly want the pasta option, or the soup sounded particularly delicious. And when I had my annual upper respiratory infection, all I ate was the zuppa. (Chef knew I was feeling better when I came in and asked for the pasta one day at dinner. It was a weekend, so he was the only person working the cafeteria that meal.)
The seconda was a crapshoot for those of us who aren’t big meat eaters. That was how I learned to love eggplant. But if there was no seconda that you wanted, you could always ask for a ball of mozzarella or a can of tuna. If the tomatoes were good that day, you could usually make a decent caprese and be quite content. One of the dishes I’ve never had in quite the same form before or since was mozzarella in carrozza, a slice of breaded, fried mozzarella. Yes, essentially a big mozzarella stick, but the crust wasn’t like any mozzarella stick I’ve eaten anywhere else. It was very, well, bready.
And then came the day that word trickled through the cafeteria line. The soup that day was zuppa di pomodoro and mozzarella in carrozza was one of the seconda options. Yes, we could have tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. It was second semester. All of us who were full year students hadn’t seen tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches in five or six months. (And, yes, most of us were from the Midwest, so this was a childhood staple. We did have Joseph with his sweet New Orleans drawl to give us something resembling diversity.) I don’t know what the second semester students chose, but almost all of the full years opted for zuppa di pomodoro con mozzarella in carrozza. We dipped the breaded mozzarella in our rich tomato soup and relished every minute of it. It was probably the only real American food we discovered we’d been missing.
And when I got home in May and my mother picked me up at the airport, she asked what I wanted for dinner. She was surprised when I said, “Tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.”
And you know what? I have a feeling I know what I’m going to want to eat when I get through this morning sickness.