Kathryn says: Just a few blocks away from the historic Colosseum, there lives a woman who loves food – dare I say as much as we do. Maureen Fant has written a handful of books on Italian cuisine, including the William-Sonoma Rome cookbook. Although she’s American by birth, she’s Italian by choice and proud of it. She’s lived in Rome for 32 years and knows its food markets like the back of her hand.
J and I were fortunate enough to land a cooking lesson with this renowned foodie, thanks to our parents’ generous funding. Since Mom and Dad know how much we love Italian food and cooking, they knew that a lesson in Italy would be the gift of a lifetime. And it was. Since Maureen is a writer and a cook, we knew she was a great match for J and I.
We met at the Testaccio market at 10 a.m. to forage for lunch ingredients. Maureen led us through the shaded outdoor market as the produce’s fresh smells and vibrant colors delighted our senses.
Testaccio Market (Rome, Italy)
The raw fish, on the other hand, wasn’t as appetizing to catch a whiff of in the morning, but we did enjoy watching the fish man work his sales pitch with Maureen. They conversed for a few minutes in Italian, and he package up some fresh anchovies for us, throwing in a few mackerel for free for his regular customer. Menu item No.1. We had no plan but to explore and buy what looked good, dreaming up a lunch menu as we went.
The fish man at the Testaccio Market
We came across some prickly pears and pointed green grapes, and she didn’t hesitate to add them to the menu. She said we’d eat them for dessert since she wasn’t into baking or eating confections like we were. She said her husband, Franco, loves prickly pears, and we’d never seen them before, so it seemed like a must-try.
I told her that I liked peppers, so we picked up a few big, shiny red and yellow ones. We threw in some zucchini too.
Zucchini with flowers at Testaccio Market
Then, we got a lesson on broccoli romanesco as we marveled over the pretty-looking bouquets of light-green broccoli adorned with fancy leaves. That went into our grocery bags as well.
Broccoli romanesco at Testaccio Market
Next, we were watching her ask for the tomato man’s expert advice on the best tomatoes to buy for the short pasta twists we’d be cooking with from her kitchen at home. We told her that we liked sweet flavors, so she got a heap of little popping tomatoes.
The tomato man and Maureen at the Testaccio Market
Tomatoes at Testaccio Market
And soon enough, we were heading to meet the cheese man across the street for our final stop at E. Volpetti (Via Marmorata N. 47 Roma). We walked in and were greeted by the aroma of distinct, aged parmesan, which we got to sample soon after our arrival. A short, friendly man with the wide smile of a caricature enthusiastically explained the origin and quality of the cheese he was sampling, and proudly showed us his photo in Maureen’s cookbook. He posed for us to take his photo too. Maureen purchased a block of the hard, white cheese for our pasta and some ricotta since J said ricotta was one of her favorites.
The cheese man, whose photo is featured in Maureen Fant’s “Williams-Sonoma Rome” cookbook
We had enough ingredients; Now, it was time to cook.
We took a taxi to Maureen’s apartment, just across the street from the Colosseum, and we quickly set up shop in her small but functional kitchen.
Maureen’s cooking philosophy was this: “Keep everything focused on the principal flavors on the principle ingredients.” So we used few ingredients, but quality ingredients.
Maureen Fant cooks the pasta
Jamie chopping fresh parsley in Maureen Fant’s kitchen
J preparing the anchovies
To stave off our hunger, we snacked on hard, crusty Italian bread topped with fresh, creamy ricotta and salt and pepper. Maureen taught us how to make bruschetta too, which made for a delicious appetizer. I filmed her and made a 1-minute video, “How to Make Bruschetta.”
Toast with fresh ricotta
Then she brought out some fried green olives from her freezer for more snacking. They were stuffed with pork and breaded and fried. We re-heated them on the stovetop. I’d never tried a fried olive before; the contrasting textures of the smooth olive and sandy bread crumbs made for a unique experience. Of course, salt and olive oil make everything tasty. It was like sushi – you pop the whole thing in your mouth in and then enjoy the various flavors wrapped up in the one bite.
Breaded, fried olives stuffed with meat (from Maureen’s freezer)
Mom arrived to join us for lunch, and we brought out the zucchini frittata to sample. It was light and healthy-tasting. I liked it with salt on top.
Finally, the labors of love were over, and we sat down to appreciate them. Time to eat! We toasted with a sweet white wine and then dug in.
Lunch time at Maureen Fant’s apartment
Side table with appetizers and some of our side dishes
Surprisingly, the simplest dish was my favorite – broccoli romanesco. We boiled it and lightly tossed it in olive oil and lemon juice. The veggie was hot and tender, so soft that I barely needed to chew it, and it tasted creamy and delicious.
Cooked broccoli romanesco
The pasta was thick and chewy, and the sweet little tomatoes mixed in were the best part. We enjoyed it with some freshly grated cheese.
Pasta with roasted tomatoes and fresh basil
Freshly grated cheese
The roasted peppers stood on their own – simple, slimy and holding a bold, grilled taste.
Roasted red and yellow peppers
The anchovies and mackerel were delicate in texture and mild in taste. The crunchy bread crumbs worked well on the soft, white fish.
Breaded fresh anchovies and mackerel
By the time Maureen brought out the “dessert,” we were full, but we had to try the Italian fruits she was raving about. The pointed grapes were bursting with sweet juiciness, but I’m not a fan of seeds in grapes. The prickly pears were a bit of work to get into. You have to cut off the skin and then there are some seeds in the middle to avoid. The prickles aren’t just the big brown knobs on the skin; there are tiny, clear splintery hairs that we were pulling out of our fingers for hours to come. I called them “no-see-ums.” The pears were the bright orange color of a mango and similar in texture and taste, although a bit firmer and more mild.
A prickly pear cut open
After lingering over lunch, we climbed up to Maureen’s rooftop for a peak of her incredible view of the Colosseum. It was almost 3:30 p.m., so we said arrivederci and grazie (goodbye and thank you).
We left feeling satisfied with our quality, Italian meal, having made a new friend in the kitchen and having learned some cooking tips along the way.
Kathryn, Maureen and Jamie on Maureen’s rooftop. See the Colosseum behind us?!
The following recipes were created in collaboration with Maureen Fant and written up by Jamie:
Bruschetta (View the video here.)
- Bread (hard and crusty)
- Garlic clove
- Fresh basil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Toast bread. Peel garlic clove, cut it in half, and rub the inside of it on the toasty bread.
- Slice tomato. Chop basil. Top bread with sliced tomato, salt, pepper, and chopped basil. Drizzle olive oil on top.
- Bulb of green onion
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Rinse zucchini and green onion. Chop ends off of zucchini and discard. Slice zucchini into thin disks using a food processor.
- Thinly slice bulb of green onion.
- Placed a pan with sloped sides on a burner on medium heat. Add olive oil to pan. Add sliced zucchini and green onion. Stir.
- Place lid on pan and cook. Stir occasionally. Cook until lightly browned, about 20 minutes.
- Crack eggs into a small bowl. Use a wire whisk to beat. Add eggs to pan with zucchini and onions. Cook for about 4 minutes. To cook other side, flip frittata onto a plate, and then return frittata to pan to cook other side. Cook for about 4 more minutes or until egg is cooked.
Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes and Fresh Basil
- Small cherry tomatoes
- Pasta (a quality pasta- made of 100% durum wheat flour and water)
- Italian white cheese (Parmesan or pecorino)
- Olive oil
- Preheat oven to 350⁰F. Wash tomatoes. Cut in half. Place on a tray and bake for about 30 minutes or until soft and slightly shriveled.
- Add water and salt to a large pot. Bring to a boil. Add pasta.
- Meanwhile, wash and chop basil; grate cheese.
- Using a sieved spoon, scoop pasta into a serving bowl. Add grated cheese, basil, and olive oil.
Breaded Fresh Anchovies and Mackerel
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Anchovie filets, fresh
- Mackerel filets, fresh
- Homemade bread crumbs
- Preheat oven to 350⁰F. Rinse filets and remove fin (leaving tail on). Place on a paper towel to dry.
- Place parchment paper on a pan. Rub a little olive oil on it. Place filets, skin side down, on parchment paper on pan.
- Top filets with bread crumbs, parsley, and olive oil.
- Bake for about 5 minutes or until flakey.
Roasted Bell Peppers
- Red and yellow bell peppers
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Rinse bell peppers. Place peppers (stem on the side, not standing up) on a baking sheet in a toaster oven (or oven). Broil for 5 minutes, use tongs to rotate 90⁰, and continue broiling- each side for 5 minutes to broil all four sides for a total of 20 minutes. Note: peppers are supposed to become blackened in areas.
- Remove peppers from heat and place in a pot with a lid
- When peppers are cool enough to touch, pull top off and discard. Peel outer layer of peppers off and discard. Tear pepper and remove seeds.
- Slice pepper into strips. Pour extra virgin olive oil on top.
- Broccoli Roma
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Add water and salt to a pot. Bring water to a boil.
- Chop florets off of broccolini. Discard stems. Add florets to boiling water. Cook until slightly tender.
- Top with olive oil and lemon juice.
We also enjoyed wine, stuffed olives, prickly pears, and grapes.