If you’re going to visit Rome, remove one month from your plans. July in Rome is miserable. It’s hot. We’ve had numerous days of 32-plus degrees and 50 percent humidity. It’s crowded. It’s easier to see the pope than an empty bus seat. It’s touristy. If I see one more white fedora and Bermuda shorts on a sweating tourist I’m moving to Malta. Rome in July is the equivalent of going to Oslo in January.
I was going to spend the month sitting on my terrace eating fruit. However, I had a craving. When you have a food itch in Italy it’s impossible not to scratch it. It’s so easy. Go to your local outdoor market, trattoria or street vendor. Italian Porchetta. Pasta. Pizza. Gelato. It’s like scratching your elbow.
I recently I did the scratching about 15 miles southeast of Rome. The town of Frascati is tucked into the Alban Hills, where the Ancient Roman aristocracy would go to escape Rome’s hot summer days like these now. Spectacular villas dating back to the 16th century cover Frascati, all looking like aging movie sets with huge facades, expansive front lawns and elaborate gardens.
Popes, cardinals and Roman nobles built all these basically as status symbols. You’ve heard of keeping up with the Joneses? This was keeping up with the popes. Villa Aldobrandini stands watch from atop a big hill, its yellow, five-story baroque edifice and giant garden in front making it look more like a museum than a weekend getaway.
Sightseeing, however, wasn’t on my agenda. Eating was. I had been called to Frascati by a piece of meat so succulent that it has been the center of celebrations around Rome for nearly 700 years.
Italian Porchetta Sandwich
Italian Porchetta (por-KET-ah) is a suckling pig stuffed with rosemary, garlic and fennel, among other yummy herbs and spices, then roasted on a spit for six to eight hours. It’s then cut into chunks and placed between two thick slices of fresh Italian bread to make an Italian Porchetta Sandwich. It’s the ultimate panino (or, as Americans insist on calling them, panini).
It was invented in the 15th century — although legend has it that Emperor Nero liked eating porchetta as much as he did Christians — around the time of the Renaissance. It was when Italy was emerging from a great economic abyss and learning how to celebrate again. Italian porchetta became the focus of many feasts.
Italian Porchetta was first devoured in nearby Ariccia, but it takes a subway and a bus to reach it. Frascati is a 30-minute train trip, or drive in a car rental from Rome. It has become the place to eat suckling pig today.
It’s not hard to find. I walked up the steep staircase from the tiny train station and wound my way to the aptly named Piazza del Marcato. It’s a small, shady, tree-lined, cobblestone piazza with stands all advertising Italian porchetta and Frascati’s famous, crisp white wine.
I ignored a yapping Romanian immigrant nearly begging me to sit down at her stand and went straight to a corner establishment named La Pizzicheria. Its crude tables and chairs were filled with locals and tourists alike. After placing my order, an elderly woman with biceps the size of my thighs took a razor sharp knife and walked outside. At a giant carcass of maroon pork that was a snorting pig the day before, she started carving away fat chunks of white meat and crispy, golden skin. She slapped it into a hard roll to make an Italian Porchetta Sandwich, put it on a paper plate and sat it on my table next to my sweating can of ice-cold Peroni beer.
Italian bread doesn’t make for good sandwiches. The crust is harder than some of the villas’ concrete foundations. What I do is take off the top slice and eat it like an open-faced sandwich. The meat, tenderized by the seasonings, had this spectacular salty tang to it. In every bite of an Italian Porchetta Sandwich you could taste the rosemary and salt and fennel deep into the flesh. The crispy skin tasted like a hard cracker that screamed for a piece of Grana Padano cheese. Even the bits of fat added a salty touch to it.
On the health food scale, Italian porchetta probably ranks somewhere around tiramisu and cured lard but on the flavor meter few dishes are better at whiling away a hot Italian afternoon. OK, maybe July in Rome isn’t awful all the time.
You just need to know where to go.