Before arriving at Casa L Orto Hallie, Jordan and I spent 5 days in Rome. We planned our days around food, but our most important food stop by far was at the American Academy in Rome (AAR). Carol LeWitt had put us in touch with her friends at the AAR before we left for Rome and so we arranged a visit.
We stepped out of our cab outside the AAR and walked onto the grounds of what looks like a beautiful Italian villa—a soft orange color with an inner courtyard and fountain. The walls of the inner courtyard were covered in a blanket of honeysuckle and arches in the walls gave way to a colonnade/walk-way that went around all four sides. We crossed the courtyard and entered the building through a screen door. We found ourselves at the AAR bar where Gabriel the bartender made us all espresso. In addition to drinks, the bar at the AAR also sells organic granola, biscotti made in the kitchen, fair trade organic coffee, and something very hard to find in anywhere else in Italy—organic peanut butter. The walls surrounding the bar are covered in small frames—from a distance they look like multicolored tiles, but each one is a self-portrait done by an AAR fellow.
After finishing our espresso we were met by Laura Offendu, the manager of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, who gave us a tour of the grounds and explained to us a bit about the history of the AAR and beginning of the sustainable food project there. We saw the small garden and met the gardener who is responsible for it as well as a fellow who was volunteering for a few hours. We learned that though the garden itself is an important part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, it cannot provide nearly enough food to support the whole Academy. An equally important part of the project is that the AAR began to source all their food from local producers.
We met Alice Waters at the long table that runs along an entire side of the inner courtyard. She was wearing an eggplant dress and sitting with her hands around a glass of French press coffee. When Hallie said that she was a cook Alice immediately replied: “just remember, less is more.” At first I wasn’t sure whether this was just a mantra she was reiterating to us, but as she talked with us about the Rome Sustainable Food Project and her project in public schools I saw that this was a statement that she continues to live by.
Alice led us through the kitchen where the lunch preparations were underway. The kitchen itself embodied “less is more”—all stainless steel surfaces and appliances with a few cooks in white coats. Cooking implements, ingredients, and finished products all had a rightful place. Nothing spoke more to the success of her project than the golden fingerling potatoes sizzling on the griddle. As we stopped to admire the potatoes and take in their scent, the cook told us that the potatoes came from a farm in a region of Italy that for a long time was un-farmable because no one could figure out how to drain it. It was Mussolini who finally succeeded in draining the area—creating an ideal landscape for cultivation.
The lunch table under the shade of the courtyard colonnade was set for 75 –running along two whole sides of the courtyard. In addition to the Mussolini potatoes the menu included pasta with fresh tomatoes, chilled cucumber mint soup, eggplant parmesan, and mixed green salad. For dessert, there were cherries and yogurt with apricot compote and honey. Waiting in line to get food, I recognized a professor I knew from Yale because she had lectured for my Directed Studies classes. I went up and introduced myself and we ended up sitting next to her during lunch and learning about the summer program she runs for Yale students in Rome. As it turned out she was only at the AAR that day by chance to see a friend, because the program she runs operates all over the city and students live in apartments in Trastevere. Listening to this professor describe her program in Rome and then getting advice from her about what sites we should visit during our remaining time there, I felt what Laura and Alice had told us about how the advent of the sustainable food project had transformed the atmosphere at AAR. According to Laura it used to be that only a few people would come to lunch at the AAR and now they had set a table for 75. It wasn’t only the number of people there but the pervasive warmth and openness of conversation I experienced that spoke to the success of the Rome Sustainable Food Project and “less is more.”
When we stepped outside the gate I felt as if I’d just left a utopia of sorts, the whole day—complete with delicious lunch—was almost surreal. As Hallie, Jordan, and I debriefed the day we became more and more excited about how we could potentially apply the model of the Rome Sustainable Food Project to Casa L Orto. At the time Casa L Orto was only an idea in our heads but we were already convinced that we could bring something from this incredible day to the project of our summer.
It has been just over a week since Hallie, Jordan and I arrived in Praiano and moved in at Casa L Orto. What Casa L Orto has that the ARR doesn’t is space and volume—we have the capacity to grow and are already growing way more food than we could possibly eat ourselves. What Casa L Orto still lacks is an outlet for our produce—since we do not yet have the permit needed to sell produce we rely on outlets for giving it away. This week we began by making zucchini bread with Casa L Orto zucchini and distributing this American specialty to people in town. We were met with confused looks when we declared that the item was “pane di zucchini” and several people asked us what time of day they should eat their zucchini bread, but the bread was received well. Luigi, the owner of a local hotel and bar called us to thank us for the delicious bread and declared when we saw him later that it was “the best thing he’d eaten.” Pasquale, the barber who lives right next door to Casa L Orto showed his gratitude by passing a plate of homemade cookies over the fence to us the next day. We are far from seating a lunch table of 75, but the community of Praiano is already responding to the power of simple food.