John Keats, with a pretty cat friend, at the Protestant cemetery in Rome.
Recipe: Fettuccine with Fresh Peas, Lemon, and Mint
A friend’s 16-year old-daughter is soon leaving for a six-week art history program in Rome. This has gotten me thinking about a lot of things, mainly when the hell am I going to get a summer vacation, but also all the warm-weather Roman food this kid is going to be eating and loving without me. One of my favorite Roman dishes is pasta with fresh peas. You can make it simply, with just sautéed onion, or you can add guanciale or pancetta or prosciutto. You can assemble a carbonara-type dish, with eggs, adding a handful of peas, or you might include cream (my least favorite version). Basil shows up often in this dish. I like mine with pancetta, lemon, mint, and some type of gentle grating cheese such as grana Padano. You can use fettuccine or spaghetti or something chunkier like penne. I’ve had several versions in Rome. They were all memorable.
It has been a while since I visited Rome, but in the past I’ve always stayed in the Testaccio neighborhood, the old meat slaughter area, which also encompasses the unexpected Piramide, Volpetti’s meticulous cheese shop, the big Testaccio food market, Cestia, an inexpensive little trattoria where many patrons look like Salvador Dali and where I first ate pasta con piselli in Rome, and, very important, the Protestant cemetery, which I love for its well-fed cats and ornate, mostly non-Italian graves. I’ve always had a morbid romantic attachment to graveyards. They’re beautiful and soothing, but as I discovered a long time ago, they can also sometimes be as haunting as they have every right to be.
When I was a kid, I planned a picnic at a flower-filled little graveyard in Glen Cove, Long Island, with my morose friend Scott. A fun summer outing. We got very sophisticated, packing a basket with brie and baguettes and cornichons, and a turquoise beach towel. What a lovely time we were having among all the gray stones, sweating in the sun and getting bit by huge flies, when, toward the end of our lunch, I sank my teeth into one of the juicy summer peaches I had packed, and the sensation of the fuzzy skin on my tongue reminded me of something human but somewhere between alive and dead, or specifically more dead than alive. The sudden, overwhelming thought of all the rotting flesh and bones underneath our beach towel creeped me out so thoroughly that I threw up on some poor departed soul named Mancuso. The smell of wilting roses in the blazing sun may have contributed. In any case, I can’t eat in cemeteries anymore, not that it has ever been encouraged by any cemetery staff I’ve run into anyway.
I’ve watched the cats at the Protestant cemetery in Rome being fed huge pots of pasta and ragù by the resident priests, who call to them and they all come running, jumping off the graves of Keats and Shelley, the American Beat poet Gregory Corso, the old Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, and various English, German, and American poets and artists who came to Rome for its magic and ultimately for its peace. I like watching the cats congregate and eat. I’ve never seen them get fed fettuccine con piselli, but I’ll bet they get it once in a while. Just like me. I love making it a few times every June and early July, when I find sweet shell peas at the New York Greenmarkets. It’s a great dish, but I’m not going to eat it in any graveyard any time soon.
Fettuccine with Fresh Peas, Lemon, and Mint
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup small diced pancetta
1 tablespoon butter
1 small fresh summer onion, cut into small dice
1 cup freshly shucked green peas (about ¾ pound before shucking)
Coarsely ground black pepper
A generous pinch of ground allspice
A splash of dry white wine
½ cup chicken broth, possibly a little more
½ pound fresh fettuccine
The grated zest from 1 lemon
A handful of mint leaves, lightly chopped
A small chunk of grana Padano chese
Set up a pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt.
In a large skillet, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the pancetta, and sauté until crisp. Add the butter and the onion, and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the peas, season with salt, black pepper, and the allspice, and sauté a minute to coat them with flavor. Add the white wine, and let it boil away. Add the chicken broth, and simmer until the peas are just tender, about 5 minutes. Add more broth or a little warm water if the skillet gets dry.
Drop the fettuccine into the water, and cook until just tender. Drain the pasta well, saving a little of the cooking water, and tip it into a large serving bowl. Add the pea sauce and the lemon zest. Add a drizzle of fresh olive oil, a few big grindings of coarse black pepper, and a bit of the pasta cooking water for moisture, if needed. Toss gently. Add the mint leaves, and grate in a heaping tablespoon of grana Padano. Toss again gently. Taste for seasoning, adjusting the salt if needed. Serve right away, with the rest of the cheese brought to the table.