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A Chef's Trip To Rome (PHOTOS)

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We've just landed at Fiumicino on the redeye. It's 10 a.m. Rome time, and we're slowly waking up from our Ambien-induced comas. We begin to remember why we're here, and the recovery process accelerates. This is a research and development trip at its best: a couple of chefs, two front of house managers and a purse full of lunch money saved up for the sole purpose of eating as much as possible in three days.

I've gone on these kinds of binge eating excursions in Rome before, both as a student while spending a year abroad, and again while researching the opening Maialino menu. And in between I've somehow managed to pay a yearly homage to this awesome place. But this is the first time doing it with other chefs, so I get the feeling that we'll be pushing a few boundaries or at least the pace. Taxi to the hotel quickly, swing around the Vatican walls, zoom past Piazza Navona, no time to stop and look. We have our first reservation at noon.

I love this city, everything about it and even, perhaps especially, the things many people hate about it: dirty streets, frenzied traffic and a general disregard for rules and order. Each time I go back for a visit, nothing seems to change. I get the feeling that Romans can't be bothered with trying to tidy things up.

They'd say, "Things are just fine the way they are -- now let me finish my macchiato and get back to my argument about last night's soccer game." I appreciate the unique aspect of Roman culture which ignores certain social niceties in favor of focusing on more important matters: good food, good drink, good conversation.

We get our first espresso of the day on the way to lunch ("man, that hit the spot!") and we make it to the first place on our itinerary just in time. Lesson number one for my sous chef team: the difference between a ristorante or a trattoria, and how the distinction changes your expectations.

This particular spot is definitely a trattoria. It has the look and feel of a place that has been here for centuries -- quite literally. Everyone eating here knows the waiters and vice versa. And it seems nobody looks at the menu for longer than a second to figure out what they want to eat; some don't need menus at all. We've modeled our restaurant in New York after a classic Roman trattoria. A trattoria is a more casual place than a ristorante. It's not necessarily a destination spot, but a neighborhood eatery, with a big stress on the word "neighborhood."

Interestingly, in Rome most people wouldn't think to leave their neighborhood to go to a trattoria across town. That would be the New York City equivalent of taking the cross-town bus to go grocery shopping on the other side of Central Park. Of course in New York, and luckily for us at Maialino, people do in fact travel cross-town for a trattoria. Nonetheless, here is an important lesson: whether in NYC or Rome, what makes a trattoria great, or at least authentic, is its ability to embrace the immediate neighborhood and create a casual, familiar environment.

Of course the quality of the food matters too, and much of our time is spent dissecting each dish, pushing aside strands of spaghetti to see what the starch has done to affect the texture of the sauce -- the kind of stuff that only fanatical chefs would do. With every bite we gather more intelligence.

"Is this how ours tastes in New York?"

"No, I think ours has a little more butter."

"I like how the garlic and olive oil come through in this sauce."

"I think we should rely more on pasta starch to develop richness rather than butter." Note to self: remove the butter from our preparation at Maialino.

Each one of these tiny observations adds up to a lengthy to-do list for when we return. We always say that great cooking is in the small brushstrokes. Individually, these tiny details are easy to overlook but when properly noted and tended to, we can approximate the masterpiece which is a perfect spaghetti alle vongole.

And as we move from one place to the next, we start to get a feel for some of the larger brushstrokes that compose a great trattoria. We realize how a place feels and why it feels that way, the lighting, the way a server is dressed, the way we are greeted upon arrival, the look of a certain street or piazza. We also end up discovering trends in the way food is presented and prepared. Everything is done simply with no fuss or garnish. It's not too pretty and in fact, sometimes it's downright ugly. No food is plated with tweezers and there are no unnecessary vegetable purees or superfluous sauces. Vegetables are left in large, very distinguishable pieces and served either raw or cooked until soft and sweet -- but nothing in between. We take notes on all these things and more, diligently recording when inspiration strikes us.

"Jason, take a picture of that wall."

"Joey, did you write down that thing about the braised meats?"

I think we annoyed the hell out of a few older, curmudgeonly servers. And even some of the younger, more worldly servers raised a few eyebrows, but eventually warmed up to us, making jokes about our "hard work."

It's true that this whole experience is a privilege, and it's excessive -- and quite honestly I feel
embarrassed when we leave behind small bits of food because we're so stuffed. We try certain dishes several times over until we say, "How many more times can I possibly taste a Carbonara? Pecorino, guanciale, black pepper and egg -- I get it!"

But I justify my gluttony in some small way with the potential fruits of our labor. We look to bring back more than just a tweaked recipe and an idea for a pretty wainscot in our Private Dining Room. And it wouldn't even be enough to have our guests raving about a delicious Italian feast, better than any other in NYC (although that would be awfully nice if they said that). If our "hard work" is actually put to good use, people might actually leave Gramercy Park feeling transported to Rome, if only for a few moments, for the cost of one plate of pasta. And for those lucky enough to say they're from the eternal city, they might say we brought them back home.

For more photos, visit Maialino's Facebook page.

A Roman Holiday
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