With all sorts of bags under my arms from doing the shopping, my last stop on the way home always was the alimentari just below my apartment in Rome.
How do you translate that word? It comes from the verb alimentare (to feed) and it’s a dazzling small food shop full of great smells, rows and rows of wines, bottles of oil, bags of dried pastas on shelves behind the counter, whole prosciuttos and other cured meats hanging on hooks from the ceiling. In the glass display cases are cheeses, salamis, olives and other specialties submerged in tins of oil: eggplants, anchovies, dried tomatoes. Further down the counter are the breads, delivered four times a day. It is a Roman version of a convenience store, but it is really a full-service specialty store.
One morning I asked for a piece of casareccio, my idea of the perfect bread. With a crackly golden crust, inside it’s moist, light and chewy. “Kevin, when are you going to eat the bread?” asks Mino. I tell him–the owner and someone I spoke to almost every day for fifteen years–I’ll be eating it tonight. “No. Come back after lunch. The last delivery is at six. I’ll hold a piece for you. It will be fresher.” I ask for some prosciutto. “For what, Kevin?” Mino says. I say, “To serve with melon.” He responds “It’s better tagliato a mano (sliced by hand). Again, he’s right.
“The spremuta d’olio arrives next week, Kevin,” Mino tells me. It’s the first pressed olive oil of the season, unfiltered. As owner of the Longhi family alimentari (on Via San Francesco a Ripa) Mino has a number of special suppliers. When olive oil is pressed late fall, Rome receives the best from Sabina, an hour north. Mino’s oil is radioactive green, the flavor is bright yet soft. By the holidays this oil is sold out. But all year long special foods cover the counters: truffles, panettone, prosecco, frappe at Carnevale, pizza di Pasqua at Easter, etc.
One morning I was walking back home from the market with two full bags and my street was noticeably still. Only 9:00 yet the store security gates were half-mast. “What happened?” I asked Mino as he was closing up shop. “Stefano’s sister, she passed.” This is the way news is spread in Rome. The neighborhood came to a halt and I quickly buzzed the intercom to my daughter, Addison, at our ingresso, for her to come down as the procession slowly rolled down the street to the main piazza of Trastevere. The shopkeepers and neighbors joined along the way to Chiesa Santa Maria, an 11th century basilica with the most beautiful mosaics in Rome and the most spectacular light, to celebrate the life of one of their own.
I moved away from Rome two years ago to be closer to my two kids in New York, but I visit the city four times a year. I see friends there, whom I miss a lot, and when I return to the eternal city the vibrancy of life fills my senses. I lust over the produce and the smells emanating from the markets, shops and restaurants. Each time I go back I visit my old neighborhood, Trastevere, and every time I make sure to see Mino and his family at “my” alimentari.