To say that the gardens and kitchen of the American Academy in Rome have come a long way would be the understatement of the century. When I first moved to Rome back in 2003, the AAR generously hosted me in their villa on the Janiculum hill while I got on my feet. One of my favorite places in the city to this day is the Mercedes and Sid R. Bass Garden, a lush rural landscape behind the main McKim, Mead and White building, where I would diligently study Italian grammar beneath the olive trees before dinner. Back then, the food was beyond awful, an inept mix of packaged junk and overcooked pasta. Not exactly a great introduction to the Roman food scene. But since the March 2007 launch of the Rome Sustainable Food Project, it is a privilege to dine at the Academy and the gardens are even better than ever.
The Rome Sustainable Food Project is a joint venture between the AAR and Alice Waters that uses fresh, seasonal, organic products to create nourishing meals for the Academy’s fellows and visiting scholars (and their lucky invited guests). The kitchen draws on produce and herbs from their biodynamic garden and local like-minded producers like Giovanni Bernabei; they recycle, compost, and embrace the principles of sustainability. Without a doubt, this is Rome’s most inspired kitchen.
Last week I went to the Academy with my mom and met my friend Brian, a cook there, for dinner and a tour of the garden and kitchen. It was fascinating to see that virtually everything in the garden, not just the produce in the beds, is edible. They make olive oil with fruit from the dozens of olive trees on the property and season meat and fish dishes with the rosemary and thyme that flourish around the garden walls. The entire property is a veritable botanical garden for epicureans.
Dinner was served that evening in the courtyard of the McKim, Mead, and White building where ancient inscriptions are stuccoed to the surrounding walls and jasmine clings to the portico pilasters, the ideal setting for a summer meal. The first course was homemade tagliatelle with peas, mint, and creme fraiche followed by a second course of roasted lamb shoulder with fava beans and a green salad.
Now if you never ate at the AAR before the Rome Sustainable Food Project was launched, it is impossible to fully conceptualize what a huge change has been made. The old food was a lot like airplane food crossed with an elementary school lunch. At dinner Thursday night, the pasta was hand crafted, the peas shelled by hand, and the mint plucked from the garden. Everything was simple, light, and delicious. As much of a treat as the dinner was, the highlight of the evening was a visit to the kitchen.
I am obsessed with restaurant kitchens and was thrilled to see one of American caliber in Italy; here things tend to be marginally functional, old fashioned, and anything but state of the art. In contrast, the RSFP kitchen is wonderfully equipped and would be the envy of many a chef in Italy, and most in the States, as well. As we toured the kitchen after dinner service, sous chef Chris Boswell was preparing strawberry preserves. Clearly, the work of such an industrious and dedicated kitchen is never done.
To learn more about the Rome Sustainable Food Project: