"Um, I think so."
I've ordered the only remotely interesting sounding thing on the predictably predictable menu at the touristy place our quartet ended up in near the Colosseum. Spaghetti alla Bottarga, translated for our English speaking convenience as "spaghetti with fish eggs". The hairy eyeball the waitress is giving me telegraphs that she's been burned before. Clearly she doesn't think the kind of people who show up for dinner at the ungodly hour of 5 pm will appreciate whatever this is. I'm doubting there will be anything to appreciate about anyplace in Rome that's actually open for service at said hour, so we're kind of even.
"Wait, I show you."
I had been anticipating some kind of roe, but with all this buildup, I'm starting to think something really interesting might be about to happen. I'm pretty fish-ignorant, so maybe there's a crazy Mediterranean fish with sparkling blue eggs, or exploding eggs, or blood eggs. Not so much. She comes back with a diner-style sugar jar and shakes some of what looks like tan salt all over my plate.
"Taste. See if you like." This lady is taking no chances.
A little let down, I run my finger through the grains and have a lick. Salty, definitely, but also. . .I don't want to say fishy because of the negative connotations, so let's say oceany. Now, let's be clear, I probably would have stuck by my order at that point if she had sprinkled fish scales on my plate because I felt challenged. Happily, it was magically delicious so I could say "Si, grazie!" with complete sincerity, before going back to lick my plate clean. She still looked suspicious, but she took the order.
Spaghetti alla Bottarga was just that, spaghetti, olive oil, a sprinkling of bottarga, and the shaker on the side in case you wanted more. Our waitress only seemed to relax once I used the shaker, and seemed positively friendly once she saw that I Could. Not. Stop. Eating. I'm not going to lie, it smells a bit like cat food, but this stuff is just addictive, purified essence of umami.
After an exhaustive search through what felt like every grocery store in Trastevere, I finally found a jar to bring home in the refrigerated section of a specialty food store on a side street off San Giovanni a Ripa (heading toward the piazza, take a left at the bar with the GINORMOUS gintonicas. Anyone who has had occasion to stay in this neighborhood with family members and retains their sanity will surely know the place I mean.) It's a good store to know about if you're going to spend an extended time in Rome, as it's the only one I saw that had such exotic items as soy sauce and Thai curry paste, and I suppose Italian food must get tiresome. Eventually.
I was entirely unsurprised to discover that it's a Sardinian product. Back in the salad days when I didn't have such tedious concerns as making a living (read: college) I spent a couple of months on an archaeological dig on Sardinia. Consistently astonishingly good food--of the rustic, robust, and hearty variety. I've had a predilection for all things Sardinian ever since.
As it turns out, I didn't need to work so very hard to import/smuggle (Is it meat? Is it fresh? Even if it's legal, will the customs agent know that? Please God, just don't open my bag!) my possibly contraband fish eggs into the US after all, since several varieties are available for order on Amazon (though I'm glad I did as it was about half price in Rome). I've also heard rumors it's for sale retail here in NYC, but I'll have to do the legwork on that and get back to you.
It also turns out that I did not experience the "essence of umami", as this granulated stuff is supposed to be kind of crap and what you really want is the compressed whole roe. Though mine is the superior muggine (gray mullet) variety, better than the common tonno (tuna). I liked the granular perfectly well, thank you very much, but can't wait to try the 'good stuff' when I'm feeling flush.
So anyway, after playing around with it for a couple of months (a little goes a long way), I've determined:
- It's fantastic on long skinny pastas, but strangely disgusting on short fat pastas. Like two bites of penne, scrape it into the trash, get out the delivery menu file disgusting.
- It's good with eggs.
- It's good with tomatoes.
- It's just too much with Parmesan or Romano.
- I wasn't really feeling it on chard, but wouldn't rule it out with some other greens. Maybe something more bitter? Or raw?