ROME – I consider myself an adventurer, especially on the culinary front. I have consumed livers, kidneys and brains. I have eaten an Amazonian herb that numbs your tongue, which sort of nullifies the point of eating, and I have tried shrimp that were still alive – still wriggling– until the downward chomp of my incisors.
But on a recent visit here, I had pasta alla gricia on the first night, then pasta alla gricia on the second night, then pasta alla gricia on the third and fourth. There’s only one possible explanation, which is of course Donald Trump.
Before I elaborate on that, I should explain pasta alla gricia. It doesn’t enjoy the fame outside of Italy that it deserves. It’s essentially pasta alla carbonara minus the egg: less gooeyness, less guilt. “Lighter than carbonara” is how I often describe it, although that’s like saying “humbler than Trump.” The bar is low, and everything’s relative.
It can be made with bucatini. It can be made with rigatoni. It could probably be made with shoelaces and still be worth ordering. It’s proof, like many Italian delicacies, that the communion of fat (it’s studded with crispy bits of pork cheek) and salt (it’s deluged with pecorino cheese) is the most reliable ticket to heaven. And it was one of my go-to dishes when I lived here many years ago.
But four dinners in a row? That was unheard-of. It made me realize how much I relish constancy now. And it got me to thinking about how underrated sameness is.
When Trump came down that escalator in June 2015, he was inconstancy. He was newness. Sure, he’d been around forever, a fixed star in the celebrity firmament. But Trump as a politician, let alone as a president, hinged on a hankering for novelty and an itch to trash the status quo in favor of the great orange unknown.
Before his election, supporters of his told me that they didn’t think him perfect and weren’t even certain of his competence, but hey, could American government get any worse? Why not toss the pieces up just to see where they land? These voters viewed what they were doing as bold. They weren’t wrong. But boldness and recklessness overlap. And here we are.
We lurch from one surprise, provocation and scandal to the next. Tariffs today, the execution of drug dealers tomorrow. Stormy Daniels at the moment, stormy weather all the time.
Administration officials turn over at a breakneck pace. (Farewell, Rex Tillerson.) Traditional presidential etiquette is gone. So are traditional presidential ethics. We got our taste of the untried. Dear God, is it sour.
Italians are more practiced at such tumult. Over the past 25 years, Italy has changed prime ministers 13 times. It has swung this way and that. At this point it’s more or less dangling: The nascent, renegade party that got the most votes in the recent election, the Five Star Movement, lacks a majority, not to mention a workable agenda, and doesn’t have a coalition partner.
There’s no clear national purpose, no steady national trajectory, no sturdy sense of control. Italians wait, somewhat helplessly, to see what happens next.
But their rituals, their families and their food – these are governable and protectable across time. They’re the engines of stability. They’re the agents of solace. Italians cling to them more fiercely, and with greater pride, than we Americans embrace our kin and our ways.
I used to view this with a mixture of admiration and ridicule. When I lived in Rome, I often groused about how many restaurants had almost identical menus and how inviolable the rules and rhythm of Italian meals could be. Cappuccino at breakfast but never after dinner. Beer with pizza but not with pasta.
On return trips to the Eternal City, I occasionally rolled my eyes at the changelessness of it all. Here a carbonara, there a gricia, everywhere a cacio e pepe. Italians, I decided, wanted for imagination. They lacked daring.
Maybe so. But this time around I felt only respect and gratitude for what they do have: the discernment to recognize a sweet spot – or rather, a fatty, salty one – when they find it and the wisdom not to abandon it on the unsupported chance that there’s better around the bend.
And so I kept happily to routine. I walked the Roman paths that were most familiar and dearest to me, lingered in the Roman piazzas that had given me pleasure before and supped not just on the classics but on one classic in particular: gricia. It was my link to a calmer past and my thread through a turbulent present.
I can’t predict where, politically, Italy or America is headed. I can’t inoculate myself against Trump’s coming tweets. But I can count on what happens when pork cheek meets pecorino. I can plant myself at that juncture. And I can stand still.