Chapel Hill, N.C. — Chef Teddy Diggs of Il Palio talks about his two-day trip to Rome and how it inspired the dishes at his Chapel Hill restaurant.
By age 9, I was hooked.
I was obsessed with the cultural exploration of food before I entered middle school.
I grew up watching the early productions of the Food Network and was moved by the information that my childhood heroes fed to me nightly. I particularly remember loving Mario Batali on “Molto Mario” and the history of Italian food that he shared with me. Later in life, when I had the opportunity to leave culinary school for an externship, I joined the ranks of one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. I spent long days and nights grinding away in the kitchen, and my obsession grew, compelling me to uncover the nuances of regional Italian cooking.
Now, as the executive chef of Il Palio restaurant, I lead a team that celebrates the great tradition of the Mediterranean country’s hospitality and cooking. Throughout my culinary journey, my drive to explore the history and heart of Italian cooking has never waned.
For the past three summers, when the pace of Chapel Hill slows, I retreat to Italy to immerse myself deeper into the land of pizza, prosciutto and pasta. I feel blessed to have a job that provides me with the opportunity to escape to a country that will hold my attention for a lifetime.
48 hours in Rome
During my latest journey this past July, I landed in the Eternal City with only 48 hours to experience the best that Rome had to offer.
It was my first time visiting this iconic city, and I was on the final stretch of a two-week exploration of all things related to food and wine in central Italy.
I spent the previous portion of my research trip exploring the nooks and crannies of rural Umbria and Le Marche. In Norcia, I successfully hunted for summer truffles – the jewels of Italy – guided by a prized truffle hound. I visited and dined with Il Palio’s olive oil-producing family in Colli Martani, and I sampled native vintifications with our wine producers in Montefalco and Jesi.
I was connecting directly with the people, the products and the processes that I work with throughout the year, and my goal for Rome was to make the same connection with the flavors that the city harbors.
My first stop was one that I had been dreaming about (yes, chefs dream about food!), and it did not disappoint. I tasted what I now know to be the best pizza of my life – a light, crisp and airy potato pizza glistening with olive oil from the dough master Gabriele Bonci Pizzarium. I was blown away, and my time in Rome could have been satisfied from a single bite there.
Ah, Ristorante Roscioli. I feasted on a remarkable pasta dish of bombolotti all’ amatricianathat was perfectly studded with crispy bites of rendered guanciale. An equally satisfying plate of cacio e pepe followed – a tonnarelli pasta perfectly dressed in a barely present sauce that smacked of Pecorino Romano cheese and black peppercorns.
I progressed through the remainder of day one with the help of strong, rich espresso that I drank from a small mug and dense gelato that enabled me to explore another neighborhood trattoria for dinner. I faced down a spread of carbonara, braised beef meatballs with bitter greens and a Thursday tradition of soft potato gnocchi with tender braised oxtail ragu.
The next morning, I skipped the ubiquitous Italian breakfast of cured salumi and cheeses in order to save room for an early start, and as the day began I tackled the famous Roman fried treats of supplì (think crisp and cheesy rice croquettes), mozzarella in carrozza (the original mozzarella stick) and stuffed squash blossoms.
I had pizza bianca that was stuffed with rich mortadella and later sampled the cracker-thin pizza romana topped with a light tomato sauce and almost translucent slices of prosciutto that melted as soon as it hit my mouth. For an afternoon snack, I ate crostini that were topped with a briny buffalo milk cheese and preserved anchovies before being roasted in a wood fire.
I had traditional cookies and pastries from Forno Campo de’ Fiori, arguably the best bakery in Rome, and indulged in more gelato (surprise!).
At half past 9 p.m. I made it to the neighborhood of Testaccio that is known for cookery of the quinto quarto (literally the “fifth quarter”), which is the offal meat or organ meat of animals. I dove into classics that I love and that tasted just as I hoped that they would have – dishes like braised tripe and the unique rigatoni con la pajata, which is perfectly al dente rigatoni pasta with fresh veal intestine that are cooked while still holding their mother’s milk.
It is dishes such as this that are absolutely quintessential to the culinary character of Rome. Four courses later, I had accomplished my “Everest,” as they say, stuffed with the purest and most unforgettable flavors of the city!
I am ever-inspired by my Italian mentors and friends both here and abroad, and when I travel there I am instantly reminded of the lifelong culinary journey I am pursuing. It’s delicious and adventurous but always meaningful and moving. And although I returned with new techniques and fresh flavors, I reaffirmed what I have always believed about my lifelong passion: Italian cooking is thoughtfully prepared, served simply and deeply connected to its regions.
This recipe originally appeared in Chapel Hill Magazine.
Chef Teddy brings a taste of Italy to Grand Taste 2017, which showcases more than 40 of the best local chefs, restaurants, artisans and breweries under one roof. The event is held in April at the Durham Armory, sponsored by Chapel Hill Magazine and Durham Magazine, and brought to you by Johnson Lexus. WRAL Out and About is a sponsor of Taste 2017.