06 April 2011
I love traveling, but I don't profess to be any good at it. In particular I am bad at budgeting time for leisurely transportation itself, with the result that, regardless of where I am, I feel as though I've just been hurled there without warning. (When flying Ryanair, this simile hews uncomfortably close to reality.)
The Native Companion* and I arrived in Rome the other Friday afternoon in characteristic fashion: wild-eyed, confused, and pressed for time. Due to her work schedule and the timing of our flight, she hadn't slept in 24 hours. I had a work meeting I had to get to, and a house-key I had to retrieve, and to all this was added the responsibility of ensuring that the NC didn't walk into traffic or keel over from exhaustion. Neither of us had eaten.
It was kind of a godsend, then, that our taxi to the Balduina neighborhood happened to pass by a location of renowned mozzarella bar chain Obikà, which I recognized both from my one other trip to Rome, and because it had been the original inspiration for the restaurant I used to manage in Los Angeles. By making certain violent gestures I was able to get our taxi driver to stop and let us out. I then used very similar gestures to request a table and subsequently order us a wide plate of gorgeous life-saving mozzarella.
It was - absolutely fine. Pictured above is the Grande Degustazione de Mozzarella per due. I haven't been to the company's locations outside of Rome - which exist now in LA, New York, London, Istanbul, Tokyo, and so on - but I imagine the menus get tweaked to account for supply routes, local tastes, and availability of various products. I've always found the menu of the original Prefetti location a bit scattershot and baroque - far too many choices, variations, and digressions. But even that excess arguably adds something to the character of the place, which otherwise risks getting totally effaced by the eager branding of it all. What matters, of course, is the mozzarella.
Burrata, stracciatella, various sorts of bufala... It's all gut-simple and delicious, so much so that you don't mind that the accompanying cured meat is a little dry, and poorly cut, and the rucola could have been cleaner, and the service is comedically bad. Here, and at other visits to the Campo dei Fiori location during this trip, we never received a single thing without having to ask for it at least twice. It was almost like it was one of the steps of service: after taking a drink order, scamper around a little bit, then send one of your coworkers over to take the same drink order again, in case the guest has changed his mind.
As I was headed straight into a work appointment afterwards, I was unable to sample into the wine list on that first visit. Nor, in fact, did I sample it on two subsequent visits to the other location. The reason is it's a risk-free, bloodless, ambassadorial sort of Italian list, stocked uniformly with southern regional heavyweights like Campania's Feudi di San Gregorio, Sicily's Cusumano, and so on.** Feudi di San Gregorio actually make native-varietal wines of an appreciable standard, considering they are available in duty-free shops. Cusumano, on the other hand, would be the first on trial if boring were a crime.
After sating our hunger and regaining our wits that first day, we wound up using the Obikà Campo dei Fiori location as a kind of Spritz Rest Stop in the evenings.
There are infinite variations on spritzes, but Obikà's is the Venetian classic: a highball filled to brimming with Aperol, Prosecco, sparkling water, and an orange slice. I will go on record as saying there exists no beverage so eminently simple, quenching, and delicious on a warm evening. But the drink's true genius lies in the way the ice and waxy, ancient-neon flavor of Aperol masks the flaws in whatever cheap Prosecco one happens to have used. One has always used cheap Prosecco.
I can issue a general warning about the other drinks available at Obikà, since a Negroni I had was watery, and all the other cocktails appeared to be minor variations on a moron nightclub theme. They might taste perfectly nice, but you will look and feel vaguely like a tart, ordering them. (Another grace of the spritz is the old-mannishness that clings to the Aperol brand like dust on an old bottle; it is the opposite of cool.) You may not care, by that point, however, since for one thing you will be surrounded by fellow tourists who do not care either, and for another, each drink arrives with a cute little bite of superb mozzarella.
For all my habitual skepticism about everything, it's enough to win me over. I think it's because it's representative of the Obikà brand as a whole: an idiot-simple idea, pulled off brilliantly adequately. I can't help admiring the gleaming integrated sheen of the business plan.
* Who, when you think about it, ought to revert to merely "the Companion" when we're together outside of France. But if I say "the C" it sounds very close to "C," which is the initial of two good friends' wives, who both get mentioned fairly often on this blog. It could all get very confusing, so I will stick to "the NC."
** The exception is the Alto Adige wines of Martin Hofstatter, which while equally risk-free and Germanic in their precision, certainly remain well-made and engaging.
More travel: The N.D.P. in Madrid Series