Lago di Albano is shaped like an egg and glistens like lapis lazuli under the sun. When the sun starts to set, the shadows from the poplar trees in the Colli Albani above deepen the colour of the volcanic lake’s sleepy, glass-like surface. It is at the edge of this lake that I have sat with my colleagues on Wednesday evenings after work, some of us swimming enthusiasts; their bodies cutting through two kilometres of the lake’s width, and others, like myself, sitting under the willow tree outside Ristorante I Quadri 2000, popping cherry tomatoes out of a paper bag from the Testaccio market into my mouth. That is the spot where everyone would gather after their swim for newspaper-crips pizzas with oozing mozzarella and a spot of fruity red wine from the Castelli. Not the best red in Italy, but with the lake facing us and a spoonful of that wobbly, sweet panna cotta in our mouths amidst the chatter of friends, it did not matter.
One particular evening as we were walking out, I asked the proprietor for un goccetto di Fernet Branca, my favourite digestivo-deeply intense with notes of liquorice. The proprietor offered a gratis glass to my Swedish pal Markus, too. But poverino Markus, his face curling with one sip, jumped over the bar to spit it all out into the sink. “Shayma, this is worse than rubbing alcohol.”
For the record: this did not adversely affect our friendship. We are still great friends. Even on Facebook.
And I am still allowed back into the restaurant.
So is Markus.
Oh, and there were no Fernet Branca incidents during these trips.
We always sat at the terrazza, where the ledge was lit up with globe-shaped lanterns, like gigantic fireflies, glimmering against the lake while we ate plates of golden, perfectly crisped suppli- that triumverate of the Italian kitchen coming together beautifully: cheese, carbs and tomatoes.
This was followed by plates of pasta for us sisters, for me, always something reminiscent of the sea; a tomato sauce-glazed pasta with frutti di mare- salty clams, tender mussels and fresh prawns. And for Ami, plump grilled prawns lacquered with a saffron oil. Ami couldn’t bear to see the little heads and tiny eyes on the prawns, and there I sat, peeling the coral shells off the prawns for her, snatching a few bites for myself whilst licking that musky taste of saffron off my fingers.
And then we’d dust our dishes with a little bit of peperoncino from Southern Italy- just for that slight punch.
I remember those cool summer evenings with my Ami and sisters, when we sat there at the restaurant till late in the night, shawls wrapped around us as we were probably talking about what to do the next day. Our plans most certainly included a gelato from Bar Frattina with extra fresh panna and some shoe shopping at Pollini.
I used to meet the three of them after work everyday on the Via dei Condotti and from there we would make our way, strolling through the streets with a gelato, licking the melted drops off the sides of the cone, my arm hooked into my sister’s arm, not wanting her to leave.
Being with my sisters always reminded me of how incredibly lonely I felt in this beautiful city called Rome, without my girls.
Shoe shopping with your sisters has to be right up there with dark chocolate truffles.
Nah, it’s even better.
Perfectly charred prawns marinated in a saffron sauce with a bit of peperoncino heat reminds me of those nights on the Lake in Rome with my colleagues and my family. The garlic-scallion rice is a part of Ami’s repertoire, which I believe rounds off the meal rather nicely.
For the prawns, you will need bamboo or steel skewers. If using bamboo skewers, soak in water overnight to prevent them from burning when they are under the broiler.
*2 cups basmati rice
*3 tbsp oil (neutral variety, I use sunflower)
*4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
*6 strands scallions, chopped finely, keeping white and light green bulb portion separate from dark green portion
*1 tsp salt
*Soak basmati in water; minimum one hour, up to 24 hours;
*Place a heavy-bottomed pot on medium heat and add oil.
*When the oil is hot, add white and light green portion of scallions and garlic;
*Sauté for a few minutes till the scallions and garlic start to soften up and wilt. Do not allow garlic to darken.
*Discard the water the rice was soaking in and add to the pot;
*Add 3 cups water, the green portion of the scallions and turn the heat to low. Place cloth and lid on top to seal in the steam and allow the rice to cook for 20 minutes. Do not remove the lid before the total time has elapsed otherwise it will seize the cooking process;
*Remove pot from the burner, move the lid a bit (do not remove completely) so some steam escapes and allow rice to rest for 20 minutes;
Spice Grilled Saffron Prawns
*600 g raw prawns, shell removed, tail intact
*1 tsp saffron threads, ground to a powder in a pestle and mortar
*2 tsp water
*1 tsp (heaped) hot paprika + 2 tsps for combining with olive oil to serve at the table
*1 tsp salt
*1/2 tsp turmeric powder
*Turn your oven broiler on to its highest setting
*Place prawns in a mixing bowl and add saffron powder, water, paprika, salt, turmeric powder and a few glugs of olive oil;
*Mix to combine;
*Allow prawns to rest in the marinade for 20 minutes;
*Thread prawns onto skewers and place on a baking tray;
*Place under the broiler for 5 minutes per side (unless your hands are made of asbestos like mine, to easily flip the prawns without burning your fingers, use kitchen tongs). Keep a steady eye on the prawns as each broiler’s heat intensity varies and therefore the cooking time may vary, too.
*Mix 2 tsp paprika with a tablespoon or more of olive oil to serve on the side and drizzle on the prawns at the table.
Serve prawns atop garlic-scallion rice
photo credit for Lago di Albano: Nobiwan’s picasa album https://picasaweb.google.com/nobbiwan/2008ItaliaRoma#5244450060224152610
photo credit for I Quadri 2000: restaurant’s website: http://www.iquadri2000.it/