Thursday, June 11, 2015

What is the American Academy in Rome and what is the Rome Sustainable Food Project?

This was the question everyone kept asking me before I left. Finally I’ve found a succinct answer:

A less succinct answer is the following description, excerpted from a review by Chris Dias I found and liked a lot that really seems to capture the spirit of this place:
It’s not a tourist spot. It’s neither a restaurant nor a hotel. You won’t find an entry for it on Trip Advisor, Urbanspoon, or Yelp. You can’t even cross its considerable heavy bulwark without an invite. You’re unlikely then to read this review anywhere else. Nestled in a relatively obscure area of Southern Rome is a sealed enclave not unlike a minuscule Vatican, with buildings, fountains, courts, living accommodations, and most importantly, a distinct population. It’s the American Academy in Rome--an institution made up of extremely talented scholars, artists, and architects fortunate enough to further their studies abroad thanks to a combination of accomplishment and recognition. Depending on the time of day, you’re likely to find painters, musicians, and/or artistic performers plying their skill in one the most romantic, exotic locations imaginable.

So how could I find myself past their periphery, among the covenant of the creative elite, brushing shoulders with the upper echelon of creative paramounts? Well, obviously not due to any inherent talent. I could never ape Ellison and hammer out a masterwork in a shop window with nothing other than a random pitch and a typewriter. You have no idea how often I have to rely on spell checker. One word, connections, it’s all about who you know. In this case, it was mom. Her friend’s daughter happens to be Mona Talbott, a celebrated chef of 25-years’ experience that at one point operated the Rome Sustainable Food Project from the very Academy of which of speak. Said project involves relying on locally grown produce and raw unprocessed ingredients in the making of meals. You see, the entire (or rather the majority of) Academy sits together along a colossal table, the length of which film directors stage long panning shots for. The kitchen lays out an impressive spread for the inhabitants to enjoy. It was this meal we found an invitation for. All my mother and I needed to do is find the Academy and make our presence known. That last part was easy, but finding the Academy was no simply task, locked behind tall unlabeled walls in a region with more than one location called an academy.

The American Academy is a beautiful sanctuary, a Xanadu if you will, with tended gardens and clean walls. This place is loved by its populace. We enjoyed refreshments at the local café, toured the grounds, before finally finding our seats among more talented individuals than myself. We talked about performances and achievements among the clanging of wine glasses (did I mention the free wine). I shouldn’t embellish my experiences with the fellow inhabitants, but to summarize, I was envious. Not just because the food was amazing, and it was. During my trip, I would sample several buffets (to my chagrin of the Globus tour), but none would reach the level set by the American Academy. Obviously, Talbott had set the bar considerably high, and her successors have honored that level. What I admired most about the experience was the level of enthusiasm felt in the cooking staff. After the meal, I was invited to discuss past and future meals with the head chef, and his passion was infectious. He extolled his relish while carving masterfully into a pig’s head. And I mean a whole pig’s head, still with teeth and stubble in places. 
However, all good things…as they say…and by the late afternoon, we found a taxi to return to the hotel, satisfied with the memories gathered. The downside of all this was that none of the included meals offered by our tour later ever rose to level of quality encountered at the American Academy in Rome. Even if I did manage to return to this country and this city, I doubt I’d be able find myself there again. I’m a Canadian writer who managed to luck out. But the memories will remain with me for the rest of my life… to everyone else there, it was just a Tuesday afternoon, but to me, it was so much more.