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Thank you, Castroni: Rome's remedy for culinary nostalgia PDF Print E-mail
Nov 29, 2012 at 10:36 PM

I imagine that most of you back home think that those of us who live abroad do not celebrate (or care about) Thanksgiving. Not true. Most of the Americans I know over here in Europe do celebrate it (or feel badly when they can't) because most of us agree that Thanksgiving is the best hoiday ever: non-denominational, non-commercial, as easily celebrated by a newly arrived immigrant as by a member of the DAR. So we do our best to keep up the tradition, even if most of us celebrate on the weekend AFTER Thankgiving since clearly the third Thursday in November is not a holiday here and most people, unless they are Americans working at the embassy, have jobs to go to during the week.

This year I had 12 people at a rollicking Saturday evening sit.down dinner, with five Americans, one Brit, one Aussie, on Spaniard, one Slovene and three Italians present.(if you like, see the pix on my Facbook page). And no, we did not eat spaghetti carbonara. We had roast turkey with Pepperidge Farm stuffing, two kinds of sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, corn pudding, succotash, brussel sprouts and the pumpkin, apple and pecan pie.

Now how did we manage all that? Well, a large part of the credit goes to one of my favorite food stores in Rome, Castroni, in Via Cola di Rienzo in the heart of Rome's residential Prati district. Castroni, which was invented by papà Marcello between the two wars when he started catering to embassy folk, sells imported condiments and canned goods from most parts of the world, including sushi and caviar, cookies and biscuits, crackers, teas, patès, sauces, rice (or rather rices), pasta, nuts, candies and coffee (there is a flourishing espresso bar inside AND a corner dedicated to torrefazione, freshly-ground, as you like it, coffee beans from a variety of sources). Before Thanksgiving,not to mention Christmas and other major foreign holidays, special tables are set up for specialty products that the various groups of foreigners feel they simply cannot do without.


Visitors to Rome or other parts of Italy often come here primarily to eat this country's wonderful Italian food. But when you've lived in Italy for a long time, it often happens that you don't want coffee and cornetti for breakfast you want pancakes with maple syrup. You crave herring in cream sauce and not spaghetti carbonara for lunch. You want French country paté or tortilla chips with guacamole sauce and not osso buco or saltimbocca alla romana. You want an Indian curry or Japanese noodles even if it means a prepared meal you heat up in the microwave. After all, it can happen that instead of Nutella you find yourself dreaming of Skippy's creaming peanut butter.


And if tiramisu is deliciously mind-blowing, what if you need a fix of dulce de leche or fig newtons, oatmeal cookies or, I am ashamed to admit it, a chocolate cake made from a Betty Crocker mix?


When you get these cravings, if you live in downtown Rome you go straight to Castroni where, almost anything is possible. A few years ago when I was on a diet and desperately wanted a non-caloric dessert substitute such as sugar-free Jello, I wondered if perhaps Castroni might have something similar? It sounded far-fetched but I jumped on my motorbike and scooted over to Via Cola di Rienzo 196-198 to have a look. Not only did I find American Jello, but there was a second, British variety made by Rowntrees, and even a sugar-free version by a company called Hartley's. I was lucky because, as Roberto Castroni told me, it was only recently that they'd only been stocking Jello among the store's nearly 2000 imported products.


The Castronis - papà Marcello, sons Roberto and Fabrizio and brother-in-law Massimo - rely on a long-standing supplier in London to advise them about British and American products, and others in France, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, the Philippines, and China - some of the roughly 20 countries from which they import.


There are several other Castronis in Rome, run by other branches of the family, but this is the biggest and the most central and the best stocked. The store exists since back in 1932 when it was a normal grocery. But in the 1960's Marcello Castroni had that brilliant idea which turned out to be more than foresighted. He decided to stock his store- to satisfy Rome's diplomatic community. Little did he know that starting in the 1980's, Italy would see an unprecedented influx of foreigners from all parts of the globe. Fresh ethnic produce is available in and around the Piazza Vittorio market on the other side of town where many Africans and Asians shop. But those who live or work downtown, or have a bit more disposable income, know that most of those homesick cravings are best satisfied right here.





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