Casino Ludovisi, a delightful treasure in the center of Rome

Caravaggio's Jupiter Neptune Plato circa 1597 ceiling painting in the Casino Ludovisi

When I stroll through the centro storico in Rome, its streets filled with ancient palazzi and their huge wooden doors, I like to think about what’s behind the doors, and who owns and lives in these frescoed buildings. During the day these doors are often open and you can gaze in upon exquisite courtyards with lovely fountains and decorative plants, statues and sculptures. It’s part of the mystery and allure of Rome that keeps you addicted to the city.

I used to have an office at the top of Via Veneto and was constantly walking around the neighborhood to offices, restaurants, shops, coffee bars. This area also hides some treasures behind its high walls and palazzi doors, but as a bustling hotel and business area I don’t think about it as much. I must have walked by, and all around, the Casino Ludovisi hundreds of times without giving it so much as a thought until a week ago when I had the chance to visit the palazzo and its grounds. Behind the high palazzo walls is nestled a treasure I can’t believe I’ve missed these past few decades.

Casino Ludovisi gate entrance

We were offered a fabulous tour of the building, its artwork and some of the amazing documents housed within by the delightful Principessa Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, the American wife of Nicolò Boncompagni Ludovisi, present owner of the Casino Ludovisi. What we had the privilege of visiting was the much smaller grounds, and the Villa Ludovisi, that was originally built in 1662 by Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi.

The grounds offer their own charm…

Casino Ludovisi pond

with garden sculptures…

Garden sculpture at Casino Ludovisi

I’d met Rita on a number of occasions, mostly at events I had catered, but never saw the exuberant, passionate side of her that emerges when she’s showing visitors her home and its art and treasures. It’s clear that her life’s passion lies with the maintenance and restoration of the Villa Ludovisi and the protection of its artwork and archives. Rita was a charming guide, embellishing the tour with a multitude of stories about all the people who have contributed to the history and mystique of the palazzo, from the artists who worked there on paintings and frescoes, to the regular visitors like Bernini who visited every Saturday to play cards. In 1828 visitor Stendhal declared that the villa’s gardens were some of the most beautiful in the world. Many modern visitors have also visited and admired the villa: Woody Allen, Madonna and world-renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz, who was entranced by the friezes in the villa’s enclosed porch.

Casino Ludovisi wall relief in enclosed porch

Each room is filled with fabulous artwork collected over the centuries, yet nearly overshadowed by the frescoed ceilings and walls throughout the palazzo. The ceilings of the Sala dell’Aurora and the Sala del Camino, are decorated with beautiful Guercino frescoes.

Casino Ludovisi hand painted room ceiling

And another room…

Casino Ludovisi hand painted room ceiling, 2.jpg

A closer look at a ceiling frescoe detail…

Casino Ludovisi hand painted room ceiling detail

My favorite by far is the Caravaggio ceiling painting in the tiny alchemist room. The oil paint was applied directly onto the ceiling, an unusual technique for Roman frescoe painting of the day. The foreshortened figures are believed to be Caravaggio self portraits that he probably painted while standing on a mirror. This is the only ceiling painting ever executed by Caravaggio.

Caravaggio's Jupiter Neptune Plato circa 1597 ceiling painting detail in the Casino Ludovisi

I’d have loved to glimpse the private living quarters…the kitchen, bathrooms…but we only just glimpsed this one private room…

Casino Ludovisi peek into private living area

I was so awestruck by the artwork and frescoes that the beautiful hand-painted floor tiles almost went unnoticed…

Hand painted floor tiles Casino Ludovisi

Rita shared that she and her husband are continually unearthing amazing hand-written letters, books and documents. Just six years ago they found letters from Marie Antoinette and King Louis XV and many other documents and record books. She showed us these and many more, some with exquisitely detailed drawings in gorgeous colors, including gold.

Here are some of the most incredible of these that Rita shared with us…

Casino Ludovisi historic letter

Detailed drawings…

Casino Ludovisi handwritten and drawn historic book

Casino Ludovisi handwritten and drawn historic book detail

One of the handwritten, hand drawn and beautifully bound books…

Casino Ludovisi handwritten historic book

And another one…

Casino Ludovisi hand-drawn historic book

A few videos of these historic books…

If you’d like to schedule a visit it’s possible, but by prior appointment only, for fifteen people or more, €20 per person. Enjoy!

Eating in Contigliano, northern Lazio

Contigliano

Contigliano is Maurizio’s hometown. He was actually born in nearby Terni but every single relative on his mother’s side was born in Contigliano. And more than that: they were all born in the same family home, in the same iron frame bed, that I have kept and moved to our present home north of Rome. So although no-one on his mother’s side is left in Contigliano, and the family home was sold a few years ago, we still have occasional administrative things to tend to in Contigliano. It’s a charming little hill town and I love going there, mainly because it’s steeped in history, most of which pertains to delightful stories of Maurizio’s antecedents. And of course the cemetery where everybody is buried is there, dozens upon dozens of relatives and family friends.

Friday was dedicated to administrative details and we opted to tack it onto a nice country lunch. In the decades I’ve been going to Contigliano we’ve eaten in one restaurant, the spot where family and friends have always gone for decades. There’s no-one left but us, and the restaurant is painfully quiet in the winter, so I thought I’d sniff around for a different option. It didn’t take long at all and thanks to the 2016 Slow Food Osteria d’Italia guide and Fare La Spesa con SlowFood guide, I found the perfect spot right in Contigliano: Osteria Le Fontanelle. The osteria is opened Fridays and weekends so we we were in luck.
Pork products are Le Fontanelle’s strong suit, and also my favorite. Le Fontanelle raises pigs: pink ones that are a cross between Large White and Goland breed pigs, and black pigs from the Sabine Hills originating from the Apulo Calabrese breed. Owner Vincenzo, who is positively delightful, makes exquisite salumi and pork products that in typical Italian fashion use every single part of the pig.

Salumi at Le Fontanelle

Maurizio and I love prosciutto and had two portions of their homemade, home-cured and hand cut prosciutto for our antipasto. We also purchased some to take home.

Homemade Prosciutto from Le Fontannelle in Contigliano RI

Here’s how prosciutto is hand-cut, using a long, thin knife, held flush to the prosciutto:

Handcutting Prosciutto

Flour and pasta locally produced in Rieti area

All Le Fontanelle’s pasta is homemade, using locally grown and milled flour.

Strengozzi with broccoli and sausage

We always pick two different pasta dishes so we can share, and both our choices were delicious: strengozzi with broccoli (grown on the farm) and pork sausages.

Homemade fettuccine with porcini mushrooms at Le Fontanelle

Our second dish, equally delicious, was fettuccine with porcini mushrooms. We generally want to try everything, and sampling seems the best way to go, so we shared a mixed grill of pork and vitellone (from cows 12 to 24 months old). Grilled on an open hearth…

Le Fontanelle wood burning grill

and topped with a bay leaf branch, which imparted a delightful smoked flavor into the meat.

Locally produced grilled meats at Le Fontanelle seasoned with a bay leaf branch

We accompanied our meal with garden fresh cicoria, sautéed in local Sabine olive oil, garlic and peperoncino.

Farm grown cicoria at Le Fontanelle sautéed with olive oil and garlic

We chose my favorite Lazio red for our wine: Cesanese del Piglio

Cesanese del Piglio Lazio wine

The osteria is bright and spacious, and warm and cozy, despite the fact that three of the walls are glass doors. In the summer the glass doors open up allowing for dining al fresco.

Le Fontanelle dining area

I think we’ve broken the mold and switched our Contigliano dining venue permanently!

Wild Rice Risotto with Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Gorgonzola

Brussels Sprouts Risotto with Gorgonzola Dolce

It’s quite a while that I’ve wanted to come up with a recipe to marry two of my favorite ingredients: Brussels sprouts and gorgonzola. This wild rice risotto fits the bill to a “t”! It’s post holiday and time to shed those extra pounds so I wanted a yummy recipe but one that wouldn’t interfere with this goal. So I opted for a wild & whole grain rice combination, not a usual for risotto but it worked beautifully! I skipped the butter and opted for olive oil, and very little at that. Okay, gorgonzola doesn’t show up on any weight loss chart I’ve ever seen but I allowed myself just one delectable concession. It’s an amazing dish!
Brussels sprouts is an odd name for these tiny cabbage-like vegetables, most likely attributable to the fact that they were traditionally a favorite dish in Brussels. Brussels sprouts are part of the brassica family of winter vegetables, rich in anti-oxidants, dietary fiber and vitamin B,C and K. I have about ten plants in my winter garden and am bamboozled by how they grow. Just like cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage varieties, the Brussels sprout plant has large, dark green leaves…which are also great in soups and sautéed. Whereas cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage plants produce one large vegetable, dozens of Brussels sprouts grow all along its stem. An amazing plant!

Brussels Sprouts Plant

While growing up Brussels sprouts were at the top of my most hated food item. This is how it went: my mother, who was an abominable cook, prepared Brussels sprouts badly, but in line with main stream cooking of decades ago. She boiled them until mushy and all the flavor and bright green pigment had faded away. You can almost tolerate cooking another vegetable this way, but over-boiling Brussels sprouts brings out an unpleasant odor and taste.
At the dinner table the rule was to finish your meal and stay seated until you did. I’d get a Brussels sprout in my mouth and hold it there until I had a chance to slip it out unnoticed and place it on the panel beneath the dinner table. Later on I gathered up the hidden sprouts and flushed them. Oftentimes while awaiting the right moment to take the sprout out of my mouth some of its juice would mistakenly drizzle down my throat and cause a total body shudder of revulsion.
Nowadays I’m in a complete love affair with Brussels sprouts: roast, shaved raw into a salad, and now in this divine risotto dish! The Brussels sprouts I have at my fingertips are fresh-picked from the garden and divine when cooked to perfection.

Enjoy this risotto!

Wild Rice Risotto with Roasted Brussels Sprouts & Gorgonzola

Serves 2-4

Risotto generally calls for an arborio rice, but using wild & whole grain rice yields a healthier risotto and adds a lovely nuttiness to the dish.
I used Ribe long grain, red grain and black long grain; feel free to use your own mixture of rices. Make sure you choose rices with identical cooking times.

Wild and whole grain rice

Ingredients

Brussels sprouts, rinsed and ends trimmed, 132 grams (4 1/2 ounces)
Whole grain rice, 200 grams (7 ounces)
Onion, 1 small, minced
Olive oil, 1 tablespoon + 1 tablespoon
Dry white wine, 80 milliliters (1/3 cup)
Vegetable broth, 1 liter (1 quart)
Salt, as needed
Gorgonzola cheese (preferably dolce), 100 grams (3 1/2 ounces)
Parmesan cheese, grated 25 grams (1/4 cup)

Cooking Instructions

Preheat the oven to 190°C (400°F)
Halve the Brussels sprouts, then toss in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.

Rinsed…
Washed Brussels Sprouts

Halved…
BrusselsSproutsHalved

Place the sprouts on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes or until golden and tender crisp.

Brussels Sprouts Roasted

Sauté the minced onion on low in the other tablespoon of olive oil until tender and translucent.
Add the rice and cook until toasted, about a minute.
Add the white wine and cook until the wine has evaporated.
Gradually add the vegetable broth to the rice, stirring occasionally.
Risotto needs about a 1/2 centimeter (1/4 inch) pool of cooking liquid on the rice at all times in order to cook.
The cooking time will vary depending on the rice you use; generally about 40 minutes is a good estimate for most wild and whole grain rices.
When the rice is done (al dente: cooked but not mushy), yet still creamy, turn off the heat and stir in the Brussels sprouts, gorgonzola and Parmesan cheese.

Gorgonzola Cheese

Salt to taste.
Cover and allow to sit several minutes before serving.

Brussels Sprouts Risotto with Gorgonzola

Fennel, Orange & Black Olive Salad

There’s nothing like the fresh crunchy flavor of fennel bulbs and they’re a perfect salad ingredient. I put them in just about any kind of salad; use a mandolin to slice them paper thin right into your salad. They tend to turn brown so if you won’t use the fennel slices immediately toss them in…

Panettone French Toast

It’s a miserable rainy day, not one to go outside for any reason. It happens to be the last holiday of the season here in Italy…the Befana…so I feel compelled to add a little festivity to the day and that usually means a food treat. So we’re starting the day off with some Panettone French…

Christmas Season in Rome…

Piazza Venezia

Here are a few pictures of Rome during the Christmas 2015 season. Nothing lifts the spirit more than shimmering Christmas lights, beautifully decorated Christmas trees, lovely shops and gorgeously packaged panettoni and other holiday treats! Piazza Venezia… The iconic Hassler Hotel at the top of the Spanish steps… Via del Babuino… These boxed panettoni are…

Pumpkin & Pecan Ravioli in a Brown Butter Sauce

Pumpkin ravioli are one of the tastiest dishes that seem to herald the arrival of the fall season. This year we didn’t plant pumpkins so I wasn’t expecting to prepare the abundance of pumpkin dishes we usually do: soups, risottos, pasta dishes, pies and breads. And yet it ended up to be quite a prolific…

The Trevi Fountain reopens

National Geographic Traveler’s October 2015 article “101 Reasons to Travel Now” wisely featured “Spiffier Rome: The Pyramid, the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and Domus Aurea (Emperor Nero’s villa) all show off much needed-and tasteful-touch-ups. Next: the Spanish Steps” as 21st on its list… an absolute must! This week the Trevi fountain reopened in full splendor! Prior…