My discovery of these perfect little pistachio cookies happened in a roundabout way. It was 11:30 a.m. on one of my last mornings in Rome. I found myself walking down the Janiculum Hill toward the Trastevere section of the city below. The view is expansive, and I would stop now and then to pick out buildings and landmarks, or take the occasional snapshot. My bag was heavy, and a glance inside revealed a just-picked pomegranate, two books and a kraft-paper bag filled with a toasty pepita and amaranth-flecked granola. I spent the morning visiting Mona Talbott at the American Academy in Rome, and I’m sure it is no surprise to those of you who know Mona or her work – it was one of the most inspiring mornings I’ve had in a long time. And it introduced me to this special little cookie.
The American Academy in Rome weaves itself into my life now and then. Years back, when I would help research potential speakers for TED, I would regularly spend time exploring the work of Rome Prize winners. Prior to that, I fell for this delightful little “insider” guidebook of must-visit places in Rome. It was compiled from the collective knowledge of many academy fellows and friends – a mix of writers, architects, designers, scholars, and the like. My copy is nearly ten years old, and it’s the one book we still bring along whenever we pass through Rome.
There are some inspiring things going on at the Academy. One of which is the Rome Sustainable Food Project. You can read about it in more depth here and here. In a nutshell, it’s one of the few places I’ve encountered where institutional dining is not only worth celebrating, but worth emulating as well. Alice Waters and Mona Talbott have been successful in working within the academy to create a meaningful food culture meant to nourish and support individual well-being, scholarship, and conviviality. My experience has been that institutional dining has much need for improvement. Inspiration is much needed, and it was great to encounter a fresh point of view far from home.
Actually! Come to think of it, another inspiring example of food being integrated into the fabric of an institution is at the Oxbow School in Napa, California. Their school lunch, under chef Tracy Bates, sets the bar. There’s still no place I’d rather have lunch in Napa — alongside the kids, overlooking the river. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Mona and Tracy are friends, or that both of them are Chez Panisse alumni.
Mona showed me the kitchen at the Academy, and the gardens, and the spot on the lawn where Galileo first demonstrated his telescope in Rome. The Academy occupies the highest point inside the walls of historic Rome. Elizabeth Minchilli joined us, I met the other academy cooks, had a perfect macchiato, and tasted a spicy little gem of a cookie baked by Mirella Misenti.
Mirella’s story is fascinating in it’s own right. She was the dishwasher at the academy. She now spearheads pastry and has co-authored Biscotti with Mona. It’s the just-published first book in a series of tiny, thoughtful books that we will see come out of the Rome Sustainable Food Project. It sounds like there there will be a volume on pasta, one on soup, and so on.
I baked Mirella’s Sicilian pistachio cookies as soon as I got home. They look snow-dusted from a distance, but reveal dense, pistachio-green crumb. They’re made from a haul of the best pistachios you can get your hands on, ground into a pistachio meal, and baked into the perfect little bite. I include the recipe down below and I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to wrap up a three-week trip. Thank you Mona!
Above you see the pistachios as they were purchased. Below you can see them starting to get ground down into a meal. The pistachios take the place of flour in many other cookie recipes, and here it results in a rich, flavorful biscotti.
- Update! If you’re in the Hudson Valley, visit Mona at Talbott & Arding
- If you’re interested in having lunch at the academy, or if you just want to be more involved, there is a way to do it. Friends of the AAR have the ability to enjoy lunch at the American Academy in Rome with up to ten guests, by reservation. You also get the e-newsletter, and invitations to select AAR events. If you spend more time in Rome, or live there, some of the other options might appeal to you as well.
- American Academy in Rome on Instagram & their Facebook page.
- Biscotti: Recipes from the Kitchen of The American Academy in Rome, The Rome Sustainable Food Project.
- Mona was featured in Coco: 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs