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Food in Gilbert adaptation makes you want to say 'yes'

Stylist created Roman meals to lift the soul for Roberts and rest on set.

Beverly Levitt
Two dishes that can give you a taste of Rome in your own home are pistachio gelato, top, and carciofi alla giudia - artichokes prepared the way residents of Rome's Jewish ghetto did.

In the new film 'Eat Pray Love,' Julia Roberts gives herself permission to 'Just Say Yes.'

Waking up to a life obsessing over calories, wheat allergies and her specialty, non-stop guilt about food and every other living thing, Roberts, as author Elizabeth Gilbert, embarks upon an odyssey of self-discovery, embracing epicurean pleasure as the first step toward shaking up her soul.

Elizabeth's first stop: Rome, where people love their food and don't care who knows it. Her maiden meal is a plate of simple spaghetti pomodoro, which she haltingly orders in broken Italian, a mischievous smile on her face. As she twirls the red strands around her fork, relishing every bite, her mood is accentuated by Mozart's 'Magic Flute.' This powerful

image at a table for one on the patio of Osteria Dell' Antiquario is this newly unmarried woman's Declaration of Independence.

"This scene is about the joy Elizabeth feels that she can eat a plate of pasta without wagging her finger and worrying if she's going to fit into her jeans," says screenwriter Jennifer Salt, who adapted Gilbert's book, "Eat Pray Love," with director Ryan Murphy. "On a rudimentary level, it's about self-love," says Salt. "For the first time in a long time, Elizabeth has allowed herself to feel pure pleasure — opening her mind to a new letting go."

Of course, gustatory pleasure is seductive, and life began imitating art when the cast and crew traveled to Naples' L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele to eat what's billed as the best pizza in the world. Roberts, known for her slender figure and healthful eating habits, took a small fall from grace as she willingly ate a whole slice of pizza — eight times — instead of the designated bite. And this from a woman who was happiest when food stylist Susan Spungen was giving her asparagus or melon to munch on during the eight takes required to nail one shot.

Roberts stays in character as she convinces her new best friend, Sofi (Tuva Novotny), that life is about indulging pleasure: in this case, her craving for the melting pizza pie in front of her. And so, after ruminating over their inevitable muffin tops — the excess pounds that rise to the top and ooze over the waist of your jeans — after ravishing her last piece in just one bite, Elizabeth orders a second margherita pizza for each of them — with double mozzarella. For dessert, they float out of the restaurant and down the street, in search of Italian pastries.

As for the jeans, Elizabeth sloughs it off. "I'm going to eat and then buy some big lady pants."

Later in the film, in a busy café in the Largo Febo, we watch Elizabeth exuding in Italian a perfectly pronounced litany of Roman dishes. Without a menu, but with total confidence, she orders a mouth-watering dinner for eight. "For the table, carciofi alla giudia, orecchiette con guanciale, linguine con vongole, pappardelle con il ragù di coniglio, trippa alla romana and bucatini all'amatriciana\u2026 and two more liters of the vino sfuso from Genzano\u2026" Her English seeps back in. She doesn't even notice. She's too busy raising her glass and shouting, "Ciao!"

Of course, while Julia/Elizabeth is busy impressing us with her practiced Roman dialect, food stylist Spungen has been choreographing this multitudinous meal for the past three days. When asked how many showed up to help, Spungen laughed. "I think it took a village."

While the actors were waiting for their order at the crowded Santa Lucia restaurant, Spungen and her crew, which included an Italian cook with whom she consulted to make all comestibles culturally correct, were at a restaurant down the street, assembling and putting the final touches on each plate of food.

Because there were six to eight different dishes in the scene and it was a hot August day, each recipe had to be prepared a dozen times as the director called for take after take and the once vibrant Roma tomatoes, artichokes and Pecorino Romano wilted, changed color and expired under the cameras' hot lights.

"Replacements!"

Normally, the experienced food stylist, who created the French delicacies for "Julie and Julia," works with a large refrigerated food truck parked near the location, where everything is calmly cooked, stored and taken out in sequence. But narrow Roman roads were Spungen's nemesis, and during this shoot she sliced and diced in a thousand and one kitchens, most of which were on the other side of town.

So instead of delivering dishes from a kitchen a few steps away, after Elizabeth placed her order, completed plates of food had to be whisked down the street by Spungen's "villagers," who were swarmed by fascinated tourists, paparazzi and hanger-arounders.

Because every plate had to be identical in every take, and all the actors had ordered something different— something they'd be willing to eat nine times — "I'll take the tripe," "I want a bite of bucatini," "I need to have melon" — this imperative for continuity could have assumed nightmarish proportions under a less able maestro. Not only did Spungen have to provide perfect plates for the primary coterie, including the melon Roberts settled upon, there were extras to think about. But Spungen persevered, even making sure that an unnamed lady with a red skirt and a little dog sitting behind Roberts had a full plate for every take.

But out of the chaos came pleasure. Maybe what everyone gleaned from making this movie was how to "Just Say Yes" to life and all its possibilities.

Bucatini All'Amatriciana

Although this dish is considered one of the classics of Roman cuisine, it originated in the ancient town of Amatrice. The centuries-old recipe called for guanciale, a cured but not smoked type of bacon, although today many people prefer the cured and smoked pancetta. Go light on the salt; bacon has enough on its own. A more healthful alternative would be uncured applewood bacon.

1/4 lb. guanciale or pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch thick, 1-inch long strips

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 can (28 oz.) whole San Marzano tomatoes or 3 cups Roma tomatoes peeled, seeded and chopped

1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, plus more to taste

1 lb. bucatini (pasta)

1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano, plus more for serving

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

In a 12-inch cast iron frying pan, set over medium heat, place guanciale or pancetta in the pan. Cook, stirring frequently, until bacon is crisp on the outside and much of the fat has rendered out, about 10 minutes. With a slotted spoon remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat and discard.

Over medium heat add the onions to pan with reserved bacon drippings; cook for 10 minutes until translucent. With a large fork, break up the tomatoes; add them, with their juices to the pan, along with the bacon, and red pepper flakes. Cook for 15 minutes or until sauce has thickened, using the back of the fork to further break up the tomatoes.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil; add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta. Cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain pasta, but don't rinse.

To the sauce which is still in the frying pan over very low heat, add pasta along with the Pecorino Romano and the red pepper flakes. Toss well to coat. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Serve in warmed bowls with more Pecorino Romano cheese and red pepper flakes on the side.

Serves 4, with leftovers.

— Adapted from food stylist Susan Spungen

Still-Life Salad for One

A few slices of smoked salmon, preferably wild

1 dozen baby asparagus, stems peeled and ends snapped off

4 oz. fresh goat cheese

1 dozen Italian olives such as green Cerignola and black oil cured

1 or 2 hard boiled eggs, sliced in rounds

Put a lovely Italian dinner plate in the refrigerator to cool. Blanch asparagus in boiling water for 1 minute and then plunge into ice water to cool. Artfully place smoked salmon, asparagus, goat cheese, olives and hard boiled eggs on plate. Take your time. The art is in the arrangement. Serve with pizza bianca — a type of bread topped with olive oil, salt and, occasionally, rosemary sprigs. Makes 1 serving.

— Inspired by 'Eat Pray Love'

Italian-Kissed Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms

12 very fresh zucchini blossoms

1/4 cup fresh goat cheese or cream cheese at room temperature

1/4 cup whole milk ricotta cheese

1 Tbsp. half-and-half

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh Italian parsley

1 tsp. chopped fresh basil plus more for garnish

Zest of 1 lemon

2 crushed garlic cloves

1 Tbsp. finely chopped green Italian olives

2 egg yolks

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup vegetable oil

For garnish:

2 to 3 fresh zucchini blossoms (can be found at Austin farmers markets)

1 cup finely chopped Roma tomatoes tossed with olive oil

Sprigs of basil and parsley

Gently rinse the blossoms in cool water and trim stems to 2 inches. Pat dry, very gently, with a paper towel; set aside.

In a medium-size bowl, place the goat or cream cheese, ricotta, half-and-half, salt and pepper. Using a hand mixer, whip ingredients together until light and frothy. With a spatula, fold in the parsley, basil, lemon zest, garlic and olives.

Gently stuff each blossom with about 11/2 tablespoons of the mixture, depending on the blossom's size. Do not overfill! Gently, twist the petals together at the top of the blossom to seal; set aside.

In a small, shallow bowl, beat egg yolk. In a second, larger shallow bowl, combine the flour with some salt and pepper to season. Individually dip each stuffed blossom in the egg yolk, and then lightly in the flour to coat all surfaces.

In a 12-inch skillet, heat the oil to 375 degrees. One at a time, gently spoon stuffed blossoms into lightly sizzling oil. Cook in batches of four at a time, for about 2 to 3 minutes on each side, until they are lightly golden brown. Remove, drain on paper towels and season very lightly with salt.

To serve, carefully place stuffed blossoms on a serving platter. Garnish with fresh squash blossoms, sprigs of fresh basil and parsley and chopped Roma tomatoes. Serve immediately. Makes 12 servings.

— Adapted from Southern Farmers Market Cookbook by Holly Herrick (Gibbs Smith, 2009)

Carciofi alla Giudia (Sephardic Fried Artichokes)

This dish originated among the impoverished Jews of Rome, living in the Giudia ghetto. Ancient Romans wouldn't eat the spiny, off-putting plant— the first-century Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder said, 'Artichokes are the most monstrous productions of the earth.' But according to author Gil Marks, Jews have been eating the perennial thistle for thousands of years.

Juice of 1 lemon

6 small artichokes

Ground black pepper to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

Add lemon juice to a bowl of cold water. Cut off about 1 inch from the top of each artichoke. Remove the loose, tough outer leaves around the bottom. Scoop out the choke, leaving leaves and heart intact. Trim the dark green exterior from bottom and stem, leaving the stem intact. Place artichoke in the lemon water to prevent discoloration.

Holding each artichoke by stem, place top side down on a flat surface and press to loosen leaves without breaking. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat at least 11/2 inches of oil in a saucepan over medium heat. In batches, add artichokes and fry, turning occasionally until browned on all sides, about 15 to 20 minutes. During frying, occasionally sprinkle tops of the artichoke with cold water, producing steam that helps to cook the interior.

Drain artichokes on paper towels. Place top side down on a plate and let stand at least 1 hour.

Reheat oil. Holding each artichoke by stem, dip into the oil, pressing leaves against bottom of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.

— From 'The World of Jewish Cooking' by Gil Marks (Simon & Schuster)

Pistachio Gelato (Pistachio Ice Cream)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 cups heavy cream or milk

3 egg yolks, beaten

2/3 cup sugar

2 cups shelled unsalted pistachios, finely ground in spice mill

In a medium saucepan, bring 3 cups cream or milk to a simmer; remove from heat. Combine remaining 1 cup cream or milk, eggs and sugar, then stir, whisking to keep the sauce smooth until mixture thickens slightly, 8 to 10 minutes.

Put pistachios into a large bowl and stir in hot cream mixture. Place gelato in a metal container, cover with foil and freeze for 1 hour. Remove from freezer; stir briskly with a whisk to break up and smooth out any ice crystals. Return to freezer and freeze for another 3 to 4 hours. Take out of freezer a few minutes before serving.

— Adapted from 'Rome at Home: The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in your own Kitchen' by Suzanne Dunaway