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Some Italy Updates

A maritozzo pastry from Rome next to Italian tennis star Jannik Sinner
L: By the author; R: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Welcome to Some Italy Updates, a new and possibly never-to-be-repeated roundup of recent food experiences and tennis items pertaining to the nation of Italy.

Puntarelle Season A Great Triumph

Recently I visited Rome, an elegant and slow-moving city that extracted many concessions from my mostly pescatarian worldview. A couple cheeky strips of guanciale stowed away in a masterful bowl of pasta all'Amatriciana—I could plausibly claim ignorance. Strips of wine-soaked charcuterie referred to on the menu of a charming wine bar as "drunk meat"—I could not claim ignorance, but someone else ordered it, and I have only this one life to live, which I don't want to spend ignorant of something called "drunk meat."

Despite constant dietary challenges and temptations, there was one item perfectly tuned to all my needs. That would be the puntarelle, or chicory sprouts. Seeing the word on menus reminded me of an astonishingly charismatic photo I'd once seen of this windswept, rakish vegetable. Its season begins in late fall, and there I was, just in time to eat it.

The leaves are trimmed away, and the sprouts are either knifed into strips or pressed through a purpose-built torture device, then tossed into ice water, where they coil into tense, thin ringlets. Removed from their cold plunge, they get dressed in olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and a barrage of anchovies. Lots of 'chovies are dissolved right into the dressing, and sometimes they'd even toss a few bonus fillets on top of the salad, just in case you forgot whom to thank for the umami bomb.

I am pretty much always trying to eat something tart, vegetal, and anchovy-dense, so I loved this salad and its every sensory thrill: the clean snap of the cold sprouts, their wild winding loops, the wintry pale-green color under a fishy cloak. I could eat it with every meal, and indeed aspired to do so, because it offered some welcome roughage to nudge along the mythic quantities of cheese and flour making their slow pilgrimage through me.

This dish is incredibly hard to stop eating, and after housing nearly two full plates of it, I used my spare crusts to reclaim any spots of dressing. If you have ever fantasized about what it'd be like to consume this particular Pokemon, in all its funk and tangle, next to a hot Roman pizza, boy, do I have news for you.

Jannik Sinner Beat Novak Djokovic At The ATP Finals (But Lost)

I can only hope some Italians munched on this seasonal treat while appreciating the genius of Italy's greatest active sportsman. I told you guys that Jannik Sinner was as good as he now obviously appears to be. I have been telling you! (As someone with an ignominious record of false alarms when it comes to rising ATP talent—greetings, Denis Shapovalov—I understand if those warnings went ignored.) I just couldn't envision a future where Sinner wasn't pushing for major titles. I will always bet on a 22-year-old with sublime technique on both wings, cataclysmic sounds off the tennis racquet, and steady incremental improvement. The kid from the Italian Alps has been investing in his serve, touch, and defense, for which he was rewarded richly all fall. Often knocked for his shaky performance against equal competition, Sinner strung together five straight wins against fellow top-five players during the indoor season—including another win over buzzier contemporary Carlos Alcaraz, tipping the head-to-head in his favor.

Sinner wound down the season with heroism at the ATP Finals, the year-end showcase for the season's best players, coming in as the fourth seed, and competing for a lusty home crowd in Turin. In the group stage, he defeated world No. 1 Novak Djokovic for the first time in four tries, 7-5, 6-7(5), 7-6(2). Sinner's offensive gifts have been flagrant for years, but he now looks if he has grown into the tennis he was always fated to play. He still strikes the fear of god into every tennis ball, but now supplements that with better decision-making, patience, change of direction. He even ran away with the deciding tiebreak, the format that Djokovic has long reigned over with his hermetic, error-proof tennis.

Sinner maintained this level in the semifinal, facing world No. 3 Daniil Medvedev and debunking the Russian's attritional approach. Medvedev, who likes fast hard courts like the ones in Turin, delights in torturous backhand-to-backhand exchanges that have a faintly frog-boiled-alive aspect; opponents are doomed well before they realize it. In that deciding set, Sinner accepted that particular challenge head-on. He never shied away from Medvedev's insidious two-hander, instead punishing it with his heavier and angrier version. That Sinner set was as pure a sequence of backhands as you'll see this side of Novak Djokovic. Speaking of that guy—the structure of this event meant that a player might have to defeat Djokovic more than once to win the overall title. That is how the matches lined up for Sinner. Unable to produce two straight miracles and get canonized, he lost to Djokovic in the championship match on Nov. 19. But he would have an opportunity for revenge a week later.

Various Pastas Astonish

Djokovic does not eat gluten, so it would have been difficult to bond with him over any of the exemplary pastas I was lucky to encounter in Rome. What an arsenal of pastas. I am thinking of the gnocchi that arrived in a pool of red sauce that seemed illuminated from within, lava-bright. As soon as it landed I tried to fork one into my mouth but it was too hot, and still, in that fleeting second, that dab of sauce was enough to punch me in the mouth with tomato umami, then acidity and just glancing sweetness.

Next to it on the table was the tonnarelli with clams, the noodles resting in a gnarled pile, each one ultimately pliable but committed to its form, an almost yogic noodle. Sometimes you can eat a dish so good it exposes the weakness of your own character. Immediately I was confronted with the way I use lemon juice as a crutch in my linguini with clams. I am not capable of an emulsion this harmonious: that pure clam liquor, backed by the fruitiness and body of white wine, touched by the self-evident glories of butter and garlic. That balance escapes me, so I just shock mine with a blast of lemon juice at the end and pray for absolution. Their pasta had no lemon, only trace flecks of parsley; you don't need to overdo that stuff if you can speak with your sauce.

As sauce goes, I am dreaming still of the fregula at the Sardinian restaurant: pearls of semolina flour, afloat in a broth like ocean brine, faithfully populated with shrimp, snails, tiny conches that I dug meat out of with a thin hooked tool, and a curious flat purple crustacean I have yet to identify—call me if you think you can solve the mystery—but which deepened the entomological feeling of all crustacean dining. If that fregula was something like eating the sea, then the mushroom pasta served at that small Roman trattoria was like eating the forest. The chef's ratio of ingredients was a culinary argument in of itself, an assertion of hierarchy, the fungal abundance nearly crowding the noodles off the plate. Fat velvety halves and quarters of chanterelle—here I learned the virtues of keeping the water and structure in your mushrooms, the possible illusions of flesh—slid against thick cuts of porcini, their green-brown pores exuding a gorgeously dank slime into the pasta sauce. For a dedicated mycophile, this would be a fine plate to die on. Just tip head first into that sucker and fill your nostrils with the aromas of earthy duff.

Jannik Sinner Defeats Novak Djokovic Again (And Again) At Davis Cup

Pasta is a dish best served hot. A dish that is best served cold? Puntarelle. Another one: revenge. That is exactly what Sinner extracted from Djokovic last weekend, just a week after his defeat at the ATP Finals, this time with more than mere individual glory at stake. The Davis Cup is a team-based national competition, and while it's dipped from its former prominence, its crowds are still full of howling, dueling patriotism. Serbia and Italy matched up last weekend in the semifinal, which took place in Malaga, Spain. Sinner, who had skipped the earlier stages of the event, parachuted in to take on the unsavory task of playing the GOAT, here equipped with the "nationalist fervor" performance buff. Djokovic hasn't lost a Davis Cup singles match since 2011. But Sinner could at least come into the match with the muscle memory of a recent victory in Turin. Perhaps this is what he drew on in their match in the third set, when he cancelled three straight match points while serving at 4-5, 0-40, and bounded right on ahead to win, 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. That leveled the team score at 1-1.

It's not often that Novak Djokovic loses a tennis match, let alone two matches in one day. Sinner can claim credit for this logistically improbable feat, because after his singles victory, he teamed up with Lorenzo Sonego to beat Djokovic and Miomir Kecmanovic in a doubles match, 6-3, 6-4. That victory advanced Italy to the final round against Australia the next day. There Sinner continued to deliver, deleting Alex de Minaur in their singles match, helping earn Italy's first Davis Cup since 1976, and securing a place in Italian sporting legend.

For perspective: Djokovic suffered only three losses in his 39 matches since the start of this year's French Open; the other loss was to Carlos Alcaraz at Wimbledon. All told, a 22-year-old Jannik Sinner had to play Djokovic three times in 11 days, and came away with two wins and one historic trophy. How sweet it must taste.

Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

Pastry Raises Spirits

I do not often purchase pastries in anger. But a phone left at a restaurant the night before had to be retrieved the next morning, sending us back into the center of the city, only to double-back to the airport in time to make our flight. I was salty, tired, and mourning the loungy final morning in Rome I'd envisioned. Instead I was up early hauling luggage and feeling the psychic burn of every passing minute before the flight back home. We had some time to kill before the cab arrived, and I determined that this time should be filled with something sweet, so I stepped into a cafe, where I was thunderstruck by the maritozzo, a glazed brioche bun, split down the middle, then loaded up with a dollop of whipped cream so big as to be a punchline unto itself. The cream is flattened flush against the bun, as if by a mason's trowel. I can't speak Italian, but I do not think, in that moment of first contact, that I could've spoken English, either. I paid and stepped back outside. It took ascetic self-control to stretch this treat out into five or six careful bites. There was a hint of citrus in the bun, so sweet and yielding, but because this pastry follows an unusual logic, it stashes even-softer inside the already-soft. That cream was vaporous and mellow, more a sensation of coolness on the tongue than a discrete flavor, a coolness that pacified the mind and reminded me where I was, which was on a sidewalk in Rome, surrounded by people in no particular rush to do anything. If I missed my flight, I'd just eat 10 or 11 more of these. And that would be fine.

Jannik Sinner Cheered By Entire Soccer Stadium

Before AC Milan's Champions League match against Dortmund on Tuesday, the young tennis star was paraded onto the field, and greeted by chants of "Yah-neek! Yah-neek! Seen-air! Seen-air!"

The Italian side lost, 3-1. But at least these fans have this young king to celebrate for the years to come. Can't wait to see what he does at the Australian Open. This concludes Some Italy Updates.

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