I recently spent some time in Rome and rewarded myself by stopping at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, where Federico Fellini used to set up his little caricature drawing booth on the street—and where Rossellini invited him to cowrite Rome Open City. I also took a tour of Cinecittà studios (where they have on display Anita Ekberg’s outfit from La dolce vita, among other items). But I did not get a chance to go to the street and see the apartment building used in Rome Open City. (Gotta have an excuse to return, don’t I?)
Rome is called the Eternal City for good reason. Watching Rome Open City, you witness firsthand the aftermath of World War II. But as you walk the streets of the city today, those images are just another page in its long history. From almost any vantage point (and there are so many to choose from), you cannot escape being overwhelmed by its “eternalness.” Even beyond the architecture, the history is experienced through Rome’s people—and, of course, its food.
For the cast and crew of Rome Open City when they were shooting the film, the memory of those 270 lean days of German occupation wasn’t history but yesterday’s news. Shooting began mere months after the liberating Americans had arrived. Fellini wrote in 1961 (though, it should be noted, he was not always a reliable source on matters of his own past) that after he was brought on to help write the film, he and Sergio Amidei, “working in my kitchen because it was the only warm place in the house . . . got up this script . . . And thus Rome Open City was born.”
There is a scene early on in the film when Anna Magnani’s character, Pina, goes to see the priest to discuss her wedding the following day. Agostino, the priest’s assistant, is cooking cabbage soup on a heater. He opens the lid to stir the pot. “Cabbage soup,” he says. “I can tell,” she answers, making a pinched face. A moment later, the priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), enters and reprimands Agostino for cooking on the heater. “And cabbage, no less,” the priest complains.
Times were tough and food was scarce. A steady diet (and the smell) of cabbage soup would have been quite familiar to Roman audiences watching the film when it was first released. It wouldn’t surprise me if those lines were written as the two writers held their noses against the odor of cabbage soup filling Fellini’s own kitchen.
Now it seems in Italy that if someone were to, say, give you the evil eye, you would respond with “Che cavolo vuoi?” or “Che cavolo guardi?” which roughly translate as “What the hell do you want?” and “What the hell are you lookin’ at?” But literally translated, they mean “Which cabbage do you want?” and “Which cabbage are you looking at?” In fact, just saying “Cavolo!” is more or less the equivalent of saying “Damn!” Or my personal favorite: “Non m’importa un cavolo” (“It doesn’t matter as much as a cabbage to me”)—which is to say “I don’t give a damn.”
What is it about cabbage? I was told by two native Italians two different stories (not surprisingly). One was that since cabbage smells so strong while being cooked, it has a strong negative connotation. The other is that cavolo sounds similar to another Italian word, cazzo (look it up on your own), and thus, as darn stands in for damn, cavolo came to be a polite substitute for cazzo. This latter explanation seems more probable to me. After all, in 1930 Mussolini introduced a penal code (the Codice Rocco) that, among other things, made public cursing, including use of the word cazzo, a punishable crime.
I don’t happen to think cabbage smells all that bad when it’s cooking. Or maybe they invented some new, less smelly kind of cabbage that we eat nowadays. This soup is considered “peasant” food—which means it both suffices in hard times and satisfies in the best of times. It never grows old and never goes out of style. Like Rome itself. Like Rome Open City.
Minestra di cavolo (Italian Cabbage Soup)
Serves 6 as a main course
3 tablespoons olive oil
1½ tablespoons butter
2 leeks, white parts only, thinly sliced,
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow squash, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced
2–3 small dried red chile peppers, whole
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 small (1½–2 pound) head green cabbage, shredded
6 cups water, or more as needed
¼ cup minced Italian parsley
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Melt the oil and butter in a large soup pot over medium heat. Sauté the leeks, garlic, squash, zucchini, and dried chiles until softened. Do not let brown. Season with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and thyme and continue to cook for another 3–5 minutes. Add cabbage and enough water to just cover it. Season with 1½ teaspoons salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally, for about 1½ hours, until the vegetables are tender but have not lost their shape. Add more water a cup at a time as necessary. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley and adjust seasoning to taste. Ladle into soup bowls and garnish generously with Parmesan. Serve with crusty bread.
Ron Deutsch also blogs at chefducinema.com.