All we wanted was a simple lunch – a bowl of pasta, a glass of wine and a salad. My friend, Livio Camarra, the quality obsessed Italian restaurateur in Toronto, and I were at the end of our extended wine tour of Italian wine regions, and in no mood for yet another gastronomic meal and innumerable bottles of wine to taste and savour.
We were about to order when a seemingly wealthy Roman businessman appeared from nowhere and started to give instructions to our server. Livio, although fluent in Italian, decided to listen but not interfere. The businessman and server, after considerable debate suggested a menu to us, and we, although startled, accepted the menu just to experience what was going to be served and at what price. Traveling in Italy is never short of surprises, some of which can be hilarious, others pleasant, and yet others very frustrating and annoying.
The menu concocted consisted of puntarelle (a bitter chicory, julienne cut, and dressed with an assertive dressing of extra virgin olive oil, garlic, anchovy fillets, lemon juice and salt and pepper). Next came carciofi coi piselli (artichokes and peas cooked in chicken stock, prosciutto ham and onions). For the record, Italians are known to tolerate the highest levels of bitterness in their food. They enjoy the bitterest digestives, and aperitifs like Campari, Fernet Branca or Cynar just to name a few.
Then came the pasta – tonarelli cacio e pepe (long strands of pasta with ewe’s milk cheese and black pepper), which was followed by costolettine a scottadito (chops of milk fed lamb) marinated in herbs and grilled. We had no desire, capacity or intention to order dessert! Espresso was all we could handle.
The whole meal was washed down with glasses of Colli Albani and Frascati. Both are local white wines, made close to Rome, and mostly consumed by Romans as everyday drinks and often instead of water. (There are some Colli Albani and Frascati in Ontario and across Canada but they seem to taste less vigorous after the long voyage).
Roman cuisine has little common with the extravagant feasts of ancient and imperial Rome where the tables of the rich would groan with dishes like honeyed dormice sprinkled with poppy seeds, larks’ tongues and flamingos in rich sauces accented with exotic spices from the four corners of the empire. Pepper, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and close were popular as were local herbs and garum (fermented fish entrails sauce).
Today, there is one restaurant (Magna Roma) in the eternal city that offers antique recipes culled from De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) by Apicius.
You can order lenticulum castaines (lentil and chestnut soup), minutal dulce excitriis (pork stew with citron, grape must, leeks and spices). An archeologist in on the payroll to explain the provenance of all the dishes on the menu, their cooking method and ingredients.
Of course, ordinarily Romans ate simple food. They could not afford expensive ingredients and were never interested in culinary extravaganzas, being too busy eking out a living. Roman cooking is hearty and unpretentious. Some dishes are ingenious like spaghetti alla putanesca (Consult a dictionary!).
Roman cooking lacks the delicacy of the Venetian cuisine, or the sophistication of Piedmonts repertoire, but eating in the eternal city is an adventure if you choose the right restaurant. In Rome, if you are lucky, you can have memorable experiences, but you can also be robbed of your valuables in unguarded moments!
Take a walk to the Testaccio district, where the abbatoirs gave their workers “variety cuts” (offals) as bonus. The wifes of abattoir workers learned how to prepare intestines, pancreas, lungs, brains, kidney the tastiest way they could i.e tripe soup, fried liver, braised oxtail, stewed pajata (the fourth stomach of the cow) with rigatoni graced, and in some cases still do, the tables of ordinary Roman families.
Of course in antiquity and even today, meat, fish, poultry have been very expensive. Romans, like most other Italians make good use of pastas, legumes, olives, spices, leafy and/or root vegetables. Rome is famous for its tasty vegetables, which grow abundantly in the volcanic soils of the hills surrounding it. In the thriving produce markets of Rome, farmers offer their wares fresh, daily, to eager shoppers who still insist on buying produce, meat, or fish daily, and in small quantities.
Artichokes are a staple in Roman restaurants.
Artichokes Roman style are stuffed with garlic and mint, carciofi matticella are brushed with mint-infused olive oil and grilled on vine twigs, and carcifo all giudea (Jewish style) is twice deep fried and delicious.
Cucina ebraica (Jewish style cooking) constitutes and important part of Roman cooking. The Jewish community settled in 200 B.C but grew significantly after the 1492 Inquisition in Spain and Portugal when fled to escape torture inflicted upon non-Catholics. In the ghetto you can still order salt cod (baccala), or ricotta and chocolate stuffed doughnuts.
Roman cooking is gutsy, practical, intense, imaginative and don’t expect sophisticated and refined dishes such as you can order in Venice, Milan, New York, Tokyo, Barcelona or Toronto.
Magna Roma Via Capo d’Africa, Metro Colosseo
Checchino dal 1887 Via Monte Testaccio 30, Testaccio
Piperno Monte de Cenci 9, Ghetto
La Taverna del Ghetto Via Portico d’Ottavia 7 B, Ghetto
Yotvata Piazza Cenci 70, Ghetto