By Zerlina, Guest Columnist
First, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way. You will not find “Italian food” in Rome, for the simple reason that Italian food does not exist. Italian food is regional: Food in Rome is different from food in Florence, Bologna, Venice or Palermo. (Ed. note – If you’re a true “foodie,” you might want to get Italy for the Gourmet Traveler by Fred Plotkin. An amazing book, it explores the many diverse food styles in Italy).
There are some “Italian” dishes that you will not find in Rome or anywhere else in Italy, except in the worst and most touristy of restaurants. Spaghetti with meatballs, spaghetti bolognese, veal parmesan and chicken parmesan do not exist in Italy; they are Italian-American dishes. (It’s not strictly speaking a dish, but don’t expect any restaurant to give you a little bowl of olive oil to dip your bread into; it’s an invention of the North American restaurant industry. And they won’t give you butter either: butter is only served at breakfast.)
The Italian Meal
Traditionally, an Italian meal is composed of a number of courses that follow an unvarying order: antipasto (“before the meal” or appetizer), primo piatto (soup or pasta or risotto), secondo piatto (meat or fish) served with a contorno (vegetable or salad, which you have to order separately), formaggio (cheese) and dolce (dessert).
Obviously, Italians do not eat every course at every meal: they will have two or three courses. They may even share dishes. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for a dish “uno in due”, but some dishes lend themselves better to sharing than others: a shared pasta dish will generally come from the kitchen on two plates, while secondi, contorni and dolci will not. What is not acceptable is for two people to order one pasta, one secondo and one dolce and then share all three dishes.
Except at the papal court and in the palaces of the aristocracy, Roman cooking – like all regional Italian cooking – has always been a cucina povera, a “poor cuisine” that relies on what is available and in season and uses up all that is available. The prime examples of this in Roman cooking are the quinto quarto dishes, the ones using the “fifth quarter”, that is, what is left after the best parts have gone to richer tables: offal and, particularly prized in Rome, oxtail. In case you’re already worried: you will not have to eat tripe or organ meats in Rome; in fact, most restaurants do not have quinto quarto dishes on the menu every day, and every restaurant offers many other options.
The other principal influence in Roman cooking is Jewish cooking. One of the glories of Roman food is a Roman-Jewish dish: carciofi alla giudea (deep fried artichokes).
Carciofi alla Giudea at Trattoria Giggetto
Now on to some typical dishes you’ll find in Roman restaurants.
Bruschetta: This is what to have if you’re looking for olive oil with your bread or for garlic bread (which also doesn’t exist in Italy). It’s a slice of bread, toasted or grilled, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Very often, diced tomatoes are added (bruschetta al pomodoro). Pronounced brusKETTa.
Filetti di baccala: These are reconstituted fillets of salt cod, dipped in batter and deep fried. There’s a place that does these and very little else: Il Filettaro di Santa Barbara, on Largo dei Librai, off Via dei Giubbonari near the Campo dei Fiori.
Carciofi alla romana: Artichokes braised with a mint-like herb. Also served as a contorno. Unlike carciofi alla giudea, which are often a house specialty made throughout the year with imported artichokes, carciofi alla romana are only available fall through spring.
Antipasto misto: A mixed appetizer plate that can include any or all of the following: cured meat, cheese, olives, grilled or preserved vegetables, greens.
The four most classic Roman primi piatti are variations on a theme:
Pasta alla puttanesca (“prostitutes’ pasta”, so called, according to one theory, because all the ingredients were ready to hand in the cupboard when the ladies of the night returned home after work): Most commonly found in Lazio and Campania and made with tomatoes, pitted olives, capers, garlic, chili pepper and anchovy fillets that add flavour but no fishy taste.
You’ll notice I’ve called all these dishes simply pasta. That’s because they can be made with various shapes of dried pasta: spaghetti, penne, rigatoni, etc.
There are countless other dishes, made with plain or egg pasta; many of them are with vegetables, such as zucchini or porcini mushrooms. You should know that pasta with tomato sauce (al pomodoro) is often made with only tomatoes and basil or tomatoes, onion and a little garlic; it is not a sauce that has a dozen or more ingredients and has cooked for hours.
Lamb – young, milk-fed lamb – is the meat most associated with Roman cooking, and it comes in two principal ways. Abbacchio al forno (or sometimes agnello al forno) is roast lamb; it differs from most other secondi in that it generally comes with roast potatoes. Abbacchio a scottadito (“burnt-fingers lamb”) are lamb chops; you should be aware that they are thinly cut and different from the lamb chops you may be used to.
www.wired2theworld.com – Oxtail at Armando al Pantheon
Coda alla vaccinara: A classic quinto quarto dish, it’s oxtail stew, made with tomatoes, celery, white wine and spices, sometimes with a bit of bitter chocolate. Properly prepared, it takes hours, and the meat comes off the bone at the touch of a knife. I strongly recommend you try it if you see it on a daily menu – or go to Checchino dal 1887 in Testaccio, where it’s always on the menu.
Porcini alla griglia: Common throughout Italy, porcini alla griglia are very large, meaty mushrooms served grilled and dressed with olive oil, a little chopped garlic and parsley. In season in spring and fall, they are highly prized and will cost as much as or more than many meat dishes.
A word about fish: Although Rome is only a few miles from the sea, fish is not part of traditional Roman cooking and always relatively expensive. Some fish dishes are priced by the plate, but you’ll often see the price indicated by the etto or hg; this means it’s priced by the unit of weight, 100 g or about 1/4 lb. If it’s a large whole fish, the price can mount up rapidly. Fish is best eaten in restaurants that specialize in it.
For vegetarians: Putting together a meal from antipasti, primi piatti and contorni is your best bet, but most restaurants will make you a vegetarian frittata (omelette, but don’t think fluffy: the vegetables are mixed with the eggs, and the whole thing is cooked until set), and some restaurants offer scamorza alla griglia (grilled cheese, but don’t think Kraft’s cheddar slices).
Puntarelle: Found only in Rome, they’re a member of the chicory family and served raw as a salad with a dressing of olive oil, vinegar, anchovies and garlic. See Anthony Bourdain’s passionate response to puntarelle and seasonal cooking in Rome in this excerpt from his TV show.
Seasonal vegetables: Some vegetables, e.g. spinach, are served year-round, others only in season. The most common preparations are all’aglio e olio (olive oil and garlic) or al limone (olive oil and lemon). Be aware that vegetables are often served tepid.
Salads come in many ways. A green salad (insalata verde) or a mixed salad (insalata mista, greens with carrots and sometimes tomato wedges) often comes to the table plain: you dress it yourself with the oil and vinegar provided. Other salads (e.g., tomato or fennel) generally come dressed.
A word about garlic: Most dishes are only flavoured subtly with garlic; garlic is rarely predominant and never overpowering.
Desserts are not a strong point of Roman cooking, but there are a few desserts you might like to try.
Torta alla ricotta: Made with ricotta cheese, it comes from the Roman-Jewish tradition, brought to Rome when Spain expelled Jews from its dominions in Sicily in the late fifteenth century. It’s not anything like New York-style cheesecake.
Montebianco: Not strictly Roman, this is meringue, covered with squiggles of chestnut puree, covered with whipped cream. It takes its name from Monte Bianco or Montblanc, which it is meant to resemble.
Fruit in season: One of the reasons why desserts are not a strong point of Roman cooking is that they only started appearing on restaurant menus fairly recently (“recent” being a somewhat relative term in Italy, of course). At home, Romans ended a meal with fresh fruit in season, and many still do. Depending on the season, you’ll still see fruit on restaurant menus. The menu may simply say frutta fresca or di stagione and you have to ask or it may list what’s available. Here’s a handy calendar – with pictures – of what’s in season when!
Some of them you can and should order in restaurants: strawberries, raspberries, frutti di bosco (a mix of tiny strawberries, raspberries and mirtilli or wild blueberries). These all come al naturale (plain), al limone (with lemon) or alla panna (with whipped cream). Cherries, melon and pears will generally be ripe and good as well, but apricots and peaches are perhaps better bought at a market. Persimmons (cachi) should only be bought at a market and enjoyed in privacy: when properly ripe, they are very messy to eat – but very, very good.
Pineapple (ananas) is almost always available, as is macedonia di frutta, which is fruit salad (don’t think DelMonte; better restaurants use only fresh fruit that is in season, and you can ask for it to be spiked with limoncello).
Instead of having dessert in a restaurant, you might want to go to a gelateria for – what else? – gelato. Gelaterie have much better gelato in a much wider range of flavours than restaurants do. In summer, consider a granita, something like a slush, most often made with coffee or lemon. The coffee version can be had “alla panna” (with whipped cream).
Similarly, go to a pasticceria for a wider selection of higher-quality pastries.
In Rome, pizza comes in three versions: Roman (with a thin crust), Neapolitan (with a crust that’s thick around the edges) and “al taglio” (by the slice). Pizzerias prepare individual, plate-size Roman or Neapolitan pizzas (never both) to order. Pizza al taglio is prepared ahead of time and sold for take-out. It comes in two kinds: rossa or red, with tomato sauce, and bianca or white, without tomato sauce and filled or topped with more combinations of ingredients than you thought possible.
Be aware that asking for a pepperoni pizza in Rome will get you a pizza con peperoni (bell peppers). Ask for pizza con salame piccante, or better yet order one of the Roman pizzas on offer.
What to Drink with Roman Food
In a word: wine. Every restaurant has an inexpensive house wine (in my experience, the whites are generally better than the reds) that comes by the carafe or the half-bottle or bottle. Some restaurants have wine by the glass, only the house wine or a selection. Even bottled wines have a very low mark-up compared to North America.
And water: but please, bottled water. You can have it flat (naturale) or with bubbles (con gas or frizzante). Bottled water in restaurants is not a market gimmick or pretentious, as it often is in North America; it’s simply the way it’s done. You can ask for tap water (acqua del rubinetto), but it immediately marks you as a (cheapskate) tourist, and the restaurant is not obliged to give it to you. On your wanderings, you can refill your bottle free with excellent water from the many fountains (not the ornamental ones but the ones called nasoni or “big noses”).
In pizzerias, beer is often the drink of choice.
Be aware that soft drinks cost as much as or more than wine in restaurants. If you must have Coke, buy it in grocery stores and drink it in your hotel or apartment.
Coffee is never drunk with a meal and only espresso after one. Tea is generally a sorry thing in Rome and throughout Italy: a teabag served with a pot of hot water. Iced tea is unknown, but there are flavored tea drinks that come in bottles.
Finally, ice. Contrary to some reports, ice does exist in Rome and throughout Italy, but not in the quantities North Americans are used to. Some mixed alcoholic drinks come with ice, but if you ask for ice in a restaurant, you will be given one or maybe two cubes per drink.
The best advice I can give you about eating in Rome is this: Forget what you know about Italian food and try Roman food, choosing dishes that appeal to you from the above descriptions. They will be more genuine and more carefully prepared than generic “Italian” dishes.
Special Thanks to Zerlina for pulling all this information together and writing this article!
Header: Food and Drink in Ancient Rome – Photo from MitchellTeachers.net
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