If, after all that, you are still feeling peckish, try some of the typical Roman desserts or cakes sold in most of the city’s pastry shops alongside other famous Italian specialities like Montblanc (puréed chestnuts, cocoa & rum) and profiteroles. Roman desserts are as simple and genuine as its main courses, prepared at home when there is something special to celebrate, or on important religious holidays.
‘Maritozzi’ are perfect for those with a sweet tooth; soft rolls filled with whipped cream and served for breakfast throughout the capital and beyond. The basic dough is often enriched with pine nuts, candied orange peel and sultanas; the rolls are glazed with a simple syrup as soon as they are out of the oven and only filled moments before eating. Their name reflects the tradition of young men presenting young women with these sweet rolls during the so-called wedding season, proving they were good potential husbands –“mariti”.
Today, the choux buns fried and filled with cream – known as “bignè di San Giuseppe” are available most of the year, but traditionally they were only prepared in March, the month dedicated to St. Joseph. Castagnole “alla Romana” are traditional carnival treats – fried choux pastry made with rum, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon. Carnival was one of the main festas in 18th century Rome, celebrated just before Lent, although its origins derive from the ancient Roman religious feast of Saturnalia which featured all sorts of public entertainment, orgiastic rites, sacrifices, dances and the wearing of masks. Celebrations ended with the Festa dei moccoletti, during which everyone carried a “moccolo” – a candle – blown out only when all was over. It marked the beginning of Lent, the period for penitence and fasting.
Sour cherry (visciole) tarts are another Roman tradition, no doubt because the Roman countryside is teeming with trees bearing these dark red, slightly acidic cherries that also make amazing jam.
Ricotta made from sheep’s milk is another essential ingredient in Roman cakes and desserts. In one of the simplest, but seriously elegant desserts, ricotta is served as is, enhanced only with some sugar, chocolate shavings, a tot of liqueur and a sprinkling of orange zest, but there is a long list of tempting desserts in which it stars: fried or flavoured with practically anything, made into a sort of custard-like dish (budino) and “bocconotti” – biscuits filled with a ricotta cream, as well as ricotta and sour cherry tarts – the best of which can be found at the Portico d’Ottavia.
One Christmas must is “pangiallo” (yellow bread) full of lime zest, candied orange, pine nuts and almonds, whilst another, called “panepepato” (peppery bread) is made of honey, walnuts, almonds pine nuts – and cinnamon to provide the peppery zing. Both “robust” enough to munch on the move, perhaps during a walk along the banks of the Tiber.
The best Easter cake of all is “pizza ricresciuta” a.k.a. “pizza dolce”, a leavened cake flavoured with cinnamon and aniseed seeds, usually followed by “mostaccioli” which in Rome, means hard biscuits containing fried and candied fruit and honey, or better still, a tasty ice-cream – vanilla, mint, chocolate, cream or strawberry.
Or, what about some “Grattachecca”? It’s a typical late 19th century Roman creation that became a popular street food, served in kiosks dotted all over the city, althoough those that became especially famous for it were along the banks of the Tiber. The name, “grattachecca” reflects the way it is made: a huge block of ice – known as a “checca” is grated (grattato) with a special tool and fruit juice or syrup is poured over the shavings. Snow or ice mixed with fruit actually first appeared during banquets hosted by Roman emperors as a sophisticated distraction and later reappeared during the Renaissance when, thanks to Catherine de’ Medici and the French court, “eating cold things” became all the rage.