Our “food trails” wind their way through working-class neighbourhoods where this traditional food continues to thrive. Districts like Trastevere and Testaccio that are fairly central, but also those slightly further out like Garbatella, San Lorenzo and Ostiense where trattorias abound. In the evening, they are the districts most popular with locals thanks to the historic inns and hostelries that rarely give in to the fashion of re-inventing traditional dishes and that envelop guests in an atmosphere in which aromas emanating from the kitchen merge with the images evoked of a past in which charcoal burners, artisans and the like spent their lives fighting to survive - within spitting distance of some of Rome’s finer dwellings and palaces.
This then is Rome – a pot pourri of refined nobility and unsophisticated hardworking people used to making do and somehow remaining true to themselves whilst surrounded by the power that resonated in the city deemed to be the capital of the world for centuries. Lucky for us, their culinary traditions have passed from one generation to the next. It’s not by chance that the place of honour, amongst genuine, traditional Roman dishes, goes to what is known as “the fifth quarter” (of a butchered animal) or in other words, the offal (frattaglie) – the innards and least expensive parts of beef and lamb / mutton – that would never be selected by anyone even slightly well off and were therefore usually just thrown away. We’re talking about tripe, kidneys, heart, livers, spleen, sweetbreads, spinal cord, brains, tongue, lights (lungs) and tail. Coratella (pluck) – the liver heart and tongue of a cow cooked up together is also popular.
The combination of these lowly ingredients result in extraordinary dishes that are flavoursome yet delicate, and that despite their humble beginnings, caress the palate. Rigatoni (pasta tubes) with “pajata” (small intestine of an unweened calf) or kidneys, pluck with artichokes or onions, Roman-style tripe (tomato based), oxtail and other stews, not forgetting saltimbocca (“leap-in-the mouth” - because it’s so tasty - veal escalope cooked with a slice of ham and sage) are just some of the delights of a plethora of workingclass dishes. Two age-old local dishes still found in Roman eateries both use cheap cuts of beef: the spleen, gently stewed with sage, garlic, vinegar, anchovies and pepper, and kidneys cooked with tomatoes, onion, parsley, white wine and pepper.
Although it rarely appears on menus, and is not offal-based, “garofolato” is a roast eye round of beef (girello), stuffed with bits of lard, cloves (chiodo di garofano in Italian, hence the name) and sliced garlic, pan cooked slowly for a couple of hours with some celery and tomatoes. This same sauce is also used, poured over tripe cooked “Trastevere style”, which is finished off in the oven with a sprinkling of grated pecorino cheese and some chopped mint.
Although these dishes appear on menus all over Rome, from the centre to the furthest suburbs, their true “home” is, and always has been Testaccio, today one of the city’s trendiest districts. Its working class origins are practically unchanged, and people still remember how, years ago, butchers working in the slaughter house were paid in mixture of cash and meat - specifically the fifth quarter. Snails are last, but by no means least in this short list of speciality dishes. An essential part of French haute cuisine, here in Rome they are very much a homecooked dish, but no less tasty for that!
Snails “Roman style”, also known locally as “San Giovanni” (St. John’s) style, were and are traditionally cooked in Roman eateries on the night between the 23rd and 24th of June – in honour of the saint – and served up during a sort of street party, still held today in the square in front of the Basilica. The ancient festa held on 24 June was, instead, dedicated to the Goddess Ceres, hoping to invoke fortune and wealth and to chase away hostile divinities. When it was later dedicated to St. John, it maintained its propitiatory function, and the “horns” of the snails represented the devil – evil. In the 19th century, it also became a festa dedicated to peace and the various stalls set up in the area – serving snails of course - became known as the stalls of peace or concord.
When it comes to frugal but still mouthwatering food, the traditional food of Rome’s working class often featured in the works of artists, poets and writers, particularly during the 19th century, who aimed to depict the reality of where they were living. It’s how we know that soup and pasta dishes abounded and, just like everything else in Rome – had distant origins. Polenta-like dishes made of spelt flour, as well as broad beans, barley and “pultes” (a kind of porridge) were the soups of ancient times. As far back as the 1st century BC, writers Cicero and Horace could not get enough of “Laganum”, thin sheets of pasta made of flour and water, and still today you will find outstanding soups made from vegetables and/or pulses. Stracciatella and brodetto di Pasqua are both enriched by beaten egg, (the latter with an even richer broth). Cappelletti (stuffed hatshaped pasta) in broth are served at home on special occasions, and in most popular eateries as an option to all the other pasta dishes known all over the world, although few, elsewhere, can truly reproduce them.
What lies behind the success of Roman cuisine is the use of local ingredients and flavourings which include wonderful vegetables like broccoli, chicory, artichokes, tomatoes and broad beans, an amazing array of simple but tasty dairy products and tender, flavoursome meat, mostly all from the Roman countryside which, with its rich, fertile soil has always managed to supply the city with all that it needs. Guanciale (cured pork cheek) pancetta, (bacon), vegetables and pulses give us dishes that have become legendary like “pasta and fagioli” (& beans) with pork fat/skin (cotiche), pasta with broccoli, spaghetti alla carbonara (originally made by charcoal makes because the few basic ingredients egg and bacon, were easy to take to work), bucatini all’amatriciana (traditional sauce from Amatrice in the hills behind Rieti, made with guanciale, tomatoes, lard, chilli peppers and pecorino cheese – no onions or garlic!), or la gricia”, an older version of l’amatriciana without tomatoes. There's also fettuccine alla romana (meat sauce enriched with onions, chicken livers and breast, mushrooms & tomatoes) or alla papalina (made especially for Pope Pius XII – like a carbonara but with added cured ham and onions), not forgetting ravioli stuffed with ricotta either – all usually served with a sprinkling of pecorino romano – Roman sheep’s cheese. Penne (pasta) all’arrabbiata (angry) is yet another favourite dish, although this time the tomato sauce is really hot and fiery (hence the name) thanks to the addition of lots and lots of chilli pepper! The list of spaghetti dishes is as long as your arm, but to pick out a few: alla carrettiera (cart-driver: tomatoes, tuna belly, mushrooms, garlic & chilli pepper), alla puttanesca (prostitute – tomatoes, olive, capers & garlic), alla checca (short for Francesca- chopped raw tomatoes, mozzarella and caciotta cheese), alla bersagliera (soldiers who march on the run, therefore quick to make: tomatoes, garlic, oil, chilli peppers, salami and provolone cheese). We could go on forever but we’re too hungry!
Roman food is a party that just keeps on going, day after day all over the city, but, tucking into to some “gricia” or “carbonara” in Trastevere, or Borgo – in the shadow of St. Peter’s dome – or in Monti, the city’s oldest district, is in a league all of its own.