Any tourist arriving in Rome for the first time finds himself in a complex, chaotic city that is still wrapped up in its more than two-thousand year old history. As he sets out to explore, he will discover not only many of the Eternal City’s beautiful sites – monuments, churches, world-famous archaeological areas and more besides – he is also bound to come across some of the many speciality foods enjoyed for centuries by visiting “pilgrims”, the travellers, who once arrived in Rome in their thousands in search of ancient relics or simply to confirm their faith.
Rome, not only the city of great emperors and popes, but also of the working-class people described by Belli (writer & poet: 1791-1863), Goethe’s city of the soul and of course the protagonist in many Fellini films, is now a vast metropolis that has learned to live with all its contradictions and its heritage. But, anyone wanting to get to the city’s “real” soul need only sample some typical Roman dishes to realise that they reflect its history - genuine and simple, made of a few basic ingredients, often those that are cheap to obtain.
If you venture into the lanes and backstreets around the Pantheon, you’re assured an unique experience of aromas, colours, flavours and colours, a veritable journey through a rustic cuisine full of intense flavours; the food of the “real Romans” who have always lived in these old city streets and squares, the food that has always animated the city’s many inns and eateries, and the type of food that never graced the tables of Rome’s powerful aristocracy. It was made of humble ingredients, often those destined for the bin and certainly not worthy of of princes and cardinals.
Of the whole gamut of Roman food however, it is Roman-Jewish food that gets the laurels. One of the earliest fusion cuisines, it combines and muddles up the features, cultures and food of these two great peoples. Given that the Jews arrived in Rome way back in the 2nd century BC, that fusion was inevitable, especially as – to stay in theme – basic Jewish food, like traditional Roman fare, is also features good, simple ingredients which, properly combined, prove that even the poorest ingredients can be transformed into something delicious. In a very equitable exchange, traditional Jewish cuisine brought its influence to bear on typical Roman dishes whilst local food products inspired new “Jewish style” recipes too.
The meeting of thee two cuisines form the basis of the city’s culinary tradition; in fact it is hard to tell where the one begins and the other ends. If in Rome in the right season, for example, not to try the best artichokes in the world would be a real sin! Artichokes are undoubtedly the “princes” of Roman cuisine and one of the best ways to try them is “alla giudia” (Jewish style), briefly soaked in lemon water then salted and deep fried in olive oil. Absolutely delicious!
So too is a “tortino di alici” in which a pastry base is layered with anchovies and endives - a typical Roman vegetable – baked and then eaten warm or cold. Next? “Gnocchi alla Romana”, made with semolina, dipped in melted butter and then baked in the oven. Another tart – made of sardines and artichokes, and a timballe of ricotta are also popular.
We must not forget fillets of baccalà (salt-cod) or courgette flowers either– stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, fried in a light batter – or Rome’s “suppli al telefono” – fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella that stretches out just like a telephone wire.
Both are early forms of street food still much loved today. There are plenty of soups to try too, the most famous of which is made of broccoli and “arzilla”, the local name for a delicate white fish, and a chick pea soup with “pennerelli” is another must; it dates back to ancient Roman times and the “pennerelli” (little pens) are actually small pieces of meat off cuts; any meat, except of course pork which is forbidden under Jewish dietary laws.
The next stop in our food trail continues involves dishes starring lamb – which only Romans call abbacchio – that remind us that the earliest Romans were described as a pastoral people with ties to gods of the woods and those that protected their precious flocks of sheep.
Varro, ancient Roman author of the 2nd century BC described how newborn lambs were tied to a post – ad baculum (hence abbacchio)- for the first four months of their lives to ensure they did not hurt themselves running around. One well-known dish is fried, breaded lamb chops, cutlets “a scottadito” meaning burned fingers, which is what happened to the shepherds when they used their fingers to eat. It had, after all been cooked on a griddle or over very hot charcoal! Oven baked lamb with potatoes or pan baked with olives or lemon are other traditional dishes to try. Whilst lamb is traditionally associated with Easter, chicken (pollo) is also part of this great feasting tradition, especially when fried (fritto) or cooked with peppers (con peperoni) in the dish typically eaten on Ferragosto (15 August).
Head for the district known as the “Ghetto”, the area Jews were forced to live, in segregation, from 1550- 1870, and still the heart of Rome’s Jewish community. It was here in fact, on 16 October 1943 that women, children and the elderly were rounded up, deported and gobbled up by the Nazi machine. Today, these narrow streets in the shadows of Rome’s largest synagogue, the imposing Portico of Ottavio and the Theatre of Marcellus, are the setting for a more peaceful life, and home to a great many trattorias offering a wide range of dishes representing the best of Roman-Jewish cuisine. What better way to prove that free men can and indeed did overcome those that represent man’s inhumanity to man?
Whether in ancient, medieval or Renaissance Rome, bread has always been an important element in the city’s foodscape, omnipresent on the tables of rich and poor alike; no Roman would ever consider sitting down to eat unless there was some bread on the table!
There can’t be anyone who has never heard of bruschetta – a slice of toasted (bruscato) bread that in its simplest form is rubbed with a piece of garlic, drizzled with oil and sprinkled with a pinch of salt, but is often enriched by the addition of any number of other ingredients such as tomatoes, peppers, cheese or even onions. Truly a peasant dish, bruschetta was originally a way of using up stale bed, but it has become something we like to snack on at any time or as an hors d’oeuvre.
Pizza bianca – white pizza – is another Roman speciality, either thin and crunchy, or thicker and “dressed” with oil and sea salt. It is wonderful with some freshly sliced mortadella or – in the summer – filled with figs and – for real foodies – cured ham. Some historic bakers also prepare a simple pizza rossa – red pizza – with a thin crust cooked on a baking sheet, drizzled with oil and covered in tomatoes.
Nothing could be simpler – and best eaten ambling along the streets around Campo di Marzio. Wherever you go in the city, “historic” woodburning, modern electric or gas ovens send out wafts of irresistible aromas that tempt you into eating a quick and fragrant snack, although the areas around the Pantheon and Campo dei Fiori are probably the most inviting as they turn out freshly baked bread and rolls all day long.
In the evenings, however, it is pizza that reigns supreme: Margherita – with tomato, mozzarella and basil/oregano, Capricciosa – mozzarella, ham, mushrooms, artichokes and tomato, con Funghi – with mushrooms, or Prosciutto – ham, or actually, anything else we might fancy! From Testaccio to Trastevere, from San Lorenzo to Pigneto and Ostiense to Prati – you are truly spoilt for choice!
A poem about bread, written by Aldo Fabrizi in Roman dialect in 1970, entitled “Nonno Pane” (Grandpa bread) extols the versatility of bread, saying that besides bruschetta and panzanella (bread soup) bread goes well with practically every ingredient under the sun, but it is particularly good if you are hungry!