When in Rome….what to eat!! – I wrote to my friends Noeleen and Ian McBride to ask them to share some culinary insights, gleaned from their many trips to Rome. The McBrides have two apartments in central Italy, in the town of Soriano nel Cimino and divide their time between Australia and Italy. Read on for their informative insight on Roman cuisine. Click here for a What to eat in Rome and take with you.
Often people who come to Italy expect to get Italian food but the food is so regional that some of the dishes in Rome are typically Roman and are not seen anywhere else in the country. For example spaghetti carbonara to me is a classically Roman dish and while it is hard to get a bad one in Rome, every mile you travel from Rome it will get worse. In Rome it never has cream in it but in Australia it is hard to get it without cream.
Roman cuisine is influenced by three things:
1. The agro romano (Roman countryside) where the farmers raise sheep to produce pecorino romano cheese and the fertile soil grows great produce. In Rome you will usually be offered Pecorino Romano instead of Parmigiano. It is stronger and saltier but very good.
2. The Jewish ghetto which was the first in the world and has a great history of deep frying foods and producing special sweets.
3. The famous abattoir at Testaccio. They say when a beast is killed it is cut into 4 quarters and the Romans eat the fifth quarter which is the head, all the offal and of course the tail which traditionally was given to the herders.
Italian menus show antipasto, primi and secondi. If you only want one course it is easy but if you want two courses then you have to decide on what combination of the three you want. One person may have an antipasto and a primo and the other may have a primo and a secondo.
A lot of Roman restaurants have a buffet for antipasti. You can just get a plate and take a sample of anything that has been prepared. Like anywhere in Italy you can get a plate of salami and cheese. However south of Rome is one of the areas for mozzarella di bufala and it has to be tried at least once.
Some trattorias have deep fried food on the menu. Carciofi alla giudea (deep fried artichokes) are great and only the Romans can do deep fried Baccala (salted cod) in breadcrumbs. Also carciofi alla Romana (Roman style artichokes).
Buccatini al’Amatriciana Named after the town of Amatrice in the province of Lazio.
It is pasta in a sauce of tomato, onion, guanciale ( type of bacon) and served with pecorino. It usually has just a hint of chilli.
Spaghetti cacio e pepe. This is just pasta with pecorino pepper and olive oil. It should be tried at least once but remember it can be addictive.
Spaghetti alla carbonara. Rome is the place to eat this but forget all the gluggy ones you have tried before.
Spaghetti all Gricia. This is like cacio e pepe with some crispy fried pancetta in it.
Spagheti alle vongole ( clams) and spaghetti allo scoglio ( marinara) are both very good in Rome but may be even better in Naples.
Rigatoni alla pajata. Pajata is the intestines of unweaned calves. They are cleaned but the undigested milk is left inside and when cooked it forms a type of cheese. Not for the fainthearted.
I will start with the more main stream items:
Abbachio alla scottadito. With all those milking sheep to make pecorino the lamb here is good. It is young and tender. It is grilled and the scottadito refers to burning your fingers either as you cook it or as you pick up the chops to get all the meat.
Saltimbocca alla Romana. Veal cooked with prosciutto and sage in a marsala sauce, it is common all over the world but they invented it here.
Baccala is salted cod that has been imported from Scandinavia for over 500 years so they have had time to learn how to cook it. In tegame or padella if it is in a stew this is common all over Italy but if you see it fritto or fried it is a Roman specialty.
Then we come to the fifth quarter that I mentioned before.
Trippa alla Romana. It is done in a tomato sauce with some local mint.
Coda alla vaccinara. Ox tail stew in a tomato sauce which is a Roman specialty. Often when they see we are foreigners they never offer us these dishes but if you ask for them they say of course we have them.
Coratella. Mixed stewed lambs offal. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.
When you order a meal in Italy it can be quite basic and mains have no vegetables. They are usually on the menu elsewhere as ‘contorni’.
The Roman specialties are listed below:
Cicoria This is a bitter weed that is boiled for a long time till tender then (saltato in padella) or fried in olive oil with anchovies and garlic.
Puntarelle. These are a salad made of a type of cicoria stems mixed with anchovies and oil. Very good.
Carciofi alla Romana. Roman style artichokes with the top filled with garlic mint and anchovy and then cooked in wine and oil.
Sweets. Just the usual suspects of Tiramisu, Crème caramel and Torta alla Nonna. They can be good especially if they contain ricotta which is wonderful here.
The McBrides suggest a restaurant near the Pantheon Casa Bleve
McBride apartments in Italy available for rent:
McBrides wood fired oven in Brisbane.
Gusto is more than one establishment, various culinary enterprises operate here under the same name and almost occupy a small block. They have a ristorante pizzeria, a wine bar and osteria formaggeria. If you eat at the osteria during the day take a walk downstairs – it is also where the toilets are and see the wonderful cheese storage area and the professional set up for guided tastings. The wine shop with cookbooks is worth visiting. Near Piazza Augusto Imperatore 9. Also try these addresses: via della Frezza, 16 and via del Corea, 2 as it is the address on the other side of the block.
For a special night out with contemporary presentation on Italian food you cannot go past Agata e Romeo. Here the chef is Agata and her husband Romeo is the sommelier (good wine cellar downstairs) and the two daughters in their tailored suits, probably Armani, work the tables. Book ahead as it is small and the area is not close to where most tourists stay. Take the Menu Degustazione, it is the only way to rate this place if it is a once time opportunity. But take note, if you book for say 8.15pm they will not open the door until 8.15pm even if you knock a few minutes before, so be punctual. Maybe they don’t want to be bothered with salesmen! It is disconcerting to arrive at a restaurant slightly early and not be admitted – you worry you have the wrong night and they are closed, so be warned. Therefore it is clear that it is not the kind of place you arrive at without a booking. Agata e Romeo website will have all the contact details.
For something informal, Ristorante Asinocotto in the Trastevere district, co-owned when we were there, by an American and an Italian. Just walk across the Tiber via the Ponte Cestio that runs through the Isola Tiberina, the little island in the middle.
This is a restaurant that is known by residents as being a little experimental and having the cannellini beans presented in a tumbler was definitely outside the square. We enjoyed everything about our meal in Antico Arco, but it takes some ingenuity to get there as it is not exactly where most tourists stay. That said, it is not far in a taxi from most tourist locations. Antico Arco’s website is also in english.
Pizzale Aurelio 7, Janiculum
Recommended read: Diane Seed’s Roman Kitchen, 100 seasonal recipes from the heart of Italy, Rosendale Press
ISBN 1 872803 27 X
NB Diane’s book was published in 1996 so it may be out of print but you could try Amazon as I just checked and they appear to have it. Diane has a website and offers cooking classes which I would recommend (I have attended her classes) if you can score one whilst she is in her Roman casa.
For a fresh food market, one of the easiest to find, is the historical market square known as Campo de Fiori. Even if you do not intend to cook, look around here so you will know what is in season when you order in restaurants.