I have just come back from a blissful few days in Rome; undoubtably more rotund but feeling like I got under the skin of this beautiful city more than I ever have before. For me, this meant a proper, professional guided tour of the Colliseum, rather than just standing round gawping at the enormity of the thing with my mouth slightly open in a rather unattractive manner. It also meant TWO visits to the Borghese gallery, as they only allow you a measly 2 hours each time, which if you have ever been, you will know is frustratingly restrictive.
Of course, though, the main thing I did to discover the true delights of Rome was to eat and drink an inordinate amount. I did try to mitigate some of the damage by walking everywhere, the upside being the discovery of markets in the tiniest of squares, selling the type of produce that makes even the most jaded cook feel uplifted and inspired.
Artichokes are a typical Italian delicacy, but nowhere are they more prized than Rome. Every stall, no matter how small seems to have boxes and boxes of them. They look so beautiful that you would want to display them with pride in your kitchen; the colour and sheen is remarkable. In the restaurants, they come crisply deep fried, meltingly soft and marinated in brine or oil and raw; finely sliced in salads. I love them, but have never actually cooked them at home since I had an unfortunate incident at a friend’s house where he had forgotten to remove the choke. If this has never happened to you, the only thing I can think it might compare it to inhaling a small fluffy bird. Not a great culinary experience. I saw many traders preparing them for customers-if only someone did that here!
As beautiful as the artichokes were, what you see everywhere in the markets is produce which is not what I would call ‘supermarket-perfect’. It is selected for taste, not looks. These items would never be seen on our shelves, which is such a shame, as I think there is something quite noble in the ugliness of these peppers. I would also bet that they were just delicious to eat. In Europe generally, they seem much more open to the ugly. In the local markets and even in the supermarkets, you will always find items which might be knobbly, gnarled or a bit bashed. The difference is that they will nearly always taste wonderful. In England, we have become accustomed to everything being a uniform shape and size in our fresh produce in supermarkets, but nature isn’t like that. This is a very apparent difference in Italian food purchasing; supermarkets are on the increase it’s true, but the majority of people, especially outside the big cities, still shop at the local markets on a daily basis. They are used to natural variation in size, colour and shape of fruit and vegetables; for all peppers to be a similar size and shape would be an alien thing to most Italians.
This is not to say that there were not some incredible beauties to be seen!
One thing the Italians do so, so well are wine bars. Antica Enoteca is one such bar. They offer over 20 wines by the glass; including a fabulous Barolo for just €9! I drank a beautiful Frascati, which was clean, crisp and brimming with apples and sharp fruit. With such an impressive cellar, the food might be a secondary issue, but that never seems to be the case there. It seems so unfair to me that in England we may be offered a packet of peanuts or perhaps an overpriced bowl of olives if you are somewhere a bit more salubrious. In Rome, a bar offers the most incredible antipasti; locally sourced salamis, pecorino cheeses with walnuts and honey, marinated olives and peppers, incredible bread and olive oil. It’s easy to see why the locals don’t eat before 9pm; they’re too full from eating fabulous antipasti and drinking wine to squeeze it in.
I noticed many things about Roman eating. They love two extremes of cheese; very pungent Pecorino cheese and creamy and mild ricotta. Chefs use masses of black pepper; it is always freshly ground and freshly spicy, rather than powdered. Preserved and salted meats are an Italian institution, but here it is guanciale (a prosciutto made from pig’s cheek) which is king. It is very like a pancetta, but has a savoury and salty flavour of its own. Historically, they love slow cooked, cheaper cuts of meat and lots of offal. ‘Saltimbocca alla Romana’ is ubiquitous; this is veal or chicken escalope, cooked with sage leaves, proscuitto and finished with Marsala. Anchovies are everywhere, but fish is conspicuous in its absence on a lot of menus. I ate in two places where I noticed that there was no fish at all on the menu except anchovies in salads or stuffed into courgette flowers.
A love of pasta is a given; every decent restaurant, and even cafe, will use both dried and fresh pasta which they have made themselves or bought from the local ‘pastificcio’ or pasta shop. If it says ‘fatto a mano’ or ‘fatto a casa’ on the menu, you know you’re going to have handmade fresh pasta. Very typical pasta in Rome is ‘cacio e pepe’; Pecorino and pepper, ‘amatriciana’; cured pork, chilli and tomato and, of course, the famous ‘carbonara’ with bacon, pecorino and bright orange egg yolk. Italian hens are fed on corn, which gives their eggs an amazing colour; this is why fresh pasta is so yellow in Italy.
There is little to criticize in this sort of food; you can taste the care in the cooking and the sourcing of ingredients, but one thing did occur to me as I wandered most of the central streets of the city; there is little variation in what you can get here. What I mean by that is that I find it fascinating that out of the hundreds of restaurants, cafes and bars I passed, I saw only one Japanese noodle bar, one Turkish Kebab house, one Indian and a the ubiquitous Irish pub! I may have missed a massive ethnic section, but it seems unlikely, as I managed to get round most of central Rome on my trip. Rome is the capital city of Italy, but it’s food is very introverted. Italians like Italian food; unsurprisingly as it is so good. One might ask, if your national food is that good, why go elsewhere? Their food culture and traditions go back centuries and are a source of fierce pride; local and regional dishes are passed down through the generations and are defined by the climate and geography of the area.
My point is that this observation brought into sharp focus how amazing cities like London and New York are for the sheer variety of restaurants. I believe you would struggle to find a country which is not represented in some way on the London restaurant scene. Especially Italian; there’s a reason why it is one of the world’s most popular cuisines. I spend a lot of time in Italy and always have a craving for Asian flavours when I get home; I think this is partly psychological and partly because I am used to a wide variety of foods in my daily life. Monday may be Korean noodles, Tuesday Indian dhal, followed by a very British pie on Wednesday; one could argue there is a massive variety within Italian food itself and this is certainly true. The Ligurians would never think of eating Calabrian nduja sausage, just as the Napolitans eat very little polenta, but this broad palate is still limited on a global scale.
Now, I’m just off to make myself some very un-Italian curry!