Sunday, July 8, 2012

Food in Rome

Who does not love Italian food?

I love it and eat it whenever I can. But I will tell you something very interesting about Italian food.
First, let’s get some misconceptions out of the way. You will not find “Italian food” in Rome, for the simple reason that Italian food does not exist. In Italy, you will find different food in different regions of the country. Food in Rome is different from food in Florence, Bologna, Venice or Palermo. Also, if you your Italian food expectations are based on what you have grown to love in Italian Restaurants in the US, you are in for a big surprise. There are some “Italian” dishes that you will not find in Rome or anywhere else in Italy, except in the worst and most touristy of restaurants. Spaghetti with Meatballs, Veal Parmesan and Chicken Parmesan do not exist in Italy; they are Italian-American dishes. And don't look for a little bowl of olive oil to dip your bread into; that is an invention of American Italian Restaurants. By the way, Italian restaurants won’t give you butter either: butter is only served at breakfast.

The Italian Meal

Traditionally, an Italian meal is composed of a number of courses that follow an unwavering order: antipasto (“before the meal” or appetizer), primo piatto (soup or pasta or risotto), secondo piatto (meat or fish) served with a contorno (vegetable or salad, which you have to order separately), formaggio (cheese) and dolce (dessert).
Obviously, Italians do not eat every course at every meal: they will have two or three courses. They may even share dishes. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for a dish “uno in due”, but some dishes lend themselves better to sharing than others: a shared pasta dish will generally come from the kitchen on two plates, while secondi, contorni and dolci will not. What is not acceptable is for two people to order one pasta, one secondo and one dolce and then share all three dishes.

Roman Cooking

Except at the papal court and in the palaces of the aristocracy, Roman cooking – like all regional Italian cooking – has always been a cucina povera, a “poor cuisine” that relies on what is available and in season and uses up all that is available. The prime examples of this in Roman cooking are the quinto quarto dishes, the ones using the “fifth quarter”, that is, what is left after the best parts have gone to richer tables: offal and, particularly prized in Rome, oxtail. In case you’re already worried: you will not have to eat tripe or organ meats in Rome; in fact, most restaurants do not have quinto quarto dishes on the menu every day, and every restaurant offers many other options. The other principal influence in Roman cooking is Jewish cooking. One of the glories of Roman food is a Roman-Jewish dish: carciofi alla giudea (deep fried artichokes).


Bruschetta: This is what to have if you’re looking for olive oil with your bread or for garlic bread (which also doesn’t exist in Italy). It’s a slice of bread, toasted or grilled, rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil. Very often, diced tomatoes are added (bruschetta al pomodoro). Pronounced brusKETTa.

Antipasto misto: A mixed appetizer plate that can include any or all of the following: cured meat, cheese, olives, grilled or preserved vegetables, greens. It is hard for me to write about this great food and not have my mouth water.antipastaroman Food in Rome

Italian cuisine is characterized by its extreme simplicity, with many dishes having only four to eight ingredients. Italian cooks rely chiefly on the quality of the ingredients rather than on elaborate preparation. Dishes and recipes are often the creation of grandmothers rather than of chefs, which makes many recipes ideally suited for home cooking.

This is one of the main reasons behind the ever increasing popularity of this cuisine, as cooking magazines in foreign countries popularize Italian recipes targeted at the home cook. Ingredients and dishes vary by region. Many dishes that were once regional, however, have proliferated with variations throughout the country. Cannoli is a prime example. You can get a Cannolo anywhere in Italy.

The best advice I can give you about eating in Rome is this: Forget what you know about Italian food and try Roman food, choosing dishes that appeal to you from the above descriptions. They will be more genuine and more carefully prepared than generic “Italian” dishes. Enjoy the flavors of the food, they are so different and delicious.


Before I leave, I have to show you these deserts. I wish I could dive into them. They are very typical in Italy.

Cannoli, a very famous Italian dessert freshly made with bitter chocolate, candied orange and citron, cocoa, pistachio nuts, fresh ricotta blended with white wine and coffee powder - originated in the Palermo area of Sicily.

Tiramisu is perhaps the most famous Italian dessert, made with ladyfingers, coffee and mascarpone cheese. Tiramusu means, "pick me up" probably from the coffee in the dessert. It's origin is hotly debated. Venato, Sienna, Venice ... oh well, where ever it is from I know where it is going when it gets on a plate in front of me.
BTW the photo on the left is the traditional Tiramisu while the one on the right is a highly stylized version you might find at a high end restaurant.

Here is another little secret, if you are fortunate enough to be invited into an Italian home for dinner, it is customary to take a tray of dolce. Stop by an Italian Bakery early in the afternoon so that you have a good selection and ask for a tray of dolce for dinner. You will be able to pick from a wide array of finger desserts. Then they will wrap them for presentation when you arrive. It will be fun to pick them out and to eat them later.

Finally, if you have a sweet tooth and are willing to travel, go to Sicily or at least visit a Sicilian Bakery while in Rome and pick up a Sicilian Cassata. It is heaven. Imagine a cake with a thin layer of sponge cake on the bottom, then a filling similar to the Canolo filling and another thin layer of white sponge cake on top with the sides made of alternating sections of Marzipan, then cake, Marzipan, then cake all around the cake. And if that isn't enough, a translucent covering of white icing and marvelous decorations on top using candied fruit, Marzipan, and icing. Like I said, heaven to a sweet tooth.


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