In centuries gone by, having enough to eat and three daily meals was often a luxury. To bolster their meals, typical Romans had to make use of what was available, and sometimes use a little imagination. They would resort to preparing leftover cuts of meat with different combinations of ingredients, often with delicious results. Farmers might grow unusual or wild vegetables to expand their harvest, resulting in new ingredients and new flavors.
This sort of culinary recycling process is common in all Italian cuisine and has now become part of the tradition of Italian cooking. Even back then, recipes were handed down from generation to generation, and each new generation reinterpreted them with a more modern eye without changing their core. And Roman cuisine is no exception.
Roman cuisine smells of fresh herbs, olive oil, guanciale (pork cheek), and lamb. It favors genuine flavors and simplicity. Cookbook author Micol Negrin defines Roman cuisine in her book, Rustico, Regional Italian Country Cooking: “The truth is that Latium’s cooks have kept an ancient pastoral cuisine alive. Second only to Sardinia for its sheep’s milk cheese production, Latium flavors many of its dishes with pecorino, and its favorite meat, aside from the pork adored in central Italy, is lamb. Within Rome itself, two groups have had a lasting impact on the cuisine. The Jews, who lived in the city for two thousand years, have contributed to a wealth of dishes, including marinated fish with raisins and pine nuts and sweet ricotta fritters, staples in the old Jewish ghetto of Trastevere. And the vaccinari (cowmen) who worked in the city’s slaughterhouse (in Testaccio) developed a number of rustic recipes using tripe, oxtail, intestines, and other innards, making a flavorful, if peasant, cuisine.”
Among vegetables, the most prized in Roman cooking are artichokes, baked or sautéed, and stuffed with anchovies, garlic, and bread crumbs. Or they can be simply served with mint and garlic, and a variety of chicory called puntarelle, in a delicious salad with a fragrant anchovy and garlic dressing.
Roman cuisine’s most popular pasta dishes are spaghetti alla carbonara and spicy bucatini alla amatriciana, dishes that both feature bits of pancetta, or guanciale, or ham. A tomato-free version of amatriciana is called gricia. It hails from the town of Amatrice, which once belonged to Abruzzo. While Romans claim they invented potato gnocchi, the earliest gnocchi recipes were actually from Liguria. “Yet as much as they love potato gnocchi,” states Negrin, “Romans are even more partial to semolina gnocchi baked until golden, under a dusting of parmigiano and pats of sweet butter.” The Roman menu offers a wide range of soups, which makes perfect sense since soups are inexpensive and nourishing, and can make use of a variety of meat trimmings and other leftover ingredients.
Fish and seafood play a minor role in Rome’s kitchens, but are more predominant near the coast. The most popular fish dish is luccio brodettato alla Romana (pike in egg-lemon sauce), a delicate but exquisite recipe. Abbacchio, milk-fed lamb that is barely twenty days old, is king on Roman tables. “Lamb is prepared alla cacciatora (hunter’s style) with lard, garlic, sage, rosemary, vinegar, and anchovies,” explains Negrin, “Its chops are cooked a scottadito (burn the fingers), to be eaten by hand at outdoor feasts. Goat also is well loved.”
The Romans are known for their passion for fried foods, and the city features many friggitorie, fry shops specializing in fried foods. These are informal places that offer delicious slices of bread enclosing prosciutto and mozzarella, half-moons of pizza dough with cheese and prosciutto, skewers of bread and cheese or vegetables, and cinnamon-scented dumplings dusted with parmigiano.
When in Rome…
Checchino dal 1887
Via di Monte Testaccio, 30
This is an ideal place to sample the cuisine of Rome’s quinto quarto (fifth quarter), where recipes are made with primary ingredients from unusual parts of the animal. We’re talking about coda alla vaccinara (oxtail with celery) and rigatoni con pajata (pasta with a sauce of calf’s intestines). But this isn’t all the restaurant serves, as diners can enjoy an array of salads, soups, pastas, like bucatini alla gricia, meats, like involtini alla romana or coniglio alle olive di gaeta, and desserts.
During the 1800s, a wine shop flourished here. In 1887, the ancestors of the restaurant's present owners began serving food, too. Today, Checchino 1887, is one of Rome’s most cherished restaurants. The dining room is beautiful and comfortable, and the service is excellent. The wait staff, many of whom speak English, are eager to help and make suggestions. A large wine cellar includes more than 600 varieties, mostly reds, to best complement the food.
Via del Portico d’Ottavia 21/A
The best Jewish-Roman cuisine in town serves to-die-for carciofi alla giudea, friedartichokes cooked upside down in hot olive oil and with a few droplets of water (in order to resemble chrysanthemums), fried zucchini blossoms, and suppli al telefono, rice balls with mozzarella and tomato.
For primi and secondi, it's well worth checking out the daily specials, but then, everything here is special. Salad lovers will enjoy puntarelle in salsa d'alici, salad in anchovy sauce, while others might enjoy more a nice plate of bucatini all'amatriciana.
The secondi, animelle d'abbacchio (lamb sweetbreads), come either fried or with white wine and are unbelievably tender, while bauletti alla giggetto are soft rolls of beef in a succulent sauce, and are well worth trying. The atmosphere is warm and bustling, with large tables of people enjoying the ambience and the plentiful servings.
Via A. Cadlolo, 101
Situated on the Rome Cavalieri Hilton’s roof garden, La Pergola is a three-Michelin-star restaurant where Heinz Beck, executive chef since 1994, is the culinary mind behind one of the best restaurants in Italy. Known for its elegant cocktail bar that boasts an unparalleled panorama of the Eternal City, La Pergola’s setting is as elegant as you would expect, with trompe l'oeil ceilings, wood paneling, beautifully set tables with Flanders linen and silver, fine porcelain, flickering candles, and sliding glass walls. The menu features modern takes of dishes based on the region’s favorite ingredients, such as lamb with artichokes in a bread crust, and tête de veau with vinaigrette of artichokes, broad beans and green peas. Also popular are other dishes straight from the chef’s own repertoire, such as crépinette of pigeon and foie gras with mango purée and pepper sauce.
When in New York…
39 East 19 Street
For Roman cuisine in the Big Apple, Chef Salvatore Corea has created a menu that can leave you speechless. Traditional specialties are revisited and presented with slight variations that are designed to enhance each flavor. The spaghetti alla gricia sports black truffles, and artichokes are served in tre modi (three ways): soup, foam and fried. One of Rome’s simplest dishes, but still extremely flavorful, is the tonnarelli cacio e pepe, which is tossed in a hollowed-out wheel of pecorino cheese. Chef Salvatore also offers an array of unusual ingredients that are sure to surprise and delight you, such as coffee potato chips served with beef tartare over a licorice gelatin. His meals are complemented by an extensive wine list, a casual dining environment, and a friendly and courteous wait staff.