April 15, 2009

Cucina romanesca – Exploring Roman cuisine

Roma è una città meridionale – Rome is a southern city – used to say my grandfather, proud of his deep northern Italian roots. You can really tell this is true when you look at what Romans eat. In Italy there are two different pasta regions: while in the North we prefer fresh pasta – pasta fresca – (and sometimes we prefer rice), in the South people use dried pasta – pasta secca. And Romans love dried pasta. In fact, they die for spaghetti! In Rome you’ll find the apotheosis of recipes calling for spaghetti: spaghetti alla carbonara, spaghetti cacio e pepe, spaghetti alla carrettiera, spaghetti alla gricia, spaghetti ajo, ojo e peperoncino... Romans love their spaghetti so much that they dispute with Naples the origin of spaghetti alla puttanesca! But Romans do not only love spaghetti. Rigatoni (such as in rigatoni alla pajata), bucatini (think of bucatini all’amatriciana) and penne (penne all’arrabbiata) are also dried pasta shapes Romans like.

Roman cuisine, and by extension the cuisine of the whole Lazio region, is also a cucina povera or peasant cuisine. No dairy products, almost no butter, no cream… so, carbonara sauce with cream? Heresy! And that’s also why you’ll never find fettuccine Alfredo in a trattoria in Rome. Actually, Alfredo sauce doesn’t even exist in Italy. So, if you visit Rome please don’t ask where you can have the “authentic” fettucine Alfredo or you’ll hear a loud “mai sentito!” (never heard of it!).

Also don’t expect garlic bread in Rome, because, you know, it doesn’t exist in Italy. However, Romans do have wonderful bruschette and crostini, which constitute a perfect starter or antipasto for your meal.

Broccoli is also a very Roman thing, but artichokes are the quintessential Roman vegetable: carciofi alla romana, carciofi alla matticella, carciofi alla giudia. Artichokes Jewish style or carciofi alla giudia is a dish that comes from the important Jewish community – a community living in Rome since antiquity but also including refugees from Spain after their expulsion in 1492 and from Naples, by then under Spanish rule. Another legacy of the Roman ghetto is the love for deep fried food: baccalà alla romana (deep fried cod) and fiori di zucca fritti (deep fried zucchini blossoms).

What about meat? Roman cuisine is a poor one, so what people could afford was the offal of butchered animals: kidney, liver, tripe, entrails… I assure you that most of the quinto quarto (or offal in Italian) tastes better than it sounds. So, if you are brave enough you won’t regret asking for coda alla vaccinara (oxtail) or trippa alla trasteverina (tripe).

Are you thinking of having pizza in Rome? Although pizza is something you should try in Naples, where pizza was born, Romans have their own specialty: pizza bianca di Roma (white pizza from Rome). If you’re in a hurry, don’t hesitate to try a piece of pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice): it was the Romans who created the idea of rectangular pizza that they cut in little squares and then sell by the piece. Whereas in Naples pizza has only two different toppings (marinara and margherita), Romans got more creative with pizza al taglio, offering it with more toppings.

Finally, whereas peasants couldn’t afford cakes or pies on a daily basis, there are some elaborate Roman desserts, usually deep fried doughnuts, that were prepared for holidays and special occasions: bignè di San Giuseppe, castagnole, maritozzi con la panna, frittelle zuccherate. But the Roman dessert I like the best, and I’m sure you will too, is gelato!!!


In Rome, there are two restaurants for American tourists that claim to be the creators of the non-Italian fettuccine Alfredo (or all’Alfredo). Both are the only places in Italy where you can have pasta with Alfredo sauce. Actually they don’t use sauce, but Parmesan cheese with lots (I really mean lots) of butter – and now you know: Parmesan and butter is not a very Roman thing at all. In one of those restaurants, Alfredo himself (well… Alfredo “the third”) comes to your table to serve a big portion of his fettuccine using a golden fork and a golden spoon… MADDAIIIIIIIIII!!! If you’re visiting Rome please choose an authentic Roman trattoria!
Posted by Daziano at 9:05 PM |  
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