Eating in and out in Rome

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It’s fascinating what travel does for food prejudices. Tripe, abhorrent back in Australia, off-white spongy mounds in parents’ horror stories of post-Depression childhood, was trippa on Taverna Guila’s menu. I hoped to discover its true nature: after all, a 1940s Tasmanian housewife surely couldn’t have done it justice. It duly arrived, concealed under spinach sauce, but with one bite my hopes were dashed. It was still there, that mucousy blandness, dominating even though garlic put up a good fight. It may have been more palatable than the boiled, pallid version of my father’s misfortune, but… well, I tried it once.

When in Rome, city of anticipated best dining in the world, we didn’t eat out much. By-and-large, we couldn’t afford Italy’s own cuisine, so we rented an apartment with a "kitchenette" in Piazza Farnese. Thank God for the luxury of real Italian ingredients and for my battered paperback, Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. Our cobbled square opened onto the famed and infamous food market, Campo di Fiori. Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy right where I bought swordfish. 

Eating in and out in RomeEven the chain of supermarkets, Diperdi, bore little resemblance to Coles. Their equivalent of supermarket ham was San Daniele prosciutto. I can still taste the sausages with mouldy coatings. Supermarket mozzarella was sheep’s-milky, yielding, and delicious; nothing like hard yellow snowmen. Sicilian broccoli: pale green with alienesque spikes. I smuggled a beef-stock concentrate, a cross between Vegemite and barbecue scrapings, home through Customs. Artichokes became on obsession.

We persevered with rudimentary utensils and a stove delivering electric shocks; the simultaneous use of hotplates plunging the apartment into darkness. The fuse-box enclosed a plastic crucifix. We complemented our cooking with garlicky slices of pizza bianca from the Campo’s Il Forno, where we also bought green-olive-studded bread, and I became addicted to pinolate. We bought our drinking water from an old woman round the corner in Vicolo del Gallo, who enquired where we came from—"ah, si, l’Australia"; a sage nod. 

I dutifully visited every notable chapel but soon realised guiltily that I’d rather be looking out for my stomach. I found myself whipping around the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva thinking about lunch. Or at the Villa Borghese, looking hungrily out at the symmetrical cumquat trees, my basket in the cloakroom full of waxed-paper-wrapped cheese and pungent sausage, ciabatta, dark chocolate peppered with hazelnuts. Food for the soul, forsooth! 

Eating in and out in RomeWe had to eat out sometimes, though. Tony, my partner, heard somewhere about the possibility of Alba truffles in any Roman restaurant if you picked the right day, and enquired in vain everywhere we went. Finding rigatoni con pajata was another mission: the dish of suckling veal’s intestines still filled with mother’s milk, a fascinating if confronting prospect. Perilli in Testaccio beckoned, where pajata has retained pride of place on the menu since 1911. The incredibly rich result wasn’t for recounting to vegetarian friends, but I regret I haven’t the resources to make it here for the rest of us.

We stumbled on La Campagna and spaghetti vongole. Replicated many times since, it’s very nice in the backyard with, strangely, a Corona. But it was something else in a dark, smoky trattoria with paper tablecloths and real waiters, adults, their grace and courtliness unknown in spotty students here (I know, I’ve been one). Of course, it’s different in Europe, food is important and waiting is a real vocation; the waiter a real person. 

Eating in and out in RomeThere’s a flip side to this—wait-staff and patrons look askance at the English-speaker and criticise openly the way you hold a fork. Be self-effacing, wear your new Italian shoes and cashmere throw and they’ll still spot you a mile away. We imagined we’d conceivably pass as Italian, at least until opening our mouths, but were invariably approached in English. We studied our clothes, our attitudes, but remained mystified. Fancying ourselves urbane, we eschewed cappuccino before dinner, ordered morning espresso in Italian, knocked it back at the bar and left like everybody else. Roman morning people don’t linger over lattes and laptops. Nonetheless, the baristas smirked at our feeble attempts, their dismissiveness rendering some Australian establishments pale imitations. That was okay. They had the power. I tipped them anyway while Tony fumed. It was understandable, their being so jaded with tourists that anyone not local was fair game. 

Especially in Trastevere, all too inured to turistico. But never mind, the tiny gelateria in Piazza San Calisto attracted us daily across the Tiber. Come siesta, and everything else closed, we would murmur, Baci! Not to each other, together too much; but rather the mocha-hazelnut gelato unlike anything this side of heaven. We’d trek through endless December rain, between headless statues lining the Ponte Sisto, the people who slept beneath busy hawking Louis Vuitton, and up the Trastevere hill. It even beat Gelateria Giolotti near the Pantheon, erstwhile suppliers of Pope John Paul II’s favourite, marrons glacé… 



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Very enjoyable article....I can relate completely
Peter Davis | 20 September 2006


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