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Eating in and out in Rome

  • 18 September 2006

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. 

Even 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! 

We had to eat out sometimes, though. Tony, my