Sunday, July 22, 2012

Food in Rome

Some of you may have been wondering whether I'd fallen off the map. And I did - the North American map, that is. I've spent the last two weeks in Europe - one in Rome with Jeff, a few more days with him in London, and a few more days on my own in Kew. Today I moved on to Oxford. I'll be in the UK a few more weeks doing dissertation research, so there won't be any new recipe posts for a bit (except possibly a draft or two I wrote up ages ago). I will, however, have something to say about what I've been eating over here. I have photographic evidence of a number of our meals and will be posting about them when I get the chance. For now, here's an overview of our Italian experience.

I know what you're all thinking: Rome! Italy! Oh, the culinary delights! I certainly thought so too. So much so that I proclaimed an official hiatus of my diet while over there (what cholesterol problem?). I didn't want to spoil our big trip by not being able to eat anything (which is pretty much what it would have come to). In retrospect, I wish I'd declared my hiatus in London rather than Rome (well, it did sort of extend to London . . and to Kew . . . and to Oxford this morning - I swear the healthy diet starts again tomorrow). Overall, I was not impressed with Roman cooking.

Rome has two food groups, one of which you see above. There is the bread/pasta/pastry group and the gelato group (more on that later). Upon being seated at a restaurant, bread is brought to the table - plain rustic bread, no butter or oil - which you are charged for. Naturally, we began to eat our bread as soon as it appeared. At one restaurant, however, Jeff was chided by a waiter for doing so - the waiter said he would spoil his two courses. My conclusion is that the bread is meant to be used to sop up the sauce from your plate (although that still doesn't explain why it is brought out so early).

Next comes the pasta course. We always ordered pasta, even if we rarely ordered meat. Most of the pasta I had in Rome was good - fresh and handmade. The gnocchi in the above photo were particularly soft and tasty. The sauces left something to be desired, however. We spent three full days in Rome before tasting a dish that was properly seasoned. The sauce for my above gnocchi consisted essentially of crushed tomatoes. Maybe there was some sugar, too, but definitely no salt or pepper. Jeff's lasagna was better, but still needed salt. In this case, the problem was that we were lured into a restaurant with a tourist menu. While I appreciate that this was the only place in Rome that endeavored to serve me any sort of salad, the food was really mediocre. Good ingredients, but careless preparation.

My perception of the meat course (based on very little evidence, mind you) is that it consisted of very small portions of thinly pounded meat swimming in some sort of buttery or creamy sauce. This was not worth the money, in my opinion. The only time it was worthwhile was when Jeff ordered grilled fish and was presented with a whole fish on a plate, simply prepared and falling off the bone. It looked so delicious, it made me wish I liked fish.

We had better hope for our lunch near the Vatican. Jeff had a tip from a Catholic forum, where several people had discussed their favorite restaurant at length, including the idiosyncrasies of their favorite waiter. Unfortunately, this post turned out to be quite dated. The waiter had long left the restaurant and the food was not up to par (perhaps it was just that we visited for lunch? I was generally unimpressed by the limited range of Roman lunch menus). My lasagna, apart from the lovely blistered cheese at the top, was only ok, despite my sunny smile (I may not have tasted it before the photo was taken).

I am also a bit surprised at the heaviness of Roman food, considering the climate. No matter how good it is, I am not inclined toward lasagna and roasted chicken after tearing about in full sun in blazing heat. The pizza is a better option, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the sit-down restaurant pizza I sampled. We had better luck when we decided to pinch our pennies and stumbled upon the Roman pizza joints. You point to the one you want, they chop off a slice and you pay for it by weight. An awesome system and every place we went had pretty delicious pizza. I only wish we'd discovered these places earlier in the week (and taken some pictures!).

If you want some evidence of how disappointing our Roman dining experience had been, I present you with my lunch on the fourth day of our visit. Fed up with Roman specialties that didn't meet my expectations, I ordered a cheeseburger. "Cheeseburger" clearly doesn't mean the same thing in Rome (or, in this case, along the beach in Lido di Ostia). This was a burger patty with delicious mozzarella cheese, topped with ketchup and pickles, slid between the halves of a buttered brioche bun, and then toasted in a pannini press. That grin on my face is because this was the best meal I'd had in Italy so far. The tourist restaurant by our hotel could learn a thing or two from that snack bar's short order cook!

The gelato of Rome was not disappointing. And gelato makes sense - it's what you want in the middle of the afternoon when it's a gazillion degrees outside (if you can eat it before it melts). And it's often what you want again, strolling around in the twilight (when it's only a billion degrees). Sometimes you also want it at the airport when you need to use up your remaining Euros. All of that gelato was delicious. The most delicious, though, was at this place on Via Torino just south of Via Nazionale. It was just a gelato shop - the long counter displaying dozens of different flavors. What's more, the first time we went in there was a line - something we were instructed to look for in a good gelato joint (of course, it turned out almost everyone on line was an English-speaking tourist).

The gelato was creamy and delicious every time (oh, we went back). One day Jeff got a combination of melon and kiwi sorbetto that was amazing. My chocolate and strawberry was equally divine. The cannoli filling flavor, with bits of cannoli shell scattered through it, was also enticing. Speaking of cannolis, we didn't have much non-gelato dessert while in Rome, except for cannolis. We got them twice, and each time they were exceptional. They seem to be a Sicilian specialty, but those Romans had the knack as well - the shells were thick and crispy and the cream light. American cannoli filling seems closer to a pastry cream - the filling inside these was more like whipped, creamy ricotta. They were worth every bite.

I hope I don't sound too gloomy about Italian meals. I think we simply had bad luck. Our hotel was in a very touristy area near Termini station, so I think we were lured into some bad decisions. The worst meal we had was lunch near the Roman forum (we tried to get a few streets away from the tourist area, but clearly didn't go far enough). But there were some delicious meals, too - mostly toward the end of the week. More details will be provided in subsequent posts . . .


  1. PHEW that the gelato was there to save you in Rome! Please bring back some canoli-filling flavored gelato, please :-)

    Can't wait to read more about your vaca! Good luck researching

  2. When Tom and I were in Rome we had nothing but delicious food. I'm very surprised you guys didn't. Then again we stayed in a very tiny hotel (non chain) around the metro stop of Bologne (non touristy?). I remember having prosciutto in linguini and I don't eat ham or pork ever, but this just melted in my mouth and made me drooling for more. If the menu had said that their red sauce was a meat sauce I wouldn't have ordered it.