10 Things We’ve Learned from ‘Tasting Rome’

March 25, 2016

Abundant seasonal produce is key to the spirit and bold flavors of Roman cuisine. Photos: Kristina Gill

This story begins with two one-way tickets to Rome. Years ago, Americans Katie Parla and Kristina Gill were both visiting Rome separately, one for art history, the other for photography. Despite their original plans, they quickly found themselves enveloped in Rome’s distinct regional cuisine—a distraction that proved permanent.

Parla and Gill, now a Rome-based freelance food and beverage journalist and a food editor and photographer respectively, discovered their shared affinity for using food to understand their adopted city. Inspired by a passion for documenting Rome’s classic recipes and contemporary innovations, the duo crafted their new book, Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors & Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City.

The collection of recipes embraces familiar Roman flavors while looking beyond the usual suspects to discover how cucina romana has evolved. Each recipe was selected for the story it tells, and its ability to transport local flavors to the home kitchen. While immersed in Tasting Rome’s pages, you’ll discover insider tips and tenets that only Romans could share, giving you a unique appreciation for all the Eternal City has to offer.

Rome’s inherent magic = abundant seasonal produce.
The flavor and intensity of Rome’s local produce brings a vital spirit to the cuisine. To recreate that magic at home, Parla and Gill recommend buying ingredients at peak freshness from farmers’ markets or your local CSA—or growing them yourself, if you have the space. Though Roman cuisine might often skew carnivorous, contorni (vegetable sides) and salads are a fundamental part of a meal, and vegetables are almost always cooked until well-done to develop deeper flavor.

The key to successful baking? A love of the metric system.
If you want to produce authentic Roman bread and pizza, you need a kitchen scale. Though most Roman cooking isn’t bogged down with precise amounts, baking is an exact science—so weigh ingredients and use metric measurements to ensure foolproof results. Parla and Gill also suggest investing in a pizza stone for an evenly-cooked crust. It’ll make all the difference when preparing their Pizza Romana and Pizza al Contrario (upside-down pizza.)

You can always count on “Gnocchi Thursdays.”
The phrase giovedi gnocchi (gnocchi on Thursdays) is the most reliable element of Rome’s culinary canon. Trattorias and home cooks alike serve the mini potato dumpling every Thursday, a festive day that traditionally called for richer pasta made with eggs or potatoes instead of the flour-and-water standard. The secret to pillowy Gnocchi di Patate? Use dry, floury potatoes like russets and press them through a ricer, not a food mill.

Cook once, eat twice.
Any home cook on a time crunch will appreciate this principle. Parla and Gill preach the leftover-lengthening power of Roman dishes like Involtini di Manzo, which are prosciutto- and vegetable-stuffed beef rolls. The rolls simmer inside a fragrant tomato-wine sauce, imparting hearty flavor that can be harnessed to dress pasta during the sauce’s second life at the dinner table.

Guanciale is king.
Whole cured pork jowl is a quintessential element of Roman cuisine, and yes, you can even make your own. Parla and Gill include a guanciale recipe from a local expert that will teach you how to cure a jowl at home, with helpful beginner tips (like using pink salt). Homemade or not, guanciale imparts a singular flavor to the book’s pasta classics like Carbonara, Amatriciana, and Gricia, not to mention adding mellow savoriness to the cheeky Carbonara Sour cocktail, made with guanciale fat-washed vodka and freshly ground pepper.

There’s no original recipe for carbonara.
Most Roman recipes spark lively debate, but the subject of carbonara is an especially passionate one. Every cook thinks his or her recipe is best. Since there’s no strict definition for the dish, and its origins are murky, it’s always open to experimentation. Helpfully, the authors have adapted their favorite recipe for the home kitchen with two distinct methods: a double-boiler approach that yields a consistently excellent sauce and another prepared in the pan that allows you to experiment as you wish.

Minority cuisines helped shape Roman classics.
Roman and Libyan Jews were essential in crafting a distinct local cuisine that elicited deep flavor from sparse resources. Due to centuries of isolation behind a walled ghetto, Roman Jews were forced to adopt a peasant cuisine in which nothing was wasted. This struggle gave rise to a legacy of Roman dishes including fish soup made from simmered scraps of fish and vegetables and meatballs formed with stale bread, preparations that live on in the book’s bold, modern interpretations.

Learn to love offal.
In ancient times, butchers divided animals into prestigious cuts for nobles and soldiers, while lower-class Romans ate the off-cuts and organs, known as quinto quarto (fifth quarter) that accounted for one-quarter of an animal’s weight. Those offal-centric recipes eaten by workers and farmers are still served in Rome today, and the book highlights thrifty, filling dishes like Fettuccine with Chicken Innards Ragu and Sweetbreads with Marsala Wine.

Great food isn’t always pretty.
While Rome’s sweets aren’t the most elaborate in Italy, Parla and Gill find pleasure in their simplicity and call out a variety of underappreciated Roman desserts. Brutti ma buoni means “ugly but delicious,” a phrase well-suited to much of Rome’s food. As the authors point out, the initial ingredients are often gorgeous, while the finished product is somewhat “aesthetically challenged.” In this case, the phrase refers to crisp meringues studded with toasted hazelnuts—which, though humble in appearance, are beautifully flavorful.

Never wear a white shirt while eating Coda alla Vaccinara.
The slow-braised oxtail stew features a brick-red sauce flavored with pine nuts, raisins, and cacao—and it’s messy. Especially because the preferred way to eat it is with your hands, a method that guarantees crimson splatters flying across every nearby surface. Don a red shirt or a full bib, because it’s worth it. For the best results start the recipe a day in advance to allow the stew to rest overnight in the fridge, building up the intense flavors that are the hallmark of Roman cuisine.

Amanda Marsteller is a Queens-based food and beverage writer and editor who has worked for Food Network, Cooking Channel, and If you’re looking for her, check the nearest old-timey soda fountain.

Cookbooks of 2016Italian CookingTasting Rome
Tasting Rome

A love letter from two Americans to their adopted city, Tasting Rome is a showcase of  modern dishes influenced by tradition, as well as… Read more »

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