A few years ago my husband surprised me with a trip to Rome. During this trip we had a private tour with a tour guide named Jonathan. We hit it off and became fast friends and have kept in touch since our trip. Jonathan is American and has been living in Rome for several years, but he is also an author, and my blog (and you) is about to benefit from his talents. This is Your Roman Last Supper, by Jonathan Balog.
Your Roman Last Supper
To paraphrase Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, one day this pandemic’s gonna end. Borders will open up, airlines will fly without fear, passports will be pulverized. And you, my friend, will come to Rome for one of the most memorable meals of your life. Da Vinci’s Last Supper is in Milan. Yours will be here.
A few caveats before we begin:
In Italy, dinner is not a preamble to the evening’s entertainment. It is the entertainment. Starting at 7:30 would be considered early. In fact, if the restaurant’s already serving at 7, skip it.
Asking for a dish to be modified is taboo. Italians pour their heart and soul into their food, and asking for a dish to be drastically altered is essentially telling them they don’t know what they’re doing. It would be like interrupting a concert and telling the cellist to start playing a tuba. Besides, in doing so you’d be cheating yourself out of the full cultural experience, so take my advice, kick back and enjoy the performance. I should add that Italians are sympathetic to gluten intolerance and more and more restaurants are offering gluten-free pasta. But mark my words, any fool who asks for chicken in his carbonara deserves whatever happens to him.
There’s really no such thing as Italian food. Italy wasn’t unified as a country until 1861, and Rome didn’t join up for another nine years. As a result we have a nation comprised of twenty regions with their own distinct culinary traditions, yet are nonetheless united by a shared love of food in general.
Got all that? All right, let’s do this.
If you’re playing the long game (and tonight you are), I urge you to err on the side of caution when it comes to appetizers. A fritto misto is a good bet, particularly if you’re in a group of two or more. Romans have a penchant for deep frying stuff and this will allow you to try supplì, mozzarelline, olive ascolane and sometimes baccalà, depending on the restaurant. A particular favorite is fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers.) Also, you’ve probably heard a lot about the carciofi alla giudia (Jewish fried artichokes.) They truly live up to the hype, but if you want the real deal you have to order while they’re in season (November through February.)
The primo piatto is the pasta round (or occasionally risotto.) Every region of Italy has their signature pasta dishes. In Rome we have a Holy Trinity, plus one honorable mention. Let’s start with that one.
Pasta alla gricia is an old dish, probably originating with Lazio shepherds, made with guanciale, black pepper and pecorino. From that we got…
Amatriciana. Columbus brought the tomato back from the Americas, and sometime around the late 17th/early 18th century, the good people of Amatrice added it to pasta alla gricia and we got amatriciana. Ideally this should be made with bucatini. Then there’s…
Carbonara. This one didn’t show up in Italian cook books until after WWII. Popular lore tells that after the liberation of Rome, people noticed the American soldiers eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Someone connected the dots, added egg to the gricia, and a new classic was born. And finally…
Cacio e pepe. For the non-bacon-consuming set. Pecorino Romano, black pepper…e basta così.
A big misconception about Italian food is that it’s all pizza and pasta. Nothing could be further from the truth. The second is where the meats, fish and poultry come in. For the sake of keeping it Roman, try one of these:
Saltimbocca. Literally “jump in your mouth.” Pan-seared slices of veal paired with prosciutto and sage.
Pollo alla Romana. Chicken slowly cooked in white wine with peppers and onions until the meat is falling off the bone. This is typically enjoyed for lunch on the mid-August holiday Ferragosto.
One of the hallmarks of Roman secondi is making use of the entire animal. This has its origins in the formerly working class/now trendy neighborhood of Testaccio, which once boasted the most sophisticated slaughterhouse in Europe, the Mattatoio. The workers were supplemented with what they called the quinto quarto (the fifth quarter), which was basically all the normally discarded parts that could’t be sold anyway. This is why offal-based dishes are such a staple of Roman cuisine today. For instance…
Coda alla vaccinara. Stewed oxtail. This is one of my favorite things on earth. For the record, it’s totally fine to pick this up and eat it with your hands. Just be aware that your garments may end up casualties of war.
Trippa alla romana. So many people have an (in my opinion) irrational aversion to tripe. I am convinced this wouldn’t be the case if they just came to it with an open mind. The Roman style involves onions, tomatoes, carrots, white wine and, of course, Pecorino Romano.
Animelle fritte. Fried lamb brains. Seriously, just try it, particularly if you find yourself in the Jewish Ghetto.
Contorni are vegetable side dishes. You might not have much room left at this point, but I would not want to live in a world without cicoria alla romana. Chicory might be bitter, but use enough olive oil, garlic, peperonino and salt, and you’ve got one of the tastiest greens on the peninsula.
While Rome isn’t particularly known for its deserts, some solid bets are…
Panacotta. Gelatinized cream topped with chocolate, caramel (my favorite) or wild berries.
Tiramisu. You probably already know this one. Ladyfingers dipped in coffee, layered with a mixture of eggs, sugar, mascarpone cheese and cocoa.
One thing we don’t recommend is ordering gelato in restaurants, simply because the facilities needed to make gelato in its true form aren’t going to be found in a kitchen. Let’s keep church and state separate.
It’s customary to cap off the meal with a digestive liqueur. Whether or not this actually helps facilitate digestion is open to debate, but who are we to question?
Limoncello. This overtly sweet liqueur is made from the zest of the massive lemons grown in Southern Italy, particularly in Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast and the islands of Capri and Ischia. Touristy? Maybe, but I’ve never known my friends to turn one down in the summer months.
Grappa. A brandy made from the pomace of wine grapes. This would probably necessitate its own separate article, but suffice to say for now that your trip will in no way be complete without at least one grappa, and your mileage will vary greatly depending on quality. Also, if you smoke, wait at least half an hour lest your breath catch fire.
Amaro. Again, this is an umbrella term. Amari are made from a variety of herbs and spices depending on their region, and range from the spicy to the bitter. Unlike with grappa, a dose of sugar is used to take the edge off.
In choosing a good grappa or amaro, you’d do well just to ask the server for their favorite.
The Finish Line
You may be asking yourself at this point, my God, am I expected to finish all this in one sitting? The answer is a resounding no. It’s not unheard of to enjoy all four courses plus contorni and a digestivo in one meal, but this tends to be on special occasions or dinner at a friend’s house. A typical night out with my friends usually consists of a shared antipasto, either a primo OR a secondo, then maybe a shared desert. My advice is to pace yourself, see how you feel and order as you go. Remember, these meals are multi-hour affairs. Here we believe that food, like the company you share it with, is meant to be savored and enjoyed.
See you soon.